Dispatch from New Jersey: Town Hall and Legislative Visits!

In an effort to get the local South Asian community engaged around immigration reform, SAALT-NJ, along with community partners, held a  ‘Town Hall for South Asians on Immigration & Civil Rights’ in Jersey City on July 27th at the Five Corners Library.   The event, part of the One Community United campaign, was the second in a series of community forums that will be held nationwide as a part of the campaign.

The town hall brought together not only a diverse group of folks within the community, but also a diverse coalition of local community partners, including: American Friends Service Committee, Andolan, Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-NJ), Govinda Sanskar Temple, Manavi, New Jersey Immigrant Policy Network, and the Sikh Coalition.

Although the focus of the discussion at large was around immigration reform, the conversation covered a variety of issues, such as the effects of visa limitations and backlogs on low-income workers and women facing violence in the home; and detention centers and the growing number of detained immigrants. The conversation was at once challenging and emotional, as participants shared personal stories illustrating how immigration laws have negatively impacted their lives and the lives of their loved ones.   Nevertheless, the conversation ended on a positive note with ways to stay involved with the campaign, and to get more civically engaged around the immigration reform conversation.

In fact, on August 19th, SAALT members, along with coalition members from NJIPN and New Labor, conducted an in-district meeting with Representative Donald Payne’s office in Newark, New Jersey.  Participants met with a senior staff member at the Representative’s office to discuss issues around immigration and healthcare reform.

The delegation highlighted key concerns to both the South Asian community and the immigrant community at large, such as (1) the increase in detention and deportations post 9-11 and its impact on immigrant families in the US; (2) family- and employment-based visa backlogs and the need for just and humane immigration reform to prevent families from being torn apart in the process; and  (3) more concrete measures in place for immigrant integration to address issues such as linguistic and cultural barriers in accessing services, and, as a result, becoming active and participating members of the community.

The meeting was a great experience – it illustrated to the members present the significance of civic engagement, and how important it is to reach out to our respective representatives about issues concerning us. In a political and economic climate that seems so anti-immigrant, it was certainly refreshing to be able to sit down with the Representative’s office to actively advocate for issues that deeply impact the immigrant community.  I look forward to meeting with other local offices in the coming month and encourage others to try to schedule meetings with your respective Representatives while they are home for August recess.

To learn more about SAALT-NJ’s work, please email qudsia@saalt.org

Looking for ways to get involved? Here are some ideas:

• Call your member of Congress to express your support for immigration reform and strong civil rights policies. Find out who your member of Congress is by visiting www.house.gov and www.senate.gov.

• The Campaign to Reform Immigration for America has launched a text messaging campaign that sends alerts to participants when a call to action, such as calling your Congressman/woman, is urgently needed. To receive text message alerts, simply text ‘justice’ to 69866.

• Stay in touch with local and national organizations that work with the South Asian community.

• Share your immigration or civil rights story with SAALT by filling out this form or sending an email to saalt@saalt.org.

Getting in Touch with the Netroots (pt.7)

Final session of Netroots (for me with my flight home this afternoon, everyone else looks to be getting down with the official part-ay tonight by DailyKos), and its about a core issue, immigration reform. It’s great that we have a session about this topic, which is so important to the South Asian community, but I’m a little bummed to see that, while it has a pretty good turnout, its not bursting at the seams. This is the only session I could find that dealt explicitly with immigration reform (there have definitely been others that touched upon it) and I had really hoped that more of the Nation would come out about this.

Anyways, the panel has representatives from Breakthrough, America’s Voice, FIRM and SEIU. Thus far, its been mostly context-setting and talking about what each organization is doing in the area. Nicola from fIRM shared that what got their organization into online organizing was actually storytelling. After the New Bedford raids, they needed a way to get the stories out to people since the media wasn’t paying any attention. Now they’re working to build social networking tools that are more responsive and are able to “go offline.” Joaquin from SEIU showed advocacy efforts SEIU has undertaken to highlight the plight of DREAM Act students facing deportation.

Since this is my final post from Netroots, I’ll bring together some of my observations and thoughts from the weekend. Being here at Netroots and seeing the groundswell of support and resources that exist in the progressive movement is definitely an amazing thing. It can feel, sometimes, that we’re the little guy and we’re outgunned and out-resourced by “the other side” which obviously shifts debate to debate and issue to issue. Its not that Netroots has shown me that we’re drowning in easy, accessible resources. Instead, it showed me how progressives have and continue to fight against entrenched elites using whatever’s available and changing the rules of the game. Its that spirit of “never say die” that I will take back with me. A lot of the people here aren’t necessarily involved and active in the same issues, there is definitely interest and will to work together to make things happen in each others’ areas. Ultimately, we have to use whatever tools are out there to make things like immigration or healthcare reform, strengthening civil rights, fighting racial profiling happen. People all over America are suffering right now and it’s up to us to bring these issues up and bring about progress.

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.

SAALT Policy Connection (May 2009)

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SAALT Policy Connection  (May 2009)

In This Issue

Immigration Policies

Hate Crimes Legislation Passes House!

Health Care Reform and the South Asian Community

At the Table: Meetings with Policymakers

Community Resource: Race and Recession

Support SAALT!

South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) is a national non-profit organization whose mission is to promote the full and equal civic and political participation of South Asians in the United States. SAALT is the coordinating entity of the National Coalition of South Asian Organizations (NCSO), a network of 36 organizations that serve, organize, and advocate on behalf of the South Asian community across the country.

The SAALT Policy Connection is a monthly e-newsletter that focuses on current policy issues. To learn more about SAALT’s policy work, contact us at saalt@saalt.org.

Immigration: Policies from the Administration and Congress

Federal policymakers are continuing to consider immigration policies that will affect South Asian community members. With over 75% of the community born outside of the U.S., South Asians possess a range of immigration statuses, including temporary workers, green card holders, asylum-seekers, dependent visaholders, and undocumented immigrants. Any changes in immigration policies will affect the South Asian community. In order to promote the full integration of South Asians into this country’s economy and society, just and humane immigration reform is necessary.

The Administration:

In recent weeks, the Obama Administration made various statements and instituted several policies relating to immigration:

  • In April, Administration officials stated its commitment to immigration reform, including legalization of nearly 12 million undocumented immigrants during 2009.
  • Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano has stated that DHS will prioritize enforcement raids and prosecutions on abusive employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers. However, worksite raids may still continue which impact the lives of many immigrants working in various sectors of the economy.
  • During a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in early May, DHS Secretary Napolitano stated her commitment to review profiling and searches of electronic devices at the border that have affected many Muslims and South Asians returning from trips abroad, as documented in recent reports by the Asian Law Caucus and Muslim Advocates.
  • DHS has continued and expanded implementation of a troubling enforcement program, “Secure Communities” that would allow immigration status checks be conducted for individuals who are apprehended by local police at the time of arrest. It will also allow immigration authorities to place “detainers” (notification to immigration authorities prior to release from jail that can lead to detention). Such programs raise cause for concern given that checks may done, regardless of guilt or innocence, and further open the door for profiling. For more information about Secure Communities and the negative impact on immigrant communities, check out this factsheet by the National Immigration Law Center.

On June 8, President Obama will be meeting with various members of Congress to discuss immigration and immigrant rights advocates as well as community members will be looking to see what next steps may be decided following the meeting

Congress:

Congress has also recently re-focused its attention on finding solutions to address the broken immigration system:

  • Various Senators, including Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer of New York, and Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, have introduced the Reuniting Families Act. This bill strives to reduce family visa backlogs that keep many South Asians separated from loved ones abroad, by reclassifying spouses and children of green card holders as “immediate relatives”, raising per-country visa allocations, and allowing unused visas from previous years to be applied to the backlog. Community members are urged to contact their Senators to encourage them to support this bill.
  • In April and May, Senator Charles Schumer of New York, chair of the Senate Immigration Subcommittee, held hearings on immigration issues focused on border security policies and comprehensive immigration reform.
  • On June 3, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold the first-ever hearing on the Uniting American Families Act (H.R. 1024), which would allow U.S. citizens and green card holders to sponsor their same-sex partners for family-based immigration. This bill would be a vital step towards countering discrimination that exists in the current immigration system against LGTBIQ South Asians in binational couples.
  • The DREAM Act, which would allow certain undocumented students to legalize their status if they attend college or join the military, has been introduced in the House and Senate.

Civil Rights: Hate Crimes Legislation Victory

South Asian community members often confront bias and discrimination in the form of hate crimes as a result of post-9/11 backlash, anti-immigrant sentiment, and xenophobia. In a recent victory in the movement towards preventing hate crimes and protecting its survivors, the House of Representatives passed the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act (H.R. 1913) in May. This Act expands current federal hate crimes laws to include violence motivated by gender, gender identity, sexual orientation and disability. It would also provide greater resources to state and local law enforcement investigating and prosecuting hate crimes. The bill now moves to the Senate for consideration and community members are urged to contact your Senators to encourage them to support this bill (S. 909).

Health Care Reform and the South Asian Community

Health care reform has jumped to the top of the agenda for Congress and the Obama Administration. The need for affordable coverage and linguistically and culturally accessible health care is vital for the South Asian community. In fact, approximately 20 percent of South Asians lack health coverage plans leaving affordable health care out of reach for many community members. In addition, linguistic and cultural barriers prevent many limited English proficient South Asians from being able to communicate effectively with health care professionals and obtain emergency assistance when needed. To get a background on health issues affecting South Asians, check out the health section of the National Action Agenda, a policy platform developed by the National Coalition of South Asian Organizations, and a recent piece in SAMAR by Sapna Pandya and Pratik Saha of the South Asian Health Initiative at New York University.

President Obama has urged Congress to enact health care reform before the end of 2009 and convened a White House Forum on Health Care Reform. To learn more about the White House’s commitment to health care reform, visit www.healthreform.gov. The Senate Finance Committee are expected to start working on a health care reform bill in mid-June.

Community Issues at the Table

As part of SAALT’s policy work, we participate in various meetings and briefings with governmental agencies and legislators at the local, state, and federal level to raise issues about policies that affect the South Asian community. During April and May, SAALT participated in the following meetings to convey the concerns of South Asians regarding various policy initiatives:

  • Roundtables with Various Government Agencies during South Asian Summit: Community members and representatives of South Asian organizations had an opportunity to dialogue with various government agencies at the South Asian Summit in late April. Participating agencies included the Departments of Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, and Office on Violence Against Women. During these meetings, participants raised local issues of concern and learned about the agencies’ policy priorities for this year.
  • White House Religious Liaison Meeting: SAALT met with the Religious Liaison at the White House Office of Public Engagement in May to discuss and highlight issues of importance to faith-based communities. SAALT identified issues ranging from discrimination and harassment on the basis of religion to the need for greater funding and support for faith-based institutions at the meeting. For more information, please contact us at saalt@saalt.org.

Community Resource Spotlight: Race and the Recession

A new report from the Applied Research Center, “Race and Recession: How Inequity Rigged the Economy and How to Change the Rules” tells the stories of people of color who are disproportionately affected by the recession. It uncovers root causes of long-term racial inequrities that fed into the economic crisis and proposes structural solutions to change a system that threatens future generations. Read the report online and check out the “Race and Recession” video to learn more and take action.

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South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) is a national, non-profit organization dedicated to fostering full and equal participation by South Asians in all aspects of American civic and political life through a social justice framework that includes advocacy, coalition-building, community education, and leadership development.

South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT)

May Day Rally for Immigration Reform in Washington DC

On May 1st, people from communities all over the country commemorated International Workers’ Day to call for fair and equitable reform to the immigration system. There were rallies in many major cities, including Washington DC. I went down to the rally with Poonam, our intern. Being at the march was an amazing experience. Walking down 14th Street, where mounted police shut down one direction of traffic to accommodate the crowd, surrounded by community members and advocates, was a singular experience. I didn’t participate in the immigration reform rallies in 2006 and 2007 so this was my first time getting the May Day experience. The mood was overwhelmingly positive with the speakers at Lafayette Park acknowledging the difficulties that community members encounter as part of the broken immigration system but ultimately focusing on how communities-of-color can work together to push for reform. I used one of our nifty new Flips to capture some of the sights and sounds of the rally, below you can check out a quick video featuring some inspiring words from Rev. Hagler of the Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ:

Model Minority? No Thanks!

Asian Americans broadly and South Asians have long confronted mainstream labeling as model minorities. Here at SAALT, we have a few problems with that. The latest example is a commentary posted on Forbes.com by Jason Richwine. Check out SAALT’s written response below (it’s also been posted on RaceWire):

Model Minority? No, Thanks!

A Response to February 24th  Forbes.com Commentary on Indian Americans: The New Model Minority

Deepa Iyer

In his February 24th commentary, Jason Richwine presents the “revelation” that Indian American immigrants are the “new model minority” (see “Indian Americans: The New Model Minority”).  Using this flawed frame, he then proposes unworkable and divisive immigration policy changes.  As a national non-profit organization that works to foster the full civic and political participation of the South Asian community, we find these characterizations to be quite troubling.

Richwine points to the educational and income levels of many Indian Americans (as well as their flair for winning spelling bees) as signs that this ethnic group has reached the highest echelons of success.  Such benchmarks belie the truth about the challenges that many Indian Americans face, and create a wedge between Indian Americans and minority communities.

In reality, Indian Americans, much like other immigrants, have diverse experiences and backgrounds. Indian Americans are doctors, engineers and lawyers, as well as small business owners, domestic workers, taxi drivers and convenience store employees. Community members hold a range of immigration statuses and include naturalized citizens and H-1B visaholders, guestworkers and students, undocumented workers and green card holders.  Some have access to higher education while others struggle to learn English in a new country.  As with all communities, Indian Americans do not come in the same shape and form, and cannot be treated as a monolith.

Another danger with the model minority label is that it creates divisions between Indian Americans and other immigrant communities.  Beneath the seemingly positive use of the “model minority” label is a pernicious racist undertone: the purpose, after all, is to compare one set of people with another, and the result is to pit minorities against one another.

Comparing Indian Americans with Mexican Americans, as Richwine does (“In sharp contrast to Indian Americans, most U.S. immigrants, especially Mexican, are much less wealthy and educated than U.S. natives, even after many years in the country) is an example of the sort of constructed division between immigrant communities that creates cultural and ethnic hierarchies.   The use of the model minority label results in placing Indian Americans “above” other communities based on certain factors such as educational aptitude or work ethic – which are clearly shared across ethnic and cultural lines.  It further isolates Indian Americans and makes it challenging to build solidarity that naturally arises among communities that share common experiences as immigrants and people of color in America.

Using the model minority myth to inform immigration policy can lead to unworkable solutions.  Richwine writes that “A new immigration policy that prioritizes skills over family reunification could bring more successful immigrants to the U.S.  By emphasizing education, work experience and IQ in our immigration policy, immigrant groups from other national backgrounds could join the list of model minorities” – one that seems to be headed up by Indian Americans.

But even for this so-called model minority, immigration policy reform must include family reunification (in fact, family members of green card holders from India have to wait up to 11 years to be reunited with family members); legalization (Indians ranked among the top ten undocumented populations in the country in 2008); and programs that enable workers – skilled and unskilled – to carry out their livelihoods with respect and dignity.   Viewing immigrants as commodities to be used purely for their economic value as a basis for immigration policy change denies immigrants the opportunities to establish roots, build meaningful futures, and contribute to the diversity and vibrancy of our country.

We reject attempts to create divisions, whether they be within our own community, or with other communities who share similar experiences, struggles, histories, and values.  We recognize that our success and our futures are tied closely with that of all immigrants and people of color.

Deepa Iyer is the Executive Director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), a national non-profit organization located in the Washington DC area. Ms. Iyer is an immigrant who moved to the United States from India when she was twelve years old.