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.