When the city of Hamtramck in Michigan goes to the polls on August 3, Bangladeshi-American Rahima Begum will cast her vote for the first time in Bengali.
Rahima, 47, who lives in Hamtramck with her husband and two daughters is a limited English speaker like many in her Bangladeshi community. For years she struggled to understand the English-only election information that Hamtramck provided and relied on her daughters to translate the ballots when casting her vote.
Though Bengali is a minority language protected by Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, and designated for language assistance provision in Hamtramck since 2011, it took ten years and a lawsuit for Rahima to win the bilingual-language assistance that was rightfully hers.
Rahima was a plaintiff along with Detroit Action, a grassroots organization that advocates for marginalized communities, in a lawsuit filed by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) against the City of Hamtramck, over the failure of its former City Clerk to provide Bengali language information and assistance in compliance with the Voting Rights Act (VRA).
The complaint prompted a speedy resolution by Hamtramck City Council to provide Bengali language assistance for its Bengali-speaking electorate.
“It shouldn’t have to take a complaint to ensure people comply with a law that they have been subject to since 2011,” said Susana Lorenzo-Giguere, Senior Staff Attorney at AALDEF. In an interview she told India Currents that with the new decree in place, Rahima and other Bangladeshi voters in Hamtramck will now have access to translated ballots and Bengali-speaking poll workers in the upcoming primary elections.
The win was a relief for Rahima who told India Currents that many other Bengali speakers were unable to vote due to a language barrier. “I know first-hand how difficult it is to vote. Other Bengali speakers may not have children to rely on. I am confident that it will encourage more people to vote and participate in the democratic system.”
A formula to protect eligible immigrant voters
Hamtramck sits 5 miles from the center of Detroit. It is home to a diverse immigrant population from Yemen, Poland, and Eastern Europe, and reflects the changing face of America as immigrants make the country their home.
Over the last 20 years, more immigrants across the US are becoming eligible to vote – approximately one out of every ten eligible voters is an immigrant. A Pew study found that the immigrant electorate nearly doubled to 23.2 million since 2000.
But many of these voters have difficulty communicating in English. They need access to voting materials in their own language so they can cast informed votes. Section 203 of the VRA was implemented to ensure that eligible immigrant voters were not excluded from the voting process by their lack of English language skills.
According to the law, when 5% of voting-age citizens are limited-English proficient (LEP) in a jurisdiction, local election officials must provide election information in the minority language in order to help them participate in the voting process, and ensure equitable elections.
“The law has a numeric formula of 5% or 10,000 of voting-age citizens who are limited English speaking in a jurisdiction running elections, like Hamtramck,” explained Lorenzo-Giguere, “and Hamtramck met that formula.”
Bangladeshis, who make up 20% of the population in Hamtramck, made sure their voices were heard in the 2010 census.
“What local advocacy groups did in Hamtramck is that they mobilized to ensure everybody in the community filled out their census form and also to specifically write in “Bangladeshi” on their census form, not just check off Asian Indian,” said Lorenzo-Giguere.
“So that’s why the Director of the Census-designated Hamtramck for ballots in Bengali. Once that designation is made by the Census it isn’t reviewable, except if the next Census shows they no longer meet the formula. Under the law, Congress has decided that such cities that meet the formula must provide election materials and assistance in that language because that is what the community needs.”
Out of four jurisdictions designated for Asian Indian language assistance by Section 203 – (New Jersey (Middlesex), New York (Queens) and Illinois (Cook – Hamtramck is the only one covered for Bengali.
But Hamtramck’s former City Clerk made no such provision for its Bangladeshi community. The city had an English-only elections website for its English-speaking residents and did not offer Bengali ballots, or adequate numbers of Bengali-speaking poll workers or interpreters at its poll sites.
Race relations upend civic participation in Hamtramck
Even though Hamtramck holds the distinction of electing the first Muslim-majority city council in the history of the United States, and is recognized as Michigan’s most internationally diverse city with a foreign-born population that stands at 41.1%, underlying racism still divides the community.
“We’ve heard that certain city ordinances have been disproportionately enforced against the Bangladeshi and Yemeni residents,” said AALDEF. “The vast majority of people responding to citations – too much garbage in their garbage cans, or hedges being too high, or screened-in porches – are Bangladeshi and Yemeni.”
“Despite the fact that there were gains in the election of Yemeni and Bangladeshi City Council members, the white, non-Yemeni and non-Bangladeshi city council meeting attendees like the city clerk, city manager, city mayor, city attorney, and other city council members, still controlled the way the city and city elections were run,” said Lorenzo-Giguere.
Hamtramck’s public officials exhibited prejudicial behavior to thwart immigrants trying to engage in their civic duty.
“Live recorded meetings show that a white city council member told a Yemeni city council member to shut up. A couple of years ago that same white city council member was censured for physically assaulting a non-white city council member with whom he disagreed. Before that, he had made public comments that the City of Hamtramck was dirty because of its immigrant residents.”
“Although the election of Barack Obama as the first black President was historic, it didn’t mean that there’s no more racism in the United States,” said Lorenzo-Giguere, explaining why the city lagged in its compliance with Section 203.
Advocates described how discriminatory tactics derailed Hamtramck’s minority communities as they tried to navigate barriers to casting their vote.
When Bangladeshi voters turned to Bengali-speaking exit pollers (mostly high school volunteers) for assistance, white poll workers came out and called the police on the volunteer Bangladeshi exit pollers saying that they were intimidating voters.
“It’s quite frightening, I imagine, for high school volunteers who were there to help their community.”
Community leaders who tried to offer assistance incurred criminal liability while simply trying to help people.
“Limited English-speaking voters would not have needed help with their absentee ballots if Hamtramck had just complied with the law and provided Bengali ballots and assistance. The voters couldn’t know that asking a friend to bring their absentee ballot to the clerk’s office was possibly a crime because the notice was only in English.”
“There is tension between this idea of voter integrity and actual voting access,” said Lorenzo-Giguere. “Unbeknownst to them, they may be committing a crime. There is the appearance of committing fraud though that’s not their intention at all. It’s troubling the criminalization and weaponization that’s asserted when people are trying to vote or help others to vote.”
In October, before the last general election, Detroit Action reviewed a sample ballot and identified poorly made translations and other language inaccuracies. The former City Clerk confirmed that the sample ballot was the same as what was made available to voters as the official ballot.
Community groups like Detroit Action, Rising Voices, APIA Vote offered their assistance to recruit election workers, and to look at the translations, and they were declined.
“So in the face of all of those declined offers and for the voters who had problems because they didn’t have Bengali assistance at the polls, or Bengali ballots or materials, or a Bengali website to get election information, there was a clear violation,” said Lorenzo-Giguere, “and the effect was that it suppressed voters.”
In a statement, AALDEF confirmed it sent a letter to the former city clerk, August Gitschlag, alerting the City to specific violations under Section 203, ahead of its 2020 special election to fill the late Representative Isaac Robinson’s seat of Michigan’s 4th House District (including Hamtramck).
But Bengali speaking voters continued to be excluded from City’s 2020 primary and general election process despite 10 years of Section 203 coverage.
After a year without any response to specific notifications of Section 203 violations, AALDEF filed the lawsuit against the Hamtramck; the City resolved the complaint by agreeing to provide Bengali language information and assistance and convening an emergency meeting to approve the terms of a negotiated Consent Decree on June 30, 2021.
Hamtramck settles AALDEF lawsuit and agrees to provide Bengali Language Assistance
“This lawsuit was necessary to protect the voting rights of this growing population and to remove unnecessary barriers to engaging in our democracy,” said Branden Snyder, Executive Director of Detroit Action.
“We are pleased with the results. These are good community solutions which we hope can be replicated for other communities and in other cities, even where they aren’t required by the VRA.”
Going forward, the city of Hamtramck will comply with the Consent Decree for all future elections, and provide accurately translated election materials in Bengali, assign Bengali speaking bilingual poll workers and interpreters to its poll sites, and appoint a Bengali Elections Program Coordinator and an Advisory Group to advise its Bengali Elections Program.
“The right to vote is fundamental and cannot be taken away or restricted based on English language ability, said Sarah Prescott, partner at Salvatore Prescott Porter & Porter which served as pro bono co-counsel in this lawsuit with AALDEF; neither organization sought attorneys’ fees for their work.
“With this Consent Decree, Bangladeshi American voters achieved progress toward equality at the polls,” said Lorenzo-Giguere. “It is an expenditure that has to be made in order to comply with the law. And if the result is that hundreds of citizens can understand and participate in the voting process, then it’s worth it.
Lorenzo-Giguere applauded Rahima’s role in the outcome. “We’re hopeful that this lawsuit, thanks to Rahima’s bravery, will make a difference.”
In the primaries coming up, Rahima can vote in Bengali to elect Hamtramck’s next mayor and council members from a slate of minority candidates.
Rahima’s daughter Farhana is proud of her mother. “I remember when I first told her about the lawsuit she was very nervous. She is a housewife, and this is the first time she got to do something big.”
“Her smile when I first told her she had won she said, oh my goodness I helped with that.”
“Sometimes when you are afraid, take a step forward. Big change can happen.”
Contact AALDEF to find out more about protecting Asian American civil rights.
Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents