“Today we’re going to make you an Indian,” Kirpal Bajwa laughs. He hands a scarf to a Mexican woman, indicating that she must cover her head before she enters the gurudwara.
The group of Mexicans glance around sheepishly before taking a seat on the ground among the other worshippers. One of them, 43-year old Manuel*, finds a friend in the crowd. He embraces a turbaned Ranjit*, and whispers, “Congratulations! We did it!”
These two men—one a Sikh born in Punjab, India and the other a Catholic from Jalisco, Mexico—never before had reason or desire to meet. But at a January celebration at a San Jose gurudwara, they celebrated a victory won together.
Ranjit and Manuel are among the nearly 400,000 longtime U.S. residents who may now have a chance to legalize their immigration status after a battle that has lasted over a decade. In early December, Congress finally passed an amendment that could solve the “late amnesty” debacle that has kept their lives on hold. And as hundreds gathered at the gurudwara learned, this was the success of an unusual alliance between two communities which traditionally keep to themselves.
WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE
Just a few weeks earlier, Ranjit and Manuel were commiserating together in a crowded Indian sweet shop in San Jose. At that time, they were both miserable enough to say, unequivocally, that they never would have gotten married or had children if they knew their lives would fall apart.
Both men arrived in California as youths and have spent most of their adult lives and careers in the U.S. They share a common bond of an “in-between” generation who recall their childhood abroad, but have formed their adult perspectives in suburban corridors of Silicon Valley.
They also shared a common threat: they faced deportation if Congress or the courts didn’t act in their favor. They are among hundreds of thousands who were told they did not qualify for legalization during a 1986 “amnesty” granted to 2.6 million undocumented immigrants.
Immigrants like Ranjit and Manuel, dubbed “late amnesty” applicants, were denied the opportunity to apply based on the fact that they had taken short trips abroad, or because they were mislead by the INS about the process. A myriad of class-action lawsuits have been pending on their behalf since the late 1980s.
Meanwhile, many of them have established themselves as homeowners and the parents of U.S. citizen children. Defying the stereotype of border crossers, many of the class-action applicants are doctors, engineers, and business owners.
For several years, this group had been living in a state of legal limbo. Strict immigration reforms passed in 1996 stipulated that many of the “late amnesty” claims could no longer be pursued through the court system. In accordance, the courts dismissed the case and, in 1998, the INS began to revoke work permits that had been routinely issued to the applicants over the decade that the case was pending. Hundreds of thousands of longtime residents found themselves suddenly undocumented.
They also found themselves struggling together for their livelihoods—often across lines of language, nationality, and race—as they brought their cases to Congress and learned the ropes of the political system in Washington D.C firsthand.
Ranjit was a skinny 12-year-old when he first came to the U.S. from Chandigarh in 1981. His parents sent him to cousins in Los Angeles hoping he would earn enough money to send home. Because he did not have a high-tech visa or an immediate relative to sponsor him, they packed him off with a family that had arranged to cross the border in Tijuana, Mexico.
That same year, fourteen-year old Manuel came to the U.S. for many of the same reasons. His parents could no longer afford to support their children in school, and asked Manuel to accompany his cousin to find work.
Ranjit stayed with his cousins in Los Angeles through his adolescence. Instead of going to school, he labored for long hours in the family construction business, earning an average of $20 a day. He did not see his parents for 15 years.
In 1986, Congress determined that undocumented immigrants who had lived in the U.S. since 1982 could be eligible for green cards through a legalization program. But some found that innocent trips abroad could cost them their futures: Manuel was rejected because he had returned to Mexico for one month during his five years in the U.S. The INS claimed that such absences violated the requirement that the immigrants reside “continuously” in the U.S. during the eligibility period.
In 1989, Manuel and Ranjit heard radio announcements asking immigrants who had been rejected due to temporary absences to report to one of several organizations supporting class-action lawsuits against such INS denials. Those who met the requirements were granted temporary work permits while the cases were pending in the courts.
For Manuel, the work permit made a world of difference. “I could go wherever I wanted because of that one simple paper. When I didn’t have a permit, I would work long hours and sometimes not get paid. Now I could demand my right to vacation time, time off to go to the doctor, and health benefits,” he explained.
He soon enrolled in community college. “I began to envision my life here in a more permanent way,” he recalled. “We thought that the cases would be resolved through the courts fairly quickly, and we would be able to legalize like so many others had in 1986.”
Manuel met his wife in one of the college courses, married, and had three children. He was promoted to foreman in the building complex where he worked as a maintenance technician. In addition to a rent waiver, he earned a generous salary, with vacation benefits, a pension, and insurance for his family.
For Ranjit, a work permit meant that he could finally start his own life. He moved out of his cousins’ home and apprenticed at a Northern California printing press. After several years, he began to save to purchase a home. When he felt financially secure, he married and started a family.
“I thought my life would be perfect,” he recalled. “I was ready to take on the responsibility of providing for my family back in India and my new family in the U.S.”
But when the INS refused to renew their work permits in 1998, both men suddenly found themselves undocumented after over a decade of working with INS authorization.
Ranjit plummeted into a deep depression. The printing press refused to keep him, and no other shop would hire him without a permit. His wife had to support the family through her meager salary at an electronics assembly plant. They tried to sell some of their possessions, and rapidly depleted Ranjit’s carefully cultivated savings. They searched desperately for a smaller apartment amidst skyrocketing Silicon Valley rents.
Ranjit greeted the birth of his first child last year with a mixture of elation and concern. “I want her to be able to go to school. I never got a chance to go, and I am very worried about how I am going to get her educated and provide for her if I cannot work,” he said.
After repeated visits to the INS, Manuel was finally told that there was nothing more he could do: The courts had dismissed the case. “Everything fell on my head that day,” he recalls bitterly. The maintenance company gave him one month to show documentation or leave the job. Eventually, he and his family had to leave the apartment complex and search for someplace else to live.
SOLACE IN UNLIKELY RELATIONSHIPS
In 1998, Mexican immigrant leader Maria Jimenez of Houston convened meetings with Late Amnesty applicants around the U.S., including at a South Bay gurudwara. She encouraged the Indian community to join with other late amnesty applicants to fight back, even if it meant crossing racial and language lines.
“The fundamental basis for any type of unity is respect for who we are and what our cultural expressions are,” said Jimenez at an interview at the victory celebration. “As immigrants, people needed to work together to both understand the political system in which we were working and how to impact it. It was clear that both the South Asian and Latino communities had a profound interest in expressing a conviction that people are equal in dignity and rights, and should be treated fairly.”
“I was so impressed with Maria,” recalled Kirpal Bajwa, who was to play a key role in organizing the Indian Late Amnesty applicants. “She had such great leadership quality. Everyone listened to what she had to say. She told us that we could build an organization here as well.”
Bajwa realized that collective pressure was critical: “I told everyone: forget the courts. This case won’t be won through the courts. The only way this will be solved is if the government does something, if the President does something. This is America—I know there is justice here. We just have to get our issue known.”
In August 1998, the San Jose chapter of the Association for Residency and Citizenship in the Americas (ARCA) was born. A Latina woman from Houston had convinced a roomful of Punjabi men in San Jose to fight back.
Meanwhile, Manuel visited a dozen attorneys seeking help, but they told him there was nothing he could do. One day, he saw a protest of Late Amnesty applicants on the Spanish-language news. He immediately called up the station and found out that Los Angeles area applicants had formed a group.
Inspired, he drove to a local Spanish-language radio station, and asked for airtime to reach out to Northern California applicants. One woman called to say that she was already attending the ARCA meetings. “But they’re mostly Indians,” she said.
Manuel was familiar with the Indian community because of his long years of work and friendship with an Indian supervisor. “I didn’t realize that there were Indians who were in the same situation I was!” Manuel smiled. “If they were already doing something, why not join them?”
Bajwa put ads in Indian and Spanish-language newspapers, and Manuel began inviting other Latinos to the meetings. Soon Mexicans accounted for about a third of the group that met weekly in gurudwaras and sweet shops. They would sample the chai and samosas, and Manuel and Bajwa would act as interpreters to those who did not speak English.
Using the Internet to connect with Late Amnesty applicants across the country, ARCA members in San Jose coordinated with chapters in Seattle, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. They dialogued about proposals and swapped strategies for mobilizing others.
They also took risks in order to publicize their case. The group’s visibility cost Bajwa his job. Last March, the San Jose Mercury News briefly mentioned the Milpitas man in a story about an ARCA rally in front of a courthouse. Within a day, Bajwa received a call from the cab company dispatcher, who barked, “Saw you in the newspaper. Do you have news?” Bajwa responded: “Yes, we are fighting for 400,000 people in America.” “Are you one of them?” asked the dispatcher. “If so, you need to turn in your taxi permit.”
Bajwa and about 30 other ARCA members from San Jose have visited the capitol repeatedly looking for a resolution for their case. Most had never been to Washington before. None had ever met a Congressperson, nor expected that their stories would become fodder for legislative action.
“Everyone believed in what we were doing. We knew that we had to stand together. And I saw our impact with my own eyes when we went to Washington. The politicians were debating our case right there in the Senate,” Manuel asserted.
The group keeps a proud collection of photographs documenting their struggle: South Asian and Latino ARCA members huddled under a blanket during a 24-hour fast outside of the Los Angeles INS building, dozens of members at a rally in Las Vegas, others crowding behind a podium as Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas) pledged to introduce a legislative proposal on their behalf.
“I’ve learned a lot about democracy through having it denied to me,” said Bajwa, beaming at the victory celebration. Members of ARCA managed to convince a broad spectrum of legislators on both sides of the aisle that their deep roots in the U.S. mattered more than a protracted legal battle over minor technicalities. They secured a promise from President Clinton that he would resolve the issue before leaving office. In late December, Congress passed the Legal Immigration and Family Equity Act (LIFE Act), which provides an opportunity for certain late amnesty applicants to apply for permanent residence. It also restores work permits to class action members, and grants protection from deportation and work authorization to their spouses and children.
INDIAN-LATINO ALLIANCES: A HISTORICAL TRADITION
This is not the first time that Indians and Mexicans have come together to forge a community. Some of the earliest South Asian settlers to the U.S. were Sikh men who landed on the West Coast in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Barred from owning land due to anti-Asian laws, many married Mexican women and forged a fusion culture that flourished in California’s Yuba City and Imperial Valley. Producing children with names like “Maria Singh” or “Jose Rai,” these “Mexidu” families have largely been forgotten as a new generation of immigrants has laid down roots.
However, some of the things that made those early communities cohesive—a sense of duty to family and religion, a love of chillies, mangoes, tamarind, and other common foods— have helped ARCA members to forge bonds today. Manuel asserted: “There are many things in common about how we live in Mexico and India, like our ways of selling things in public markets on the street. My Indian friends who have been to Mexico say it reminds them of life back home. Our cultures have respect for the family in common, especially respect for our elders.”
Manuel is convinced that the group’s ability to work together across lines of difference is at the root of its success. “Some Indians may have stereotypes about Mexicans,” he lamented. “For example, there are few doctors and engineers from Mexico working here in those professions. But that’s because wealthier people enjoy a better lifestyle in Mexico than they would here. Those of us that come work in jobs where we can earn four times more what we would in Mexico. Isn’t that why doctors and engineers come from India?”
ARCA member Grumk Singh Maude explained that stereotypes erode when people find themselves in the same boat. “When push comes to shove, that’s when people say we need to do something together to achieve it. One stick you break, a bundle of sticks you cannot.”
YEARS OF SEPARATION
The mainly Mexican and Indian ARCA members found that religion, language, or other divisions don’t seem to matter when it comes to sharing matters of the heart. In one exchange at the sweet shop, heads began to nod as members discussed their inability to travel abroad since their status was revoked.
“My elder son didn’t want to tell me about his heart condition because he knew I couldn’t go see him,” Bajwa sighed. “‘Oh Daddy, don’t worry,’ he told me. But I did.” Armed with an email printout from a hospital in Delhi, Bajwa tried to get special permission from the INS to leave despite the fact that his status had been revoked. “They didn’t even look at it. You can leave, but you have no grounds to re-enter, they told me. You are now illegal.”
Bajwa was also unable to attend another son’s wedding. “I told my son I would come for his wedding day. I tried again and again to get permission to go, but INS denied me. A father’s presence at his son’s wedding is a very big deal in our culture.” He plans to console himself with the video version expected in the mail from Haryana.
Manuel chimed in: “It’s been years since I’ve been able to see my parents. It’s ironic, because the INS doesn’t want immigrants to be here, yet they won’t let us go to our native countries to visit either.”
Building alliances has been a difficult process when tensions erupt between the immigrant groups, however. “Sometimes, the Latinos in the group felt like the Indians were giving priority to their own group, like their cases mattered more or had to come first. I guess it’s natural to look for your own people’s interests first,” Manuel explained.
Another divisive issue has been money. The Indians in the group wanted to take up a collection to pay for the expenses of travel, publicity, and other costs. But the Mexicans balked. Mexican member Rosa Romero explained: “In our culture, you don’t ask for money at a meeting, especially without giving a receipt. People in our community were reluctant to shell out any more of their wages for their cases, after they had been deceived so many times by ruthless immigration lawyers.”
The fact that very few Indian women participated in the group was sometimes alienating for Romero. “As one of the only women in the group, I sometimes felt alone. I would ask the Indians to bring their wives to the meetings, but it seemed that in their culture, they weren’t comfortable with that. But I certainly wasn’t going to wait for my husband to resolve my case. That’s why I would go to the meetings and endure the hunger strikes, sometimes me and 38 Punjabi men.”
And, despite Manuel and Bajwa’s diligent interpretation from Spanish to English to Punjabi and back again, language remained an issue. If there were a majority of Punjabis at a meeting, sometimes they would slip into the music of their own language and forget to interpret key points to the others. Some of the Spanish-speakers lost their patience and stopped coming to the meetings.
But these barriers have not weakened their resolve. ARCA members say they will keep fighting together until their cases—and those of other immigrants denied legal status—are settled. Manuel pointed out, “I know what we did together was important, because in three years we had been able to achieve much more than what we had been able to gain fighting in court for ten years. Even the President of the United States was involved. Before we began to fight for ourselves, no one cared about us.”
* Some names have been changed to protect privacy.
Sasha Khokha is Communications Director at the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, a national alliance of grassroots organizations based in Oakland, California.