Immigration, Appropriations, and Frustrations

Well, there is no other way to say it. This past week has been a tough one when it comes to immigration. The Senate, through recent amendment votes, put their stamp on policies that focus on prioritizing enforcement rather than just and humane solutions to fix the broken immigration system.

Below is a quick round-up of legislative activity of the past week. But, as you read this, keep in mind that, if they become law, these policies will definitely have a negative impact on the South Asian community … in ways that you may not expect. Prioritizing enforcement means that hardworking undocumented immigrants (of which there are many South Asians; in fact, Indians alone made up the 10th largest undocumented population in the U.S. in 2008) will be further relegated to the shadows out of fear of apprehension by immigration authorities. But it also means that many lawfully present immigrants may inadvertently also be caught up in the web of enforcement. Take a look for yourself; the impact may surprise you …

During debates on the Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Bill (which is basically legislation that allows the government to spend money with regard to the Department of Homeland Security), several anti-immigrant amendments passed, including:

  • SSA No-Match Program: An amendment passed preventing funds from being used to rescind the much criticized “SSA no-match rule.” (By way of background, letters are sent by the Social Security Administration to employers when Social Security numbers provided by employees do not match government databases. Under the rule, immigration authorities could use these letters as evidence than an employer should have known than an employee is not authorized to work.) You might think the rule sounds good in theory. But, how good can it be when the databases used are know to be inaccurate and could net a range of workers, regardless of status? Or when a federal court stopped the rule from being applied? Or when even the Department of Homeland Security itself just announced it would rescind the rule? It doesn’t make much sense.
  • Making E-Verify permanent and retroactive: E-Verify is a pilot employment verification system that certain employers use to check the work authorization of their workers. Again, this might sound good to you in theory, but one major problem with the program is that it relies upon databases with unacceptably high error rates. (Wanna know more? Check out this resource by the National Immigration Law Center for more info on what’s wrong with the program.) Instead of pausing for a moment and assessing the problems that exist within its databases, the Senate instead passed an amendment making the program permanent for all federal contractors; in addition, they mandated that all employers currently employing E-Verify to use it on ALL employees, no matter when they started. Can you imagine working for a company for over 20 years – even if you have work authorization – and your name somehow pops up as being ineligible due to database errors or name mix-ups and then you face possibly losing your job all because of this? It’s a frightening prospect.
In these difficult economic times, South Asians – like all other Americans – fear losing their jobs and have difficulty getting by. If flawed programs like the SSA No-Match Letters and E-Verify are left unchanged, South Asian workers stand to lose, regardless of immigration status. Measures that not only hurt immigrants, but also the economy, don’t make sense – call your members of Congress and urge them to support just and humane immigration reform rather than settling for obstacles towards real solutions.

The Good and the Bad in the Stimulus Bill

After weeks of intense debate and negotiations, Congress passed an economic stimulus package that is headed to President Obama’s desk for his signature today. The final law includes spending for domestic infrastructure projects, funding to state and local governments, and tax relief in the form of cuts and credits. The government knew that it needed to take quick action to pull the economy out of its downward spiral, which has affected everyone’s lives – from immigrants and citizens, to students and seniors, to the wealthy and the working-class.

No one can claim to be unscathed by the recession that we are going through, including H-1B workers. Vast numbers of South Asians rely upon this visa, including lawyers, engineers, artists, and scientists. Yet many fear losing not only their jobs, but also their immigration status, during these rough economic times. Take, for instance, Shalini, whose story was captured by Little India

Shalini (name altered), who came to New York City from Mumbai one year ago to work with Ernst & Young, is coping with just such an eventuality. Within a few months she was promoted from assistant manager to manager in her division. However, in November, the company let her go. Her first thought was, “How am I going to find another job in the next six weeks in this kind of environment?”

Shalini is on an H1-B work permit, which means that if she doesn’t find work within 30 to 60 days, she has to leave the country. Her prospects are bleak. Most companies in the U.S., India and across the world have either frozen hiring or are sacking their workforce. Shalini has realized that there is no safety net in the U.S. without a Green Card or citizenship. So she is following the example of several NRIs [non-resident Indians], who have applied to non-U.S. companies, sent resumes to contacts in corporate India, put up notices to sell their homes and furniture, and postponed plans to get married or start a family.”  [Little India]

These workers help build the vibrant innovation of this country. In fact, Thomas Friedman had a thought-provoking piece in The New York Times recently about how we need more immigrants, not less, because it’s good for the American economy …

“We live in a technological age where every study shows that the more knowledge you have as a worker and the more knowledge workers you have as an economy, the faster your incomes will rise. Therefore, the centerpiece of our stimulus, the core driving principle, should be to stimulate everything that makes us smarter and attracts more smart people to our shores. That is the best way to create good jobs.” [New York Times]

Unfortunately, Congress went the other way on this issue. As part of the stimulus bill, financial institutions receiving funding through the Department of Treasury’s Troubled Assets Relief Program (or TARP) intended to stabilize the financial markets, must jump through extra hoops before they can hire H-1B workers. Given the immense contributions of H-1B workers to help America remain on the cutting-edge, it makes you wonder if this is not only bad news for South Asians, but bad news for the economy.

A Time of Transition: Immigrant Rights in a Changing Landscape

Check out this blog post from Just Democracy that highlights the ways that the election of the first minority President has impacted the immigrant rights landscape, for better or worse-

A Time of Transition: Immigrant Rights in a Changing Landscape

By Deepa Iyer

As an immigrant who moved from the southern part of India to the American South in the mid 1980s, race has been a cornerstone of my identity for decades. In classrooms in Kentucky, my peers didn’t know quite what to make of me: you were either white or black, and no shade of gray existed for folks like me, who grappled with bicultural identities and immigrant experiences. I remember constantly nursing an acute sense of wanting to belong and to be understood- at school among my peers, among families in the neighborhood, and even among relatives and friends back in India as my lifestyle and interests slowly changed.

I seemed to confront the label of the “other” in countless ways, due, perhaps, to my Indian accent, or cultural customs and traditions that seemed out of place, or the struggles of my immigrant parents who experienced an even more difficult transition than I did. My childhood immigrant experience is not very different from thousands of others who also make the journey from elsewhere to here. And yet, those experiences are often not part of the American story as it is told, perceived, and framed; they are outside the scope of what is considered to be “mainstream” and acceptable. That is why I have been watching the election and presidency of Barack Hussein Obama with such great interest.

With his unique name, his diverse family, and his childhood experiences in other parts of the world, President Obama’s story resonates with those of us who have traversed similar paths. Many of us feel a sense of familiarity with a national figure and public leader in a way that we have not felt before. The election of President Obama signals that America is, perhaps, ready to be more inclusive, to expand its narrative, to accept what has for so long been sidelined as the “other.”

Yet, as the impact of President Obama’s historic presidency is being explored, advocates and activists know well that we have much work to do to realize the fundamental ideals of equality and justice in the United States and around the world. This is certainly the case when it comes to the welfare and rights of immigrants in this country, who continue to be marginalized, alienated, and scapegoated, despite the tremendous sacrifices and contributions they make every day.

How will the Obama Administration and the new Congress confront the numerous challenges that have been created by the broken immigration system in this country? Certainly, immigrant rights advocates hope that there will be multiple entry points for discussion and action with policymakers and congressional leaders, given the political changes afoot in Washington. The tenor for these policy discussions will also be set by the varying sentiments that the public has towards immigrants. Will the anti-immigrant backlash that has permeated the country over the past decade shift? Will the general feeling towards immigrants be one of inclusion and openness, given that we have elected the nation’s first president of color?

Recent incidents show that as a country, we still have a long way to go. In the week after Barack Obama’s election, a spate of bias incidents and hate crimes were reported around the country. One such incident involved a cross that was burned on the front lawn of an Indian-American family in New Jersey; around the charred cross was the family’s Obama victory banner. One of the family members was reported saying: “Living in the 21st century, and we have to deal with this – in America.”

In December 2008, a group of men participated in the beating death of a Latino man in New York City who was strolling with his brother. And as the new year began, we heard of a family of Muslim passengers who were removed from an Air Tran flight due to passenger discomfort. As we persuade the new administration and policymakers in Washington to put forth legislation and policies that preserve the rights of immigrants – the recent reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) which includes provisions for immigrant children and women is a positive example – we also have to change the way that ordinary Americans perceive immigrants in their own communities.

This moment in time presents a tremendous opportunity for a new direction in the public dialogue about the contributions, needs, and challenges of immigrants. The climate of openness in the country, catalyzed by an election that saw unprecedented voter-engagement rates and a historic presidency that has moved many to heed the call to service and action, can also signify a new era for immigrant rights. Here is an opportunity for us to destroy that us-versus-them dynamic once and for all. And to do so, we must start in our communities and our classrooms, as well as in discussions at our kitchen tables. We must engage the public through our local newspapers and at town hall meetings, so that immigrant children and families in Kentucky, Kansas and around the nation feel connected to the American story that is being reinvented and re-imagined through this election.

Deepa Iyer has been advocating for civil and immigrant rights for nearly a decade through her work. She is currently the Executive Director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), a national non-profit organization dedicated to fostering civic and political engagement by South Asian communities around the United States.