A Compelling Day for Immigrants in New Jersey

“One day I just couldn’t take it any more and decid­ed to end it all and called the sui­cide helpline,” said Megh­na, a com­mu­ni­ty mem­ber and advo­cate who shared her per­son­al sto­ry at SAALT’s recent New Jer­sey Immi­gra­tion Town­hall.  Megh­na arrived in the U.S. on her depen­dent spouse visa (H‑4 sta­tus) which did not allow her to work, despite hav­ing a Mas­ters degree and exten­sive pro­fes­sion­al work expe­ri­ence in India.  Megh­na was deprived of a career and forced to stay home for years due to her immi­gra­tion sta­tus.  As a result, she expe­ri­enced lone­li­ness, depres­sion, and a loss of iden­ti­ty, which led to her feel­ing sui­ci­dal.  Despite hit­ting rock bot­tom, her strug­gles inspired her to be a pio­neer and advo­cate for oth­ers like her.  A few years ago, she pro­duced her first film, “Hearts Sus­pend­ed,” a short doc­u­men­tary that reveals the untold sto­ry of South Asian immi­grant women, who strug­gle to sur­vive hav­ing been denied the basic right to work.

In addi­tion to Megh­na, the New Jer­sey Town­hall high­light­ed the expe­ri­ences of two oth­er com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers who shared their immi­gra­tion strug­gles.  Hina, an undoc­u­ment­ed youth, faced many bar­ri­ers grow­ing up with­out immi­gra­tion sta­tus in Amer­i­ca.  She had to hide her sta­tus and was unable to share in ado­les­cent Amer­i­can rights of pas­sage like obtain­ing a driver’s license and dream­ing of col­lege life and career oppor­tu­ni­ties.  With lim­it­ed access to high­er edu­ca­tion, she was unable to plan for her future beyond two years even as a DACA­ment­ed youth.  She relayed her frus­tra­tions, ask­ing the audi­ence, “Can you imag­ine what it’s like for any young per­son want­i­ng to plan their future, but know­ing full well that they can’t think past two years or plan too far ahead due to their undoc­u­ment­ed sta­tus — even though they have only known U.S. as their home?”  Final­ly, Mah­fu­jur, an undoc­u­ment­ed restau­rant work­er and an active mem­ber of the advo­ca­cy group Desis Ris­ing Up and Mov­ing (DRUM), spoke about his expe­ri­ence putting in long hours, get­ting paid far less than the min­i­mum wage, and often, being mis­treat­ed.  He expressed his fears and those of his friends and fam­i­ly in sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions and their reluc­tance to com­plain, fear­ing retal­i­a­tion from their employ­ers or depor­ta­tion.

After hear­ing these coura­geous and com­pelling sto­ries, a pan­el of advo­cates pro­vid­ed detailed expert analy­sis on the impact of immi­gra­tion reform for South Asians in the U.S. and addressed numer­ous ques­tions posed by over 75 engaged com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers in atten­dance.  One of the final com­ments raised high­light­ed per­haps the most impor­tant and often over­looked issue in the immi­gra­tion reform debate: chal­lenges faced by immi­grants in Amer­i­ca are more than “immi­gra­tion issues” – they are fun­da­men­tal civ­il rights issues.  Eleven mil­lion undoc­u­ment­ed per­sons are in the Unit­ed States today, forced to live in the shad­ows and often denied their basic rights to par­tic­i­pate in soci­ety.  Over 550,000 South Asians are wait­ing to be reunit­ed with their sib­lings or adult mar­ried chil­dren.  Work­ers are repeat­ed­ly denied fair wages and job mobil­i­ty, and are often exploit­ed.  Indi­vid­u­als are fre­quent­ly pro­filed and placed in depor­ta­tion pro­ceed­ings.  Immi­grant women are denied the oppor­tu­ni­ty to work, to have sta­tus inde­pen­dent of their spous­es, and to be afford­ed immi­gra­tion oppor­tu­ni­ties like those of men.

SAALT’s New Jer­sey Immi­gra­tion Town­hall was one of six com­mu­ni­ty dia­logues designed to spark debate, coali­tion-build­ing, and advo­ca­cy around immi­gra­tion reform this year. In Cal­i­for­nia, Mary­land, Michi­gan, Texas, and this week­end, in Illi­nois, the South Asian com­mu­ni­ty is increas­ing­ly engaged on these issues. And, we are con­fi­dent that the con­ver­sa­tion will not end there.  These forums are sim­ply the begin­ning of a dia­logue about how we as a com­mu­ni­ty can raise our voic­es around immi­gra­tion poli­cies as they impact us.  From all these com­mu­ni­ty events, one mes­sage remains clear: the South Asian com­mu­ni­ty will be heard today, tomor­row, and for many days to come.

Navneet Bhalla
New Jer­sey Pol­i­cy and Out­reach Coor­di­na­tor
South Asian Amer­i­cans Lead­ing Togeth­er, SAALT

Engage in the immi­gra­tion con­ver­sa­tion, by shar­ing your sto­ry, learn­ing how to engage with your Mem­ber of Con­gress, and start­ing a dia­logue in your local com­mu­ni­ty. For more infor­ma­tion on these actions or to learn more about upcom­ing town­halls, please con­tact info@saalt.org.