BLOG: Why You Can’t Be Neutral About Net Neutrality — Civil Rights At Stake

Tomor­row, the Fed­er­al Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion (FCC) will vote on a plan to reverse its 2015 “Open Inter­net Order,” which estab­lished net neu­tral­i­ty, ensur­ing that all online con­tent is treat­ed equal­ly by inter­net ser­vice providers. Essen­tial­ly, net neu­tral­i­ty pre­vents com­pa­nies like Com­cast, Ver­i­zon, and AT&T from block­ing, slow­ing down, or speed­ing up online con­tent based on the user and their abil­i­ty to pay for faster or increased ser­vices. Elim­i­nat­ing net neu­tral­i­ty allows inter­net ser­vice providers to charge user fees at their dis­cre­tion for access to cer­tain content.

In this dig­i­tal age, the inter­net has been a way for poor and work­ing class fam­i­lies to con­nect with crit­i­cal employ­ment, health ser­vices, and even legal assis­tance. These issues impact all of us, includ­ing South Asian Amer­i­cans. At SAALT, our online intake form for indi­vid­u­als who have expe­ri­enced hate vio­lence or dis­crim­i­na­tion is an impor­tant inter­net tool that allows us to direct peo­ple to legal ser­vices. Cre­at­ing a “pay to play” envi­ron­ment threat­ens the abil­i­ty of the poor and work­ing class to get these impor­tant resources. Numer­ous stud­ies, includ­ing a recent inves­ti­ga­tion by the Cen­ter for Pub­lic Integri­ty, reveal that fam­i­lies in poor areas are five times less like­ly to have access to high-speed inter­net than fam­i­lies in afflu­ent areas. Allow­ing inter­net ser­vice providers to charge user fees fur­ther restrains access to online con­tent and widens this dis­par­i­ty even fur­ther, which throt­tles civ­il rights..

Black-led media jus­tice orga­ni­za­tions like the Cen­ter for Media Jus­tice and the Voic­es for Inter­net Free­dom Coali­tion have defend­ed net neu­tral­i­ty for decades and were instru­men­tal in the FCC’s 2015 deci­sion to cod­i­fy net neu­tral­i­ty. Their tire­less work has shown the impor­tance of an open inter­net for social jus­tice orga­niz­ing, health­care access, rapid response to nation­al dis­as­ters, and con­tent cre­ation for artists, just to name a few. All of these rea­sons should be enough for South Asian Amer­i­cans to join the fight to pre­serve net neu­tral­i­ty. But dig­ging fur­ther into recent demo­graph­ic data shows exact­ly how many poor South Asian Amer­i­cans would be hurt by the elim­i­na­tion of net neutrality.

Accord­ing to recent­ly released data from the Pew Research Cen­ter, there are cur­rent­ly 5 mil­lion South Asian Amer­i­cans liv­ing in the Unit­ed States. Of those, over 10% or more than half a mil­lion live in pover­ty. For Nepalese and Bangladeshi Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties, this fig­ure is near­ly 25%, and for Bhutanese Amer­i­cans, this fig­ure jumps to 33%. With these stag­ger­ing lev­els of pover­ty and inequal­i­ty in our com­mu­ni­ty alone, it is crit­i­cal that we under­stand net neu­tral­i­ty as more than a polit­i­cal­ly charged issue, but a fun­da­men­tal civ­il rights issue.

We must also con­sid­er the back­drop of this pover­ty, inequal­i­ty, and unequal access to infor­ma­tion. It occurs in a nation­al cli­mate that is fueled by this Administration’s white suprema­cist agen­da, fan­ning the flames of hate to heights not seen since the year after 9/11. SAALT and our allies reg­u­lar­ly doc­u­ment inci­dents of hate vio­lence and xeno­pho­bic polit­i­cal rhetoric aimed at South Asian, Mus­lim, Sikh, Hin­du, Mid­dle East­ern, and Arab Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties. Exact­ly one year since the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, SAALT doc­u­ment­ed 213 inci­dents of hate vio­lence alone against our com­mu­ni­ties, which is over a 60% increase from the pre­vi­ous year. These sto­ries rarely make news head­lines because the vic­tims are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly Mus­lim or per­ceived to be Mus­lim (84%) and often do not have the pow­er of law enforce­ment or the bul­ly pul­pit behind them to get the recourse they deserve.

South Asian Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties and all com­mu­ni­ties of col­or are dou­bly vic­tim­ized by this Administration’s agen­da that both fans the flames of hate and attacks civ­il rights by issu­ing Mus­lim Bans, rolling out mass depor­ta­tions, and elim­i­nat­ing net neu­tral­i­ty. As we estab­lished in our last report “Pow­er, Pain, Poten­tial,” there is a rela­tion­ship between rolling back civ­il rights and increas­ing vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty to hate vio­lence. South Asian Amer­i­cans should be alarmed and acti­vat­ed to speak out now.

Resources to learn and act now

To take action on net neu­tral­i­ty, please see guid­ance from the Voic­es for Inter­net Free­dom Coali­tion.

To learn more about SAALT’s efforts, check out our 2017 report “Pow­er, Pain, Poten­tial” that doc­u­ments inci­dents of hate vio­lence and xeno­pho­bic polit­i­cal rhetoric aimed at South Asian, Mus­lim, Sikh, Hin­du, Mid­dle East­ern, and Arab Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties in the year lead­ing up to the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. Stay tuned for an updat­ed 2018 report that doc­u­ments the year after the 2016 election.

If you have expe­ri­enced an act of vio­lence or dis­crim­i­na­tion, you can report it con­fi­den­tial­ly on SAALT’s intake form here or call our part­ners at the Lawyers Com­mit­tee for Civ­il Rights Under the Law at 1–844-9-NO-HATE and get resources and support.

Lakshmi Sridaran
Direc­tor, Nation­al Pol­i­cy and Advo­ca­cy, SAALT

Senate Discusses Protections for Minority Voters in Voting Rights Amendment Act Hearing

Last Wednes­day, the Sen­ate held a hear­ing on the Vot­ing Rights Amend­ment Act of 2014 (VRAA), which could be instru­men­tal to the rights of vot­ers in upcom­ing elec­tions.  Notably, this hear­ing was held on the one-year anniver­sary of Shel­by Coun­ty v. Hold­er, a Supreme Court deci­sion which dra­mat­i­cal­ly dimin­ished vot­er pro­tec­tions for South Asian Amer­i­cans as well as oth­er minor­i­ty com­mu­ni­ties. This court deci­sion ruled Sec­tion 4 of the Vot­ing Rights Act of 1965 uncon­sti­tu­tion­al, a sec­tion that artic­u­lat­ed a for­mu­la to deter­mine which juris­dic­tions are required to have changes to their vot­ing laws pre-cleared by the Depart­ment of Jus­tice or a fed­er­al court (under Sec­tion 5). The pur­pose of this sec­tion was to ensure that minor­i­ty vot­ers were able to vote in areas with his­tor­i­cal evi­dence of dis­crim­i­na­to­ry vot­ing prac­tices, issues with lan­guage minor­i­ty groups, and low minor­i­ty vot­er turnout. As the Shel­by deci­sion ren­dered the Vot­ing Rights Act of 1965 inad­e­quate to pro­tect minor­i­ty com­mu­ni­ties from dis­crim­i­na­to­ry elec­tion laws, this week’s Sen­ate hear­ing was a wel­come con­ver­sa­tion to improve our laws and enhance pro­tec­tions for minor­i­ty voters.

At the hear­ing, Sen­a­tor Patrick Leahy (D‑VT) stressed the impor­tance of keep­ing vot­ing rights a non­par­ti­san issue, not­ing that recent state restric­tions in high minor­i­ty states con­tin­ue to be a chal­lenge. Accord­ing to Sen­a­tor Leahy, there is no doubt that vot­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion still exists, and it is clear one year after Shel­by that more pro­tec­tions are need­ed. Echo­ing these con­cerns, State Sen­a­tor Sylvia Gar­cia (D‑TX) remarked that as there are state laws that restrict vot­ing, what remains of the Vot­ing Rights Act of 1965 is not enough to pro­tect minor­i­ty vot­ers, not­ing that Texas, in par­tic­u­lar, out­paces oth­er states in dis­crim­i­na­to­ry poli­cies. With over 300,000 South Asian Amer­i­cans in Texas, fur­ther restric­tions on the right to vote, such as requir­ing spe­cif­ic forms of pho­to iden­ti­fi­ca­tion be shown at polling sites and chang­ing geo­graph­i­cal dis­tricts, have seri­ous impact on South Asian vot­ers as well as elec­toral candidates.

Nation­wide, the num­ber of eli­gi­ble South Asian vot­ers in the U.S. has increased between 99% and 471% since 2000. A poll of approx­i­mate­ly 9,000 Asian Amer­i­can vot­ers inter­viewed after the 2012 elec­tions report­ed a total of 1,360 vot­ing prob­lems. These prob­lems includ­ed being required to prove cit­i­zen­ship, hav­ing their names miss­ing or includ­ed with errors at the polling loca­tion, being required to vote by pro­vi­sion­al bal­lot, expe­ri­enc­ing hos­til­i­ty from poll work­ers, not hav­ing an inter­preter or trans­la­tion avail­able when need­ed, and being direct­ed to the wrong polling site or vot­ing machine. These issues great­ly impact the abil­i­ty of minor­i­ty vot­ers to exer­cise their right to vote. For exam­ple, when a person’s name is mis­spelled or miss­ing from the vot­er roll at the pollingvoting site—or if a per­son does not have the required iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, per­haps because of a new and con­fus­ing state vot­er ID law—the vot­er must vote by pro­vi­sion­al bal­lot. In some juris­dic­tions, if a vot­er shows up to the wrong polling loca­tion, even due to a change or reduc­tion in the num­ber of polling loca­tions, the vot­er will be required to vote by pro­vi­sion­al bal­lot. Vot­ing by pro­vi­sion­al bal­lot is risky—poll work­ers are not always trained on how to prop­er­ly han­dle pro­vi­sion­al bal­lots, these bal­lots are only count­ed after the elec­tion, and it is near­ly impos­si­ble to find out if your vote was actu­al­ly count­ed. In 2010, the U.S. Elec­tion Assis­tance Com­mis­sion report­ed that only 66.2% of pro­vi­sion­al bal­lots were count­ed in full, and accord­ing to the Lawyers’ Com­mit­tee for Civ­il Rights Under Law, the high­est rates of pro­vi­sion­al bal­lot vot­ing occur in com­mu­ni­ties with a high per­cent­age of minor­i­ty vot­ers.  Still, this occur­rence is only one of the many pos­si­ble reper­cus­sions of prob­lem­at­ic or dis­crim­i­na­to­ry vot­ing laws.

Even the slight­est change in elec­tion laws can cause peo­ple to miss the oppor­tu­ni­ty to cast their vote or have it be count­ed, mak­ing it all the more impor­tant that states with a bad track record of vot­ing vio­la­tions be required to pre-clear new vot­ing changes, such as laws restrict­ing ear­ly vot­ing and reduc­ing the num­ber of polling loca­tions. Fail­ure to pro­tect vot­ers from dis­crim­i­na­to­ry laws pri­or to an elec­tion deprives a large num­ber of Amer­i­cans from their Con­sti­tu­tion­al right not only to vote for a can­di­date to rep­re­sent their needs and val­ues, but to vote for a can­di­date that will not con­tin­ue to dis­en­fran­chise them.  The impact of these laws is much more severe on minor­i­ty vot­ers, par­tic­u­lar­ly as many of these dis­crim­i­na­to­ry laws are geared towards com­mu­ni­ties or polling sites with high num­bers of minor­i­ty voters.

The pro­posed VRAA seeks to pro­tect vot­ers by expand­ing the type of vio­la­tions cov­ered by the Act to not only vio­la­tions of the Four­teenth and Fif­teenth Amend­ments, but also vio­la­tions of the VRAA and fed­er­al laws that pro­hib­it dis­crim­i­na­tion on the basis of race, col­or, or mem­ber­ship in a lan­guage minor­i­ty group. States would also be required to pre-clear changes affect­ing elec­tions if they accu­mu­lat­ed five or more vio­la­tions in the last fif­teen years—including one vio­la­tion by the state. SAALT looks for­ward to the devel­op­ment and imple­men­ta­tion of leg­is­la­tion that enhances pro­tec­tions for minor­i­ty vot­ers, par­tic­u­lar­ly as so many mean­ing­ful reme­dies that would fur­ther pro­tect the right to vote were lost as a result of the Shel­by deci­sion.

To read the text of the pro­posed bill click here.

Christina Modi
Pol­i­cy Intern
South Asian Amer­i­cans Lead­ing Togeth­er, SAALT

Celebrating Deepa Iyer and SAALT


Vijay Iyer
Jazz Pianist, Com­pos­er, MacArthur Fel­low, and Har­vard Professor

The bio­graph­i­cal lan­guage about me con­tains some high­fa­lutin sig­ni­fiers: MacArthur, Har­vard, jazz. But to be hon­est I feel dwarfed by the pres­ence of all of you here today, the real activists and orga­niz­ers who bring your unique strengths to the trench­es, chang­ing Amer­i­ca for the bet­ter.  I’m thrilled to be invit­ed to your party.

Back in 2001 I released my third album, titled Panop­tic Modes. The CD began with an orig­i­nal com­po­si­tion called “Invo­ca­tion,” ded­i­cat­ed to Rishi Maharaj, a young Indo-Caribbean man who had been the vic­tim of a hate crime in Queens in the late 90s. He had been beat­en near­ly to death by a group of white men with base­ball bats chant­i­ng racist and xeno­pho­bic insults.

My intent with this piece of music was to sug­gest to our own com­mu­ni­ty, in case any­one was lis­ten­ing, that this young man was one of us; that we, as South Asian Amer­i­cans, should embrace all of our mas­sive dias­po­ra, regard­less of nation­al iden­ti­ty or his­tor­i­cal cir­cum­stance.  Because com­mu­ni­ty isn’t just about com­mon roots; it is about par­al­lel expe­ri­ences, a shared predica­ment, a com­mon cause. It is about the fact that what hap­pens to this young brown man could, and indeed often does, hap­pen to any or all of us.

Still I did­n’t have any idea that this lit­tle piece of instru­men­tal music might do any more than high­light the fact that “stuff hap­pens” in Amer­i­ca. So I was floored when some months lat­er I received an email from a young lawyer named Deepa Iyer, Esquire (no rela­tion), who had con­nect­ed with Rishi.

She put me in touch with Rishi, who sent me a heart­felt, frank and dev­as­tat­ing mes­sage about his life’s jour­ney after the attack. He had moved to Alas­ka, to put as much dis­tance as pos­si­ble between him­self and the expe­ri­ence. He thanked me for remem­ber­ing him and for shin­ing a light on his expe­ri­ence through music, and he con­fessed that he did­n’t know what he was going to do next. The hate crime had thor­ough­ly dis­rupt­ed the del­i­cate sense of root­ed­ness and belong­ing that he and his fam­i­ly, like all of our fam­i­lies, had begun to cul­ti­vate in this coun­try. But Deepa’s work helped rekin­dle a sense of con­nect­ed­ness for him and his family.

What is a com­mu­ni­ty?  A friend of mine, polit­i­cal sci­en­tist Cara Wong, in her book Bound­aries of Oblig­a­tion, defines com­mu­ni­ty as “an image in the mind of an indi­vid­ual, of a group toward whose mem­bers she feels a sense of sim­i­lar­i­ty, belong­ing, or fellowship.”

Com­mu­ni­ty, in oth­er words, is very much the work of our imag­i­na­tions. And exact­ly because of this, it has impor­tant real-world reper­cus­sions. As Pro­fes­sor Wong demon­strates in her book, “self-defined mem­ber­ship can lead to an inter­est in, and a com­mit­ment to, the well-being of all com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers… regard­less of one’s own inter­ests, val­ues, and ideology.”

In the years since 9/11, our com­mu­ni­ty has been chal­lenged repeat­ed­ly, and com­mon caus­es with oth­ers have led us to imag­ine our­selves big­ger.  As the African-Amer­i­can writer Greg Tate told me short­ly in fall 2001, “Wel­come to racial pro­fil­ing.”  We have had to embrace our own reli­gious and cul­tur­al diver­si­ty — Sikhs, Hin­dus, Mus­lims, Chris­tians, Jains; Pak­ista­nis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Nepalis, Indi­ans, Afghans, Bhutanese — as well as oth­er com­mu­ni­ties of col­or — Arabs, Mid­dle East­ern­ers, north and east Africans, east and south­east Asians, all of their dias­po­ras, and yes, African Amer­i­cans and Lati­nos — because of a com­mon predica­ment, a com­mon cause, a com­mon atmos­phere of fear, sur­veil­lance, sus­pi­cion, and para­noia, and the per­sis­tence of inequality.

Also, as we have become one of the most afflu­ent and nom­i­nal­ly “suc­cess­ful” demo­graph­ics in post-1960s Amer­i­ca, we have had to devel­op new empathies to under­stand our place in the world. We have had to remind our­selves that Dr. Mar­tin Luther King adopt­ed the tac­tics of Mahat­ma Gand­hi, that our free­doms are spir­i­tu­al­ly yoked to the strug­gles for jus­tice for the African Amer­i­cans and oth­er minori­ties who built this country.

Last week­end I was in Atlanta with my fam­i­ly, and we vis­it­ed the Mar­tin Luther King Jr. His­tor­i­cal Site. There is a beau­ti­ful stat­ue of Gand­hi at this site. There is also a tren­chant quote from Dr. King on dis­play. It says, “Life’s most per­sis­tent and urgent ques­tion is, what are you doing for others?”

I want you to know that, all titles aside, I am first and fore­most an artist. As an artist I ask myself Dr. King’s ques­tion every day. What am I doing for oth­ers?  To this end I have pur­sued three main goals. First, I have strived to gen­er­ate a con­sis­tent, un-ignor­able, com­pli­cat­ing pres­ence in the land­scape of cul­ture.  As African Amer­i­can inno­va­tors like Paul Robe­son, Nina Simone, John Coltrane, and Jimi Hen­drix found, in the face of a cul­ture that would deny them, it becomes nec­es­sary for an artist of col­or in the west to defi­ant­ly announce to the world: I am a fact.

That kind of defi­ant pres­ence – the same kind you get from M.I.A., or Himan­shu Suri of Das Racist, the kind that cool­ly roars from the mar­gins — that kind of defi­ant pres­ence has the pow­er to dis­rupt and trans­form cul­ture, to hear­ken and inau­gu­rate a new Amer­i­ca.  That kind of defi­ant pres­ence also has the pow­er to acti­vate and mobi­lize the imag­i­na­tions of oth­ers like our­selves: young desis in our glob­al dias­po­ra final­ly see­ing them­selves rep­re­sent­ed pos­i­tive­ly in cul­ture, final­ly empow­ered to dream a lit­tle bigger.

My sec­ond main goal has been to ini­ti­ate and sus­tain alliances with oth­er artists of col­or, from Amiri Bara­ka and Haile Ger­i­ma to Teju Cole and Mike Ladd, so that we can imag­ine, build, and enact a con­cept of com­mu­ni­ty that tran­scends her­itage, nation, and creed — so that we can real­ly become an unde­ni­able force: a dis­rup­tive mul­ti­tude, imag­in­ing and bring­ing forth a new reality.

The third goal is to artic­u­late and demon­strate a com­mit­ment to social jus­tice.  As Yo-Yo Ma has said, and as I always remind my stu­dents, a life in the arts is a life of ser­vice.  I invite all of you who are polit­i­cal activists and com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ers to col­lab­o­rate with the artists in your midst, so that our mis­sions can serve your mis­sions — so that we can acti­vate rad­i­cal imag­i­na­tions in order to bring about nec­es­sary action.

On that note, today we’re here to cel­e­brate the work of SAALT, and to thank Deepa Iyer for all that she has done for oth­ers– strength­en­ing our com­mu­ni­ties; speak­ing truth to pow­er; advo­cat­ing and ini­ti­at­ing polit­i­cal change; empow­er­ing us to dream big.

Thank you, Deepa, for all that you’ve done, and for invit­ing me to the par­ty. It is an hon­or and a priv­i­lege to cel­e­brate with you.

Vijay Iyer
Jazz Pianist, Com­pos­er, MacArthur Fel­low, and Har­vard Pro­fes­sor
NYC, Decem­ber 3, 2013

For more infor­ma­tion on Vijay Iyer vis­it his web­site or fol­low him on Twit­ter @vijayiyer.


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

Supreme Court Watch: Fisher v. UT Austin and the South Asian Community

On June 24, 2013, the Supreme Court issued its rul­ing in the case of Abi­gail Noel Fish­er v. Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas at Austin, involv­ing the university’s use of race in its admis­sions pol­i­cy. Here at SAALT, we eager­ly await­ed the Supreme Court’s rul­ing, as we had joined an ami­cus brief filed by the Asian Amer­i­can Cen­ter for Advanc­ing Jus­tice in the Fish­er case last year in sup­port of the UT-Austin admis­sions policy.

In its deci­sion, the Court upheld the broad­er prin­ci­ples from exist­ing prece­dent from Grut­ter v. Bollinger, which allowed for race to be used as one of var­i­ous fac­tors giv­en the com­pelling state inter­est in pro­mot­ing diver­si­ty with­in edu­ca­tion. How­ev­er, rather than rul­ing on the con­sti­tu­tion­al­i­ty of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas’ pol­i­cy itself, the Court returned the case to the 5th Cir­cuit Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court asked the low­er court to review whether the con­sid­er­a­tion of race in the admis­sions pol­i­cy in ques­tion was nar­row­ly tai­lored and nec­es­sary in order to achieve edu­ca­tion­al diversity.

Despite com­mon mis­per­cep­tions to the con­trary, South Asians sup­port and ben­e­fit from holis­tic race-con­scious admis­sion poli­cies like the one imple­ment­ed by the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas. South Asian stu­dents, along with all oth­er stu­dents, enjoy a rich­er learn­ing envi­ron­ment when they are immersed in a diverse edu­ca­tion­al set­ting.  The abil­i­ty to learn from stu­dents and peers var­i­ous back­grounds helps bet­ter pre­pare them for the work­force and the real world. In fact, in light of ongo­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion that South Asians encounter in this coun­try, it is vital that stu­dents from oth­er racial back­grounds learn about our expe­ri­ences and we, in turn, learn about theirs. It is also impor­tant for us to remem­ber that it was not too long ago in our own recent his­to­ry that our com­mu­ni­ty has been denied equal oppor­tu­ni­ty in this coun­try and race-con­scious admis­sions poli­cies bring us clos­er to equal­i­ty. In fact, Asian Amer­i­cans, includ­ing South Asians, strong­ly sup­port affir­ma­tive action and race-con­scious poli­cies in edu­ca­tion­al set­tings, as shown by recent polling from the Nation­al Asian Amer­i­can Survey.

We are heart­ened by the Supreme Court’s deci­sion to uphold prece­dent regard­ing holis­tic race-con­scious poli­cies and are con­fi­dent that the low­er court will uphold the pol­i­cy upon its review of the case.

SAALT thanks Priya Murthy for her assis­tance in pro­vid­ing analy­sis and writing.

Supreme Court Watch: United States v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry and the South Asian Community

On June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court issued its opin­ions in two crit­i­cal cas­es involv­ing the issue of mar­riage equal­i­ty. In a land­mark deci­sion, Unit­ed States v. Wind­sor, the Court inval­i­dat­ed Sec­tion 3 of the Defense of Mar­riage Act (DOMA), which defined mar­riage as between “one man and one woman” and only rec­og­nized oppo­site-sex mar­riages for pur­pos­es of fed­er­al law. Fol­low­ing the enact­ment of DOMA in 1996, same-sex part­ners were denied fed­er­al ben­e­fits, includ­ing those under fed­er­al tax, hous­ing, Social Secu­ri­ty, and immi­gra­tion laws, and exclu­sive­ly grant­ed them het­ero­sex­u­al mar­ried cou­ples. Pri­or to the deci­sion in Wind­sor, denial of such ben­e­fits was allowed, even if cou­ples lived in indi­vid­ual states that rec­og­nized their mar­riage. In its deci­sion, the Court found that DOMA vio­lat­ed prin­ci­ples of “equal lib­er­ty of per­sons” enshrined in the 5th Amend­ment. (It is impor­tant to note that the Court did not rule on Sec­tion 2 of DOMA, which per­mits indi­vid­ual states to enact leg­is­la­tion that refus­es to rec­og­nize mar­riages between same-sex part­ners.) In a sep­a­rate case, Hollingsworth v. Per­ry, the Supreme Court dis­missed an appeal to rein­state Propo­si­tion 8, a bal­lot ini­tia­tive passed by Cal­i­for­nia vot­ers in 2008 that pro­hib­it­ed mar­riage between same-sex part­ners and was sub­se­quent­ly barred from being enforced by low­er courts, on the grounds that those seek­ing appeal did not have the legal stand­ing to do so. As a result, the low­er court rul­ing pre­vent­ing the enforce­ment of Propo­si­tion 8 remains intact.

As an orga­ni­za­tion that has long sup­port­ed mar­riage equal­i­ty, SAALT applauds the rul­ings by the Supreme Court in these two cas­es. In par­tic­u­lar, the Wind­sor deci­sion will pos­i­tive­ly trans­form the lives of South Asian Amer­i­cans involved in com­mit­ted rela­tion­ships by ensur­ing that they can no longer be denied vital fed­er­al ben­e­fits sim­ply based upon whom they love or mar­ry. This deci­sion also paves the way for the South Asians in same-sex bina­tion­al mar­riages (rec­og­nized by the state or coun­try where they were mar­ried) to avail them­selves of fed­er­al immi­gra­tion ben­e­fits, includ­ing the abil­i­ty to spon­sor their spouse under the fam­i­ly immi­gra­tion sys­tem and peti­tion for loved ones liv­ing abroad. For too long, cou­ples in this sit­u­a­tion have lived in a per­ilous legal lim­bo, as we dis­cussed in a recent oped. Such uncer­tain­ty often results in indi­vid­u­als over­stay­ing their visas to remain togeth­er or liv­ing abroad in exile. SAALT com­mends the Court’s deci­sions to reaf­firm the prin­ci­ples of equal­i­ty and fair­ness and looks for­ward to work­ing with fed­er­al agen­cies to ensure that com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers will be able to access the fed­er­al ben­e­fits pro­vid­ed to them as a result of this ruling.

For fur­ther infor­ma­tion on the Court’s deci­sion on DOMA will affect eli­gi­bil­i­ty for var­i­ous fed­er­al ben­e­fits, check out the ACLU’s web­site here.

For fur­ther infor­ma­tion on how the Court’s deci­sion on DOMA will affect immi­grant fam­i­lies and cou­ples, check out Immi­gra­tion Equality’s FAQ.

SAALT thanks Priya Murthy for her assis­tance in pro­vid­ing analy­sis and writing.

The Community Safety Act: Accountability for the NYPD and Its Importance to the South Asian Community

On June 27, 2013, the New York City Coun­cil passed two bills of the Com­mu­ni­ty Safe­ty Act, intro­duced last year, which curbs dis­crim­i­na­to­ry polic­ing prac­tices and estab­lish­es account­abil­i­ty mech­a­nisms for the New York City Police Depart­ment (NYPD). One of the bills, the End Dis­crim­i­na­to­ry Pro­fil­ing Act (Intro. 1080), would estab­lish an enforce­able ban against pro­fil­ing and dis­crim­i­na­tion by the NYPD; expand the bases for pro­hib­it­ed pro­fil­ing and dis­crim­i­na­tion (cur­rent­ly, race, eth­nic­i­ty, reli­gion, and nation­al ori­gin) to include age, gen­der, gen­der iden­ti­ty or expres­sion, sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion, immi­gra­tion sta­tus, dis­abil­i­ty or hous­ing sta­tus; estab­lish a pri­vate right of action allow­ing pro­fil­ing vic­tims to file law­suits against the NYPD; and allow indi­vid­u­als to file claims based on inten­tion­al dis­crim­i­na­tion and/or dis­parate impact. The sec­ond bill, the NYPD Over­sight Act (Intro. 1079), would grant inde­pen­dent over­sight author­i­ty over the NYPD to the Com­mis­sion­er of the Depart­ment of Inves­ti­ga­tion through reviews of the police depart­ment and require pub­lic reports regard­ing its find­ings. SAALT applauds the pas­sage of the Com­mu­ni­ty Safe­ty Act as well as the efforts of local orga­ni­za­tions in New York City, such as DRUM — Desis Ris­ing Up and Mov­ing, to ensure these bills become law.

The pas­sage of the Com­mu­ni­ty Safe­ty Act is vital for all res­i­dents of New York City – includ­ing African Amer­i­can and Lati­no indi­vid­u­als who have been sub­ject­ed to an exor­bi­tant and dis­pro­por­tion­ate per­cent­age of stop-and-frisk encoun­ters. Most notably, since Sep­tem­ber 11th, South Asian com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers have been sim­i­lar­ly sub­ject­ed to arrests, ques­tion­ing, and harass­ment sim­ply based upon race, reli­gion, and appear­ance.  In a joint report released in March 2012, In Our Own Words: Nar­ra­tives of South Asian New York­ers Affect­ed by Racial and Reli­gious Pro­fil­ing, by DRUM, The Sikh Coali­tion, UNITED SIKHS, South Asian Youth Action (SAYA!), Coney Island Avenue Project, Coun­cil of Peo­ples Orga­ni­za­tion, and SAALT, com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers’ per­son­al expe­ri­ences revealed the toll that such dis­crim­i­na­tion has tak­en on their lives. Inter­ac­tions with NYPD includ­ed that of a young Bangladeshi man, while sim­ply wait­ing for his friends, being sub­ject­ed to war­rant­less search­es by police; a police offi­cer ask­ing a South Asian stu­dent about his reli­gion; and an Indi­an Hin­du indi­vid­ual being asked about his eth­nic­i­ty and whether he had drugs. Com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers have also been asked whether they are Mus­lim, where they pray, and even been pres­sured to spy on their own com­mu­ni­ties and report on “ter­ror­ist activ­i­ty.” Indeed, reports from the Asso­ci­at­ed Press in 2011 revealed the wide­spread spy­ing and sur­veil­lance by the NYPD on Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties and stu­dent asso­ci­a­tions, both with­in and beyond New York City. (In fact, the New York Civ­il Lib­er­ties Union, the Amer­i­can Civ­il Lib­er­ties Union, and the CLEAR Project at the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York, recent­ly filed a law­suit chal­leng­ing the dis­crim­i­na­to­ry sur­veil­lance prac­tices of the police depart­ment.) As a result, indi­vid­u­als report­ed that such inter­ac­tions harmed their rela­tion­ships with friends and fam­i­ly and, also, made them more hes­i­tant to reach out to police in times of need.

SAALT has joined our part­ner orga­ni­za­tions in New York City in call­ing for the enact­ment of robust and expan­sive anti-pro­fil­ing poli­cies and strength­en­ing gov­ern­ment and civil­ian over­sight of law enforce­ment agen­cies in the city. We com­mend the City Council’s pas­sage of the leg­is­la­tion, which would go into effect in Jan­u­ary 2014, if enact­ed, and urge the May­or to sign the bills into law.

SAALT thanks Priya Murthy for her assis­tance in pro­vid­ing analy­sis and writing.


Supreme Court Watch: Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder and the South Asian Community

On June 25, 2013, in the case of Shel­by Coun­ty, Alaba­ma v. Hold­er, the Supreme Court inval­i­dat­ed Sec­tion 4 of the Vot­ing Rights of 1965 rul­ing it uncon­sti­tu­tion­al. SAALT strong­ly con­demns the Supreme Court’s deci­sion to inval­i­date Sec­tion 4 of the Vot­ing Rights Act which has been piv­otal in pro­tect­ing minor­i­ty vot­ers’ abil­i­ty to par­tic­i­pate in the Amer­i­can democ­ra­cy. In Jan­u­ary 2013, SAALT joined an ami­cus brief in the case, along with 27 oth­er Asian Amer­i­can orga­ni­za­tions, argu­ing in favor of the Vot­ing Rights Act, par­tic­u­lar­ly giv­en its impor­tance relat­ed to lan­guage access and polit­i­cal representation.

With the back­drop of egre­gious racial dis­crim­i­na­tion against minor­i­ty vot­ers, Sec­tion 4 of the Vot­ing Rights Act artic­u­lates a for­mu­la to deter­mine which juris­dic­tions are required to have any changes in their vot­ing laws pre-cleared by the Depart­ment of Jus­tice or a fed­er­al court (under Sec­tion 5 of the leg­is­la­tion) to ensure that minor­i­ty vot­ers’ abil­i­ty to vote is not dimin­ished. The trig­ger for­mu­la used to des­ig­nate such juris­dic­tions, as out­lined in Sec­tion 4, is based on var­i­ous fac­tors, includ­ing his­tor­i­cal evi­dence of racial­ly dis­crim­i­na­to­ry vot­ing prac­tices, impact on lan­guage minor­i­ty groups, and low minor­i­ty vot­er turnout. While the Court rec­og­nized that racial dis­crim­i­na­tion con­tin­ues to plague the abil­i­ty for many to vote, it stat­ed that the cov­er­age for­mu­la used in Sec­tion 4 was “out­dat­ed” in light of recent increased minor­i­ty vot­er turnout, dis­ap­proved of states being treat­ed dif­fer­ent­ly under the law, and sug­gest­ed that Con­gress update the for­mu­la in order to pass con­sti­tu­tion­al muster. This coun­ter­in­tu­itive rea­son­ing ignores that Sec­tions 4 and 5 have been piv­otal in pro­mot­ing enfran­chise­ment, con­sid­er­able evi­dence proves racial dis­crim­i­na­tion at the polls con­tin­ues, and fed­er­al leg­is­la­tors have rec­og­nized the impor­tance of keep­ing the Vot­ing Rights Act in effect. In fact, the Vot­ing Rights Act, includ­ing Sec­tion 4, has increas­ing­ly enjoyed sig­nif­i­cant bipar­ti­san sup­port with­in Con­gress over the years and was most recent­ly reau­tho­rized almost unan­i­mous­ly in 2006.

The right to vote has been a long-fought bat­tle for com­mu­ni­ties of col­or in the Unit­ed States. The Vot­ing Rights Act is an his­toric and cru­cial piece of leg­is­la­tion that was borne out of our country’s Civ­il Rights Move­ment and the pio­neer­ing strug­gles of the African Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty in the 1960s. Indeed, the South Asian community’s own path to attain nat­u­ral­iza­tion, con­fer­ring the right to vote, has been a rocky one. In 1923, the Supreme Court then ruled that South Asians were not con­sid­ered white by the com­mon per­son and thus could not be con­sid­ered cit­i­zens; this remained in effect until leg­is­la­tion was enact­ed decades lat­er. In more recent years, as doc­u­ment­ed by elec­tion mon­i­tor­ing and exit polling efforts, South Asian and oth­er vot­ers of col­or con­tin­ue to encounter bar­ri­ers at the polls because of race, reli­gion, and lan­guage abil­i­ty and restric­tive vot­er iden­ti­fi­ca­tion pro­pos­als con­tin­ue to threat­en the right to vote. South Asians will not be immune from today’s dis­ap­point­ing rul­ing, par­tic­u­lar­ly giv­en our community’s over­all size and growth in juris­dic­tions pre­vi­ous­ly cov­ered under the Sec­tion 4 for­mu­la, includ­ing Ari­zona, Geor­gia, Texas, and Virginia.

This rul­ing is a grave set­back for vot­ing rights and equal­i­ty in the coun­try that ignores both the his­tor­i­cal and con­tem­po­rary evi­dence of dis­crim­i­na­tion that minor­i­ty vot­ers face. Com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers are encour­aged to join a peti­tion call­ing for an amend­ment to pro­tect the rights of all vot­ers. Look­ing for­ward, SAALT will con­tin­ue to work with allies when Con­gress devel­ops a new cov­er­age for­mu­la in light of today’s rul­ing and ensure that it address­es dis­crim­i­na­tion against racial, eth­nic, and lan­guage minorities.

SAALT thanks Priya Murthy for her assis­tance in pro­vid­ing analy­sis and writing.

Everything is Bigger in Texas: Sonia Kotecha

SAALT Exec­u­tive Direc­tor, Deepa Iyer, trav­eled to Austin, Texas in Jan­u­ary to engage with the local Asian Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty. She par­tic­i­pat­ed in events such as a Brown Bag dis­cus­sion at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas at Austin, a Repub­lic Day event spon­sored by the Indi­an Amer­i­can Coali­tion of Texas, and a com­mu­ni­ty round­table discussion.

Below is a blog post by Sonia Kotecha, SAALT mem­ber and Austin-based com­mu­ni­ty leader, reflect­ing on the com­mu­ni­ty roundtable.

We like to say every­thing is big­ger in Texas includ­ing the grow­ing Asian Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion. In Austin, the cap­i­tal of Texas, the Asian Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty makes up around 6% of the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion with South Asians mak­ing up one the largest Asian sub­groups. City of Austin demog­ra­ph­er, Ryan Robin­son, pre­dicts that by 2015, the Asian pop­u­la­tion in Austin will sur­pass the African Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion becom­ing the sec­ond largest minor­i­ty group after His­pan­ics. In the spring of 2013, the City of Austin will open the first ever Asian Amer­i­can Resource Cen­ter. As our com­mu­ni­ty grows and diver­si­fies so does our need to mobi­lize, unite and build sol­i­dar­i­ty. So last week­end we called upon SAALT (South Asian Amer­i­cans Lead­ing Togeth­er) to facil­i­tate an ini­tial con­ver­sa­tion through a com­mu­ni­ty round­table on how best to uti­lize our exist­ing resources and the resources of SAALT to ele­vate our voic­es and empow­er us to more effec­tive­ly engage in our local community.

Although many of us in the com­mu­ni­ty see each oth­er on a reg­u­lar basis and col­lab­o­rate on pro­gram­ming from time to time, the round­table was an oppor­tu­ni­ty for us to step back and reflect on the strengths and needs of our com­mu­ni­ty. It was help­ful to have SAALT’s Exec­u­tive Direc­tor, Deepa Iyer, serve as our facil­i­ta­tor – as an out­sider look­ing in. Over 25 peo­ple rep­re­sent­ing var­i­ous seg­ments and sec­tors of the Austin com­mu­ni­ty attend­ed the roundtable.

Through the process of iden­ti­fy­ing our com­mu­ni­ty assets, issues and gaps, I was impressed at how far advanced we were in hav­ing estab­lished net­works and an infra­struc­ture of strong cul­tur­al, social and polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions. The list of com­mu­ni­ty assets in the room far exceed­ed the list of issues and gaps that were addressed. Need­less to say, we all agreed that there are many in our com­mu­ni­ty who are dis­en­fran­chised and their voic­es often go unheard.

We iden­ti­fied sev­er­al oppor­tu­ni­ties to improve our out­reach and engage those we defined as ‘invis­i­ble’ seg­ments of our Asian com­mu­ni­ty (i.e. seniors, refugees, low-income gas station/convenient store clerks). Sev­er­al strate­gies includ­ed con­duct­ing a work­shop using exist­ing SAALT mate­r­i­al on “Know­ing Your Rights & Respon­si­bil­i­ties” for new immi­grants and refugees in places of wor­ship, host­ing “Asian Com­mu­ni­ty 101” infor­ma­tion ses­sions for city/county gov­ern­ment agen­cies includ­ing law enforce­ment, and devel­op­ing a polit­i­cal lead­er­ship edu­ca­tion pro­gram to encour­age more civic par­tic­i­pa­tion of Asian Amer­i­cans in city/county government.

The ideas that came out of our round­table were con­crete and attain­able. SAALT has the resources and train­ing mate­ri­als and the indi­vid­u­als and orga­ni­za­tions rep­re­sent­ed at the round­table have the con­nec­tions and capac­i­ty to exe­cute. It is my hope that we con­tin­ue to build on the syn­er­gy from the round­table and con­tin­ue to meet quar­ter­ly. My biggest take away from the event was pride in Austin’s Asian Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty. Giv­en our exist­ing foun­da­tion, we can only go big­ger – Texas size – in our pur­suit to cul­ti­vate a more inclu­sive and just society.

Sci-Fi Age of E‑Verify

I recent­ly attend­ed a ses­sion at the Migrant Pol­i­cy Insti­tute that focused on E‑Verify, the sys­tem that would require employ­ees to ver­i­fy their iden­ti­ties and legal sta­tus through an elec­tron­ic pro­gram. The Migrant Pol­i­cy Insti­tute dis­cus­sion focused on pos­si­ble ways to expand this sys­tem and per­haps bet­ter it for every­one involved. The only peo­ple who don’t seem to ben­e­fit from the expan­sion of E‑Verify are the employ­ees. They would have to jump through addi­tion­al hoops to main­tain or obtain employment.

I was more than a lit­tle sur­prised by the types of solu­tions offered by MPI to improve E‑Verify, as they seemed very inva­sive and expen­sive, not to men­tion Big Broth­er­ish. Pos­si­ble solu­tions includ­ed bio­met­ric cards and reg­is­ter­ing for a per­son­al­ized PIN that would be pro­vid­ed to employ­ers who could then access a data­base that ver­i­fied identities.

While MPI said it was try­ing to address issues of iden­ti­ty fraud in order to pro­tect employ­ees, I real­ly don’t think that the work­ers’ inter­ests are at the heart of these pro­pos­als or the E‑Verify sys­tem. Anoth­er con­cern is how E‑Verify might be used to check the sta­tus­es of cur­rent estab­lished employ­ees as well as new-hires, which would require peo­ple set­tled in their employ­ment to go over the same hur­dles as a new-hire. There must be a bet­ter way to reg­u­late employ­ment prac­tices than to strike fear in the hearts of immi­grant employ­ees who just want to cre­ate a new life for them­selves and their families.