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.