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.