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.

To brand, or not to brand? — Addressing the MTA’s “turban-branding” policy

Four years ago, Sikh transit workers in New York City decided that enough was enough. In response to a “turban-branding” policy that required workers, both Sikh and Muslim, to brand their turbans with the Metroplitan Transit Authority (MTA) logo, Sikh transit workers called on the MTA to end this policy, deeming it an act of religious discrimination.

Furthermore, in 2005, the Department of Justice found that, over the course of three days, there had been two hundred cases of MTA employees wearing some form of headdress without the logo, including Yankees hats, yaarmulkes, and a number of winter hats in fact issued by the MTA. The Department of Justice consequently filed a discrimination suit against the MTA. Yet for years, this issue has been placed on the back burner by city officials.

On Tuesday of last week, a majority of the New York City Council finally spoke out against the “turban-branding” policy. Council Member Tony Avella said, “It’s time for the City Council to take action on this matter, and it’s long overdue that the MTA end religious discrimination.  Enough is enough.”

While this issue is being addressed for a small number of Sikhs in New York, it still speaks to a greater issue that many South Asian and Arab individuals in the US face on a day-to-day basis. Even today, the concept of religious wear is quite foreign to American culture. Many do not realize that a turban, hijab, or any type of religious wear is representative of an individual’s spiritual life, and is therefore a very personal and private entity. Like any article of faith, it is not something that can just be set aside for appearance’s sake, never mind branded with a corporate logo.

The lawsuit against the MTA has yet to be resolved, and we are hoping for an end to this discriminatory policy. In the meantime, it is important to keep this in a wider context and recognize that if this lawsuit goes through, it is a small step in a long journey to addressing discrimination against Sikhs and Muslims in the United States.

Facts and quotes from: New York City Council Majority Demands End to MTA’s “Turban-branding” Policy from the The Sikh Coalition (June 18, 2009)

Advocacy Day in Trenton, NJ–South Asian Style!

Poonam Patel, an intern at SAALT was in attendance for South Asian Advocacy Day in Trenton, NJ on March 16th. She shares her experience below. If you want to read more about the South Asian Advocacy Day, check out this great blog post by Sonny Singh at the Sikh Coalition blog!

On Monday, March 16th, I had the opportunity to attend the first South Asian Advocacy Day in Trenton, New Jersey–an inspiring experience, to say the least. Growing up in a traditional Indian family with the stigma that speaking to elected officials at any level is fruitless, it was reassuring to see legislators not only responsive to the issues discussed but also willing to take action—research new means of solving fundamental problems whether that involved supporting existing legislation or introducing new ideas.

One of the advocates talked about a project their organization had developed—grading public schools in a report card format based on their cultural competency. The legislator that was presented with this idea not only agreed that it was a very effective way of creating awareness, but also asked for specific details so that the program could potentially be implemented in her district. While I was listening to this exchange take place, it became clear that innovative projects developed by experts in their own fields combined with the government resources can truly have an affect on the community at large.

Furthermore, to see so many community members, advocates, and students collectively discuss the issues most relevant to the South Asian community shed light to the fact that they cross boundaries of all sorts–gender, age, and national origin to name a few.  Even though the South Asian community is so diverse in a number of ways, there are several issues we can all relate to such as developing comprehensive immigration reform or creating cultural competent resources for community members. This is what was at the heart of Trenton Advocacy Day. It wasn’t about each individual advocating something unique, but a strong, collective voice that caught the ears of state legislators.

SAALT and Community Partners Issue Statement Regarding Recent Bias Crimes Targeting South Asians in New Jersey

You may be surprised to learn that nearly 200,000 South Asians reside in the state of New Jersey.  SAALT’s New Jersey Community Empowerment Project developed from a series of meetings in 2004 with South Asian organizations in New Jersey, allies, and concerned South Asian individuals.  Through these dialogues, it became clear that South Asian communities in New Jersey are underserved and largely voiceless in policy debates. To learn more about the New Jersey Community Empowerment Project, or to read our report highlighting key issues affecting the South Asian community in New Jersey, “A Community of Contrasts: South Asians in New Jersey,” please check out SAALT’s local initiatives page.

In response to recent bias-crimes targeted towards the South Asian community in New Jersey, SAALT, along with several South Asian community partners – Manavi; South Asian Mental Health Awareness in Jersey (SAMHAJ); the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR-NJ); UNITED SIKHS; and the Sikh Coalition issued a joint statement condemning all bias crimes.  Read the statement below:

“We come together, as organizations serving South Asian communities here in New Jersey, to denounce the recent hate crimes and bias incidents that have taken place in our state.  The South Asian community in New Jersey, with a growing population of 200,000, has long confronted bias and discrimination, beginning in the 1980’s with the attacks perpetrated by the ‘Dotbusters’ and the post-9/11 backlash.  In addition, our organizations – Manavi; the Sikh Coalition; the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR-NJ); South Asian Mental Health Awareness in Jersey (SAMHAJ); and UNITED SIKHS – have observed a rise in New Jersey, which we believe has fostered an environment where bias incidents and hate crimes can occur.

Today, we stand in solidarity not only with the Grewal family – victims of a cross-burning outside their home; Mr. Ajit Singh Chima – an elderly Sikh man who, on October 30th, in Wayne, New Jersey, was violently punched and kicked in the face several times by an unidentified man, and as a result suffered several fractures around his eyes and jaw; Gangadeep Singh – a fifth grade student who, on October 8th, was attacked in Carteret, New Jersey while walking home from school by an unidentified masked assailant that threw him on the ground and cut off his hair – but with all survivors of bias and hate crimes.

We stand together now because we must say no to any act of bias and intolerance when it happens.  We stand together to ask our elected officials and law enforcement agencies to protect survivors of hate crimes and to join us in condemning them.  As a vibrant segment of New Jersey’s neighborhoods, schools, businesses, and non-profit sectors, South Asians raise our voices to call for justice and equality for all.”

Please join us for a march and rally in support of the Grewal family on Saturday, November 15th at 3PM in Hardwick, New Jersey.  The ‘Unity for the Community’ March will start at the Municipal Building and end at the Grewal residence with a rally. 

Saturday, November 5th, 3PM
Hardwick Municipal Building
40 Spring Valley Road
Hardwick, NJ 07825
If you’d like to attend but do not have a ride, please contact Qudsia:
(qudsia@saalt.org) or call (201) 850-3333.

Additionally, if you’d like to learn more about bias and hate crimes, check out a new resource by SAALT:  “Know Your Rights Resource Addressing Hate Crimes”