Tag Archives: immigration

Policies of Exclusion

“If they’re illegal, they don’t deserve to stay.” 

My mouth dropped as I heard these words from one of my relatives, an immigrant himself. 

My family emigrated to the United States from India about 30 years ago. They were fortunate enough to have been able to stay. 

Over the past couple of weeks, the fault lines in the American immigration system have begun to show themselves. The Trump administration’s fickle policies have been of concern to international students, many from South Asian countries. One week, they’re banned from entry into the U.S. without enrollment in a live class, and the next they’re allowed again.  

 As my relative and I kept arguing, I realized the flaw in his thinking.

 He viewed immigration as a meritocracy. He worked meticulously, and he was rewarded with a visa. Those who didn’t get a visa simply didn’t try hard enough. 

The reality of legal Indian immigration is more complicated than my family member suggested, mired in government regulation. Immigration policy has allowed the state to use and exploit Indian immigrants by capitalizing on the community’s financial success but restricting future entries into this country. Today, Indians are the quickest growing undocumented population in the U.S. Between 2009 and 2014, there was a 43% jump in the number of undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. from India.

It’s a miscalculation of economics. Studies show that immigrants grow the economy, but are still being turned away. In order to address this issue, there must be a shift in American policymaking. 

In the latter half of the 1900s, a series of immigration policies opened the doors for more immigrants to enter and stay in the U.S., owing fully to the history of the civil rights movement. After the decades-long fight of black activists, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed. During this period, there was mounting political pressure to abolish racial quotas and discriminatory policies in the U.S. federal system.

This long-standing work culminated in the 1965 Hart-Celler Act, which abolished exclusions based on national origin. Following this, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1990 expanded visas for skilled workers, focusing on boosting immigrants with technical talent. Technology companies voraciously hired Indian workers, who had the requisite education and were cheaper than hiring locally. South Asian immigrants were able to get access to U.S. visas due to the historical organizing by our black brothers and sisters. 

Today, Indian-Americans are viewed as the “model minority.” This label affixed to Asian immigrants is born out of deeply anti-black sentiment. In lauding the “model minority,” the white establishment has created divisions among racial groups. Insidious parallels have been drawn between Asian immigrants and black folks in this country. Being the “model minority” implies that other minority groups have to follow suit, despite their systematic oppression and the lasting impacts of slavery. Indian Americans have reaped benefits at the expense of black folks. 

Our struggle should be viewed as a collective one, in solidarity with other groups of color rather than against them. 

While there is collective anger for the policies against international students, little is being discussed with regards to ICE’s human rights abuses. Migrant children are separated from their parents at the border. Immigrants are viewed as disposable because of their status. 

President Trump has now spun a narrative that immigrants harm the economy by stealing American jobs. The praises that Indian immigrants once received have now soured, mired by collectively mobilized hatred, stemming from misguided economic calculus. We are left in a grey area: Trump poses for pictures with Prime Minister Modi for Indian-American campaign donations while simultaneously denying entry for families of those same, coveted donors.

While America has capitalized on the financial success of this group, there are over 300,000 Indians still waiting for family-sponsored green cards. Today, it is much tougher for a highly educated Indian person to obtain an H1-B visa to move to the U.S. If my family wanted to leave India today, they probably wouldn’t be able to make it. 

Immigrants should no longer be viewed as use-and-throw seals in the leaking pipe of the American economy. Policy should not just favor immigrants when there is a gap in our labor force since there are more economic benefits to immigrants than just industry-specific work. 

The solution might answer my relative’s insensitive questions. We must make legal immigration easier for those seeking a better life in America. It is imperative to increase ceilings on visas to incorporate more than merely corporate-sponsored candidates. 

The key to this solution is consistency. Immigration quotas should not fluctuate drastically. We must welcome immigrants instead of adopting policies that disenfranchise them.  

While it might be easy to buy into rhetoric that immigrants take away from the opportunities of Americans, it is important to recognize that there is no roof on economic advancement. Immigrants, through entrepreneurship and population growth, actually create opportunity for all Americans. We cannot let powerful language guide bad policy. 

It’s our duty to understand why folks of color have made America great. It’s time to be open, with our minds and our borders.

Swathi Ramprasad is a junior at Duke University studying Public Policy and Computer Science. She hopes to continue to learn through the lens of her Indian-American heritage.

Featured image by Jonathan McIntosh and license can be found here.

An Accomplished Poetic Life

A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language.

– W. H. Auden

In reading 16-year-old Uma Menon’s debut collection of poetry, it is obvious that W. H. Auden was speaking about her. For that matter, the fact that the author is a teen should not make the reader shy away from her work and chalk up the 96-page volume of poetry to rhymey-rhymes or hip-hop repetition.

On the contrary, Menon’s poems are as well crafted as those written by one twice her age with an equally-impressive and diverse backlog of publication. An exploration of what it means to be a young woman of color in America, Hands for Language is a deep dive into the joys, sorrows, and challenges met by straddling the white world and the land of her birth.

Comprised of 55 tightly-crafted free verse poems, Hands for Language is presented in four parts. Finding, losing, and keeping one’s language is the common thread of the collection.

Part One: Birth primarily moves from her childhood living in India through just after immigrating to the United States. She reflects on her early life in 11 poems, including “citizenship,” “birthdays,” “origin story,” and “at the intersection of the land & sea.”

Part Two: Discovery embraces language and the search for meaning, understanding, and communication while discussing the need to juggle her native Malayalam and the English of her new land. The 14 titles that make up this section include “spoken language,” “i forget,” “the world lies between her two eyes,” and “dictionary: tanpura.”

Part Three: Becoming examines “how to become a beautiful second-language poet,” “portrait of my tongue as a battleground,” “Ode to Debate / Sometimes, After Junior Year,” and “Orphan Tongues.” 

Part Four: Rebellion includes 16 poems, including titles such as “revolution in my mind,” “border violence,” “Hand in Mouth,” and “independence.”

Language is the foundation of the collection, but Menon also centers on family: her mother, grandmother, uncle, and traditions they have taught her. As an activist, Menon expresses pointed concerns about hot-button topics such as immigration, current events, gender, nature, and climate change. She is as punctilious in her language as to make the reader forget her age but not her love of language a weapon against injustice.

An accomplished young woman, her writing has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. This debut collection was shortlisted for the 2019 International Erbacce Prize. Alongside her many literary achievements, Menon is a social justice advocate, a nationally ranked debater, and the first Youth Fellow for the International Human Rights Art Festival. As a member of the high school Class of 2020, Menon graduated as valedictorian from Winter Park High School’s (Florida) International Baccalaureate Program, and she plans to continue her education this fall at Princeton University.

Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in both Carolinas where she is a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine/American Library Association and a member of WCPE-FM The Classical Station’s Music Education Fund committee. She is working on an assortment of fiction projects. 

Public Charge Can Affect Your Benefits

Punishing Low-Income Immigrants With The Recent Changes To Public Charge

Our federal immigration laws have long been controversial. However, within the past few years, there have been numerous contentious changes to immigration law as part of the federal administration’s clampdown on immigration. One insidious change, in particular, has been to the public charge rule.

Public charge is an immigration rule that federal authorities use to decide whether certain immigrants will be a financial burden on the government. Because of public charge, some immigrants worry that their immigration status can be negatively impacted by getting certain public benefits from the government. 

Along with the recent rule change, there has also been an unfortunate amount of misinformation and fear in the community about public charge. There has been a chilling effect with immigrant families, including those not actually subject to the public charge rule, with many choosing to disenroll or to not enroll for public benefits to avoid jeopardizing their immigration status. 

Our communities need to fight misinformation with knowledge, and fear with power. To do that, we must all remember that public charge does not apply to all immigrants and it does not apply to all public benefits. 

What Exactly Is Public Charge?

The public charge rule applies when a non-citizen seeks to enter the U.S. or to adjust to lawful permanent resident status (ie. apply for a green card). It does not apply to U.S. citizens and it does not apply to many types of immigrants. Legal permanent residents with green cards already should not be impacted by public charge unless they travel outside of the United States for six months or longer and then return.

In addition, public charge does not apply to asylees, refugees, Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) applicants, people who have or are applying for U-visas as victims of crime, T-visas for human trafficking survivors, special immigrant juveniles (SIJS) and other immigrants with certain types of humanitarian immigration statuses.

The public charge test looks at a totality of the circumstances and weighs many factors to decide if an immigrant will be a public charge. This includes looking at someone’s age, health, family size, education, skills, and whether the immigrant has an affidavit of support. The receipt of certain types of public benefits by the applicant directly is only one factor in this test.

Traditionally, public benefits that count towards public charge include those that provide cash assistance, like Supplemental Security Income (SSI), CalWORKs, General Assistance, and long-term institutional care at government expense.

However, under recent changes to public charge, the federal government has expanded the list of public benefits impacted for green card applications filed on or after February 24, 2020. The new rule looks at whether or not an immigrant receives one or more certain public benefits “for more than 12 months in the aggregate within any 36-month period (such that, for instance, receipt of two benefits in one month counts as two months).” The rule is not retroactive, so applications filed before February 24, 2020 will be considered under the old rule that claimed only cash assistance and long-term institutional care at government expense.

In addition to cash aid and long-term institutional care at government expense, the new post-February 24, 2020 public charge rule now will also include federally funded Medi-Cal (with exceptions for state-funded Medi-Cal, emergency services, children under 21, pregnant women, new mothers and COVID-19 related care), federally-funded CalFresh, federal public housing, Section 8 vouchers and project-based Section 8. Although these public benefits programs have been added to the new public charge rule, most immigrants who face a public charge test don’t get the benefits that could be potentially problematic for public charge. Public charge also only considers whether or not the immigrant applying for a green card directly receives one of the impacted public benefits, not other family or household members.

Conversely, this also means that other public benefits and assistance programs will not have a public charge impact. This includes exceptions to Medi-Cal like emergency Medi-Cal, pregnancy Medi-Cal, state-funded Medi-Cal (like for undocumented youth 21-26), Medi-Cal for children up to age 21. This also includes other programs like California Food Assistance Program (CFAP), Women, Infants and Children (WIC),  Social Security retirement, Medicare, unemployment insurance benefits (UIB), school meal programs, earned income and child tax credits, crime victim compensation, energy assistance programs, disaster relief programs and non-cash assistance state/local programs. For COVID-19 specifically, testing, treatment, and preventative care (including a potential future vaccine) will not count towards public charge.

It’s Okay To Ask Questions and Seek Help

Public charge does not apply to all immigrants or to all public benefits. Immigrants should continue to seek the public benefits and care they need to keep themselves and their families safe during this difficult time. Especially with the COVID-19 pandemic still causing havoc, receiving proper health care, including through Medi-Cal, is more important now than ever. However, everyone’s situation is different and you should speak to an attorney qualified in both immigration and public benefits law if you are concerned about a potential public charge impact for you or your family.

Together, we can fight the fear and misinformation around public charge, empower our communities, and counter the chilling effect impacting so many low-income and immigrant families.

Nghi Huynh is a staff attorney with the Asian Law Alliance, a nonprofit community law office that has served the low-income and AAPI community of Santa Clara County for over 42 years. 

Immigration in Limbo, H-1B Holders File Patents

In this pandemic epoch of coronavirus, our H-1B workers respond to the national emergency. Around 3,310 biochemists and other scientists have worked together to develop a coronavirus vaccine through the H-1B program. 

Reflect and ponder. How can you imagine an America without them?

The proportion of H-1B workers to American companies has doubled its production rate due to workers’ ability to create new products and replace outdated ones. The product reallocation grows more revenue as a result.

However, the H-1B program is limited by immigration policies such as the H-1B visa lottery and the “Buy American, Hire American” policy. This cynical atmosphere of embracing diversity leads to difficulties in patenting an invention. HB-1 workers are leading the nation to promote mass scientific innovations. Yet, they have difficulties in filing patents caused by political and economic changes. 

Who are H-1B Visa Holders?

H1-B Visa Holders are immigrants who work in the United States under a “specialty occupation.” As provided by law, a person is required to have a minimum educational level of a bachelor’s degree or equivalent. 

H-1B employees can work for no more than six years. If an employee was contracted for less than six months or if an employee successfully obtained a Green Card, then the six-year limit does not apply.

Recent statistics show that H-1B workers occupy nearly two-thirds of STEM professions.

H-1B visa lottery has affected the status of immigrant workers

On March 31st, 2020 the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) revealed that significant numbers of H-1B visa applications were denied due to a system glitch.

USCIS has not yet offered a remedy. It becomes clear that the H-1B lottery fails to provide an alternative system, affecting the livelihood of foreign applicants and beneficiaries.

President Trump’s “Buy America, Hire American” policy has added a burden to the status quo

The tightened policy ordered the Department of Homeland Security to issue H-1B visas to only the most-skilled or highest-paid workers. As a result, USCIS has increased H-1B visa denials and the number of Requests for Evidence to H-1B applicants.

Due to this immigrant policy shift, thousands of companies have lost their foreign employees.

Today, Indian Americans have experienced unfortunate situations due to their H-1B visa status – many have had their visas denied and are left unemployed.

H-1B workers are given a 60 days period to find another job. 

There is no guarantee that they can be hired in a fast and demanding environment. Unemployed H-1B workers have difficulty obtaining visas, making them an illegal resident in the U.S. As the government limits their potential economic contributions, the H-1B visa holders’ chances of patenting an invention become complex and bureaucratic.

Importance of a Patent Attorney

H1-B workers are leading the overall innovation in the American economy. 

Immigrant workers have contributed to designing machines, developing software applications, proposing business methods, and improving healthcare. 

The inventions of H-1B workers should be safeguarded in terms of its ownership, exclusive rights, and competitive advantage by hiring a patent attorney. 

For valuable reasons, hiring a patent attorney helps an H-1B worker in providing legal advice on how to get a patent, conducting a prior art search for marketability, and patentability of an invention, performing patent infringement, securing an economical patent cost, and litigating future cases in the proper court. 

J.D. Houvener, a San Francisco Patent Attorney, emphasizes the substantial need of hiring a patent attorney:

“In filing a patent application, always consider the professional guidance of a patent attorney. A patent attorney provides a clear understanding of a Patent Law and the complex process of a patent process. By hiring a patent attorney, you get things done right and give you the best benefit you need.”


The difficulties of filing patents as an H-1B visa holder, perhaps, are a call to amend these policies for the permanence and stability of our immigrant workers.

To make America successful, the government should uncap the number of H-1B visas and liberalize the security of getting green cards for immigrant workers. If the administration won’t make a move, great scientific innovations will be at stake.

As immigration policies might have tightened the rope of filing a patent, a patent attorney is always ready to lose the tension in the hopes of innovation and invention.

Rei Lantion is a graduate from Ateneo de Manila University and is an aspiring IP attorney. Professionally, she has a great deal of experience in writing, editing in patent law, working one-on-one with patent attorneys. When she’s not writing she loves playing D&D with her dog Oreo.

A Legacy That Belongs to All of Us

For years, Asian-Americans donned a cultural Invisibility cloak before Western audiences. And although undiscovered, their stories have unfolded silently and beautifully from generation to generation. That’s why the five-part documentary series, Asian Americans, created by an all-Asian American team of filmmakers, plays such a critical role in chronicling the immigrant experience. 

Narrated by Daniel Dae Kim and Tamlyn Tomita, Asian Americans strings together the stories of the many struggles for freedom – from the Japanese incarcerations during World War II to anti-Asian immigration laws. The storytelling, accompanied by the power of the documentary’s visual component, delivers a poignant narrative about what it means to belong to a country unconditionally, in the face of both adversity and animosity. Asian Americans features interviews with some of our community’s most celebrated individuals, such as Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen, Chinese-American journalist Helen Zia, academic expert Erika Lee,  and Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu. Their stories highlight the difficulty in navigating identity between two dichotomous cultures. 

The trailer for Asian Americans ends with the words, “and their legacy belongs to all of us!” As I reflect on my own experience as Indian-American, I realize how much I identify with these words. So many trailblazers have carved out a voice for our community — and PBS’s Asian Americans gives them the credit they rightfully deserve. 

While the documentary is impactful on its own, its content becomes more topical against the backdrop of a global pandemic. The current coronavirus outbreak marks an alarming rise in anti-Asian sentiment and xenophobic paranoia. According to a poll conducted in New York, residents have reported roughly 248 cases of racial prejudice since January. 1600 hundred attacks have been reported nationwide — a number which can only be an undercount, due to the shame and fear that contributes to such attacks. Divisive language surrounding this situation, such as calling COVID-19 “the Chinese virus” or “the Wuhan virus” turn Asian-Americans into a convenient scapegoat for unprecedented circumstances. Social media platforms document shocking tales of bigoted attacks against law-abiding Asian Americans, such as a video of two girls at Garden Grove’s Bolsda Grande High “screaming ‘coronavirus’ at Asian American students”. COVID-19’s impact on race relations is not making national headlines because of its novelty. Rather, it’s only chillingly familiar for the Asian American community.

Virtual Town Hall hosted by the Center for Asian American Media.

In a virtual Town Hall hosted by the Center for Asian American Media, producers and members of this documentary discussed what it means to be of Asian descent during an international crisis. Some of the panelists included Viet Thanh Nguyen, Amna Nawaz, Hari Kondabolu, and more. And in a critical segment of this Town Hall, the panelists pointed out how coronavirus fears play into America’s history of race-based discrimination. It was only one generation ago, for instance, that Chinese-American draftsman Vincent Chin was beaten to death by two white men in Wayne County, Detroit. While Chin’s assailants were originally charged with second-degree murder, their only punishment was $3,000 dollars and no jail time. “It reminded Asian-Americans that progress hadn’t really been made.” 

Today, every voice in the United States has the opportunity to change our country’s cycle of systematic abuse. Rather than using a national tragedy to fuel dangerous and divisive rhetoric, we have the chance to truly move forward. And Asian Americans represent that effort towards a liberated future for the next generation of immigrants. “As much as tragedy is a part of our heritage here, so is possibility.”

The documentary premieres Money and Tuesday, May 11 & 12, 2020 at 8pm on PBS. To watch the trailer, click here! 

To find out more about the Digital Town Hall, watch a recording of the panel here.

Kanchan Naik is a junior at The Quarry Lane School in Dublin, CA. Aside from being a Youth Editor for India Currents, she is the Editor-in-Chief of her school’s news-zine The Roar. She is also the Teen Poet Laureate of Pleasanton and uses her role to spread a love of poetry in her community.

New Leadership at SAALT

SAALT recently announced the appointment of new Executive Director Lakshmi Sridaran who previously led SAALT’s policy and legislative agenda for four years. Simran Noor, an expert in philanthropy, movement building, and organizational development will now serve as  SAALT’s new Board Chair.

Lakshmi Sridaran comes to the Executive Director role at SAALT with 15 years of experience working in nonprofits. She holds a Masters degree in City Planning from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a B.A. in Ethnic Studies from The University of California, Berkeley.

“I am grateful for the opportunity to lead SAALT after being grounded in our communities and the issues we confront during the last five years. I look forward to helping strengthen our movement and shift narratives within and about South Asian American communities,” said Lakshmi.  

 As SAALT’s Interim Executive Director in the past year, she played a crucial role managing the organization’s operations and infrastructure while simultaneously leading on policy and campaigns. 

Before that Lakshmi served as Director of National Policy and Advocacy at SAALT on core issues including immigration, racial profiling, and combating hate violence at the federal level. During this time she worked with national and regional partners including the National Coalition of South Asian Organizations to build movements for justice across communities of color.  Lakshmi expanded the scope of SAALT’s coalition partners at the local and national levels, and facilitated more influence for South Asian American communities on Capitol Hill.

Before joining SAALT, Lakshmi served as the Policy Director for The Praxis Project, a national organization focused on health justice in communities of color. Prior to that, Lakshmi spent six years in New Orleans working with directly impacted communities on recovery and economic justice issues immediately after Hurricane Katrina.

Simran Noor currently runs her own strategy firm and works with organizations to institute processes and programs to achieve racial equity. She has over a decade of experience working in the public policy and nonprofit worlds to advance racial, social and economic justice. She’s a past Race Forward fellow and served as Vice President for Policy and Programs for the Center for Social Inclusion. Simran holds a bachelor’s degree in American Studies and Political Science from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and a master’s degree in Public Administration and Social Policy from the University of Pennsylvania. She has served on the SAALT Board since 2017. 

“I couldn’t be more excited to support Lakshmi and SAALT in the coming years. We look forward to continuing to position SAALT to be a national leader in visibilizing the issues faced by South Asian communities and working with awesome local and national partners to create more power and justice,” said Simran. 

SAALT, a national, non-profit organization that fights for racial justice and advocates for the civil rights of all South Asians in the US, will celebrate its 20 anniversary in 2020.


Proposed Public Charge Rule Change, Tied Up in Court, Has Huge Chilling Effect on Immigrants

Federal courts have temporarily blocked the public charge rule change from going into effect, but its chilling effects continue to reverberate. The number of immigrants who, fearing the consequences of the rule change, have taken or plan to take steps to drop out of public services for which they are eligible far exceeds the actual number who would be at risk if the rule ever goes into effect, research data show.

A May study by the Urban Institute found of adults in immigrant families almost 14%  reported that they or another adult family member had dropped benefits or skipped applying for them,  even on behalf of a child, rather than take on the perceived risk of exposure to new rules. Among low-income families, that number rose to more than 20%, the study found. Programs they shied away from include: SNAP (food stamps) CHIP (children’s health insurance), and Section 8 and other types of housing assistance.

Nationwide, the families of 22.7 million people’s families include immigrants who could potentially fall victim to the chilling effect created by fear of public charge rules changes.

The proposed rule change was due to take effect Oct. 15 this year until four different federal courts all ruled to block it and issued injunctions against implementing it.

But long before, as word of the proposed rule change began leaking out ahead of its October 2018 announcement, millions of people feared being caught in its clutches and avoided using government programs intended to help them and their families lead healthier, more successful lives.

Nationwide, said Randy Capps of the Migration Policy Institute, “So few noncitizens are eligible for the safety net programs covered by the rule that those who would be affected is estimated to be in the low tens of thousands,” not millions, as cited incorrectly by both officials and the news media. 

A Michigan government study found that “of 86,298 noncitizen legal immigrants receiving public assistance from the state health department, only 611 may find a tougher path to legal permanent residency if they continue receiving public benefits.” That’s less than 1%.

For those already in the United States, the category of people who most need to be cautious about public charge rules aren’t those receiving benefits, but those who plan to travel beyond U.S. borders.

“If I had one message for every immigrant in America I would say, ‘Look, if you’re a green card holder, don’t leave for more than 180 days,’” said former Obama administration official Doug Rand, a co-founder of Boundless.com. 

The public charge rules, even if toughened as proposed, simply don’t apply to many people already in the country. Not to asylum seekers or refugees, citizens or those applying for citizenship, nor DACA, or those with green cards. Use of benefits by family members and past use of benefits also is irrelevant, even under the proposed tougher rules.

“The list of programs now considered in the public charge test is more limited than it seems at first blush,” Sara Feldman of the National Immigration Law Center said. “The impact will mostly be restricted to use of food stamps, housing subsidies and cash assistance. While Medicaid is included, there are so many exceptions in the rule that few people enrolled in the program would be impacted.”

“And use of public benefits is only one factor considered when determining who gets a green card,” Feldman added. “Immigration officials also take income, health condition, English proficiency, and other factors into account.”

The people who have most fallen victim to public charge rules are those applying to come to the United States. Since 2016, the State Department has cited public charge issues more aggressively. Visa denials on public charge grounds jumped from 1,000 in 2016 to 12,000 in 2018 at U.S. consulates around the world.

But half of those denials already have been overturned, and more may be overturned as the time-consuming appeal process continues, the Migration Policy Institute’s Jeanne Batalova pointed out at a telebriefing co-sponsored by Ethnic Media Services, the Immigrant Legal Resource Center and the National Immigration Law Center.

“The brutal irony is that people are still disenrolling from public benefits when they don’t have to,” Rand said.

Mark Greenberg, senior fellow at the Migration Policy institute, told Ethnic Media Services in a phone interview after the telebriefing that “It’s very unclear what problem the administration thought it was going to solve, because Congress had already agreed 20 years ago to public charge-based restrictions,”  

 “The number of people who would be denied adjustment of status based on benefit use would be low because they aren’t eligible (for those benefits),” he said, far fewer than the number feeling the effect of the proposed rule change while it wends its way through the courts.

Seeing Refugees in a New Light

Refugees or “disadvantaged people” weren’t new terms for me. Growing up in India, I was exposed to families in such vulnerable states. Throughout my childhood, I was well aware of people who were not living in the best circumstances.

There were multiple times I heard the word “refugee” on T.V but didn’t make much sense of it. My young mind was convinced that refugees were a threat to our country due to the media influencing me to think of them in a certain way. Posters of young kids. Weak, depressed and haggard.

But not too long ago, I attended an Urban Camp  conducted by the Brotherhood of St Laurence. This not-for-profit organization- helps new refugees settle in our country and provides them with the necessities of life. We met families that had fled their countries or had a tough background. We helped young kids with their homework and prepared breakfast for elders.

Growing up in such a privileged house-hold, I had a very harsh perception of refugees and was quite nervous about interacting with them. But the people I met at the camp were the exact opposite. They were provided a housing complex  and their kids attended a proper school nearby. During the camp, I had forgotten that they were ‘refugees’ but rather people who immigrated to another country, like my family and I had done eight years ago. Their lives were very similar to ours.

I remember seeing some people who carried massive bags that contained all their belongings and often jumped to conclusions. When in fact, they weren’t sure of where they would be spending the night. They had to carry all their belongings with them in case they decided to stay overnight on the streets or someone’s  home. It never really occurred to me how brutal some people’s lives can be. Their parents were constantly working to earn money just so they can provide enough for their family. Our guide had told us that wealth was defined by the number of things you carry when you leave the house. For example, if you carry only your wallet or a purse with money and other smaller necessities you would be considered a person of a higher class, but if you had to carry all your belongings and other necessities you would be considered to be part of the lower class.

Before I met some of the families living in this condition, I always thought that they would be miserable or mournful due to the complications that they were facing. However, they were content with their lives and enjoyed every small thing they were given. It made me realize that I took many things in my life for granted.

The kids around us were always so happy and adored our company. We constantly played with them and offered them piggyback rides, even though our backs would ache at the end of the day. But we felt rather gratified when we made them smile.

Siya is an enthusiastic 16 year old from Australia who is currently in Year 10 at Melbourne Girls Grammar School, Melbourne. She loves playing the violin, basketball and catching up on sleep; can cook a mean pasta and spends her free time watching Bollywood movies.

Go Back to Your Country!

Lunchtime at the intersection of Third and Geary in downtown San Francisco is a concerto of movement. Cars, pedestrians, bicyclists, strollers, bags, carts, pets perform a score as they make their way through narrow passageways that open and snap to shapes and bodies. Generally, all things great and small keep to the rhythm of the red, green and yellow lights.

We broke that rhythm one day.

It was 1993. I had been living in America since 1988 and the newness of my American skin had just about begun to recede. I no longer looked around curiously. I no longer answered hesitantly. The country I grew up in, India, was no longer dominantly inhabiting my thoughts. I was now a citizen of the world. What I saw others seeing in me was a person from another land, different in many ways, and alike in many too. What I saw in others were people like me who’d grown up unlike me.

So, it didn’t register that people were looking at me curiously, hesitantly.

My husband and I were meeting friends for lunch, and my husband was driving. It might have been Whitney Houston or Kishore Kumar who was crooning over the car speakers as we both hummed along. The light turned yellow and he distractedly kept the forward momentum going. And then the light turned red. We were caught with the nose of our car a foot or so into the pedestrian walkway.

Trapped, we looked out as folks converged on us from both sides of the walkway. One or two people glared at us as they made their way across. Most ignored us. But as we watched, a man on roller blades stopped directly in front of us. He pressed his hands down on the hood of the car and banged once, twice, three times, hard and then harder with his fist, shaking the car, and then, looking directly at us, he yelled, “Go back to your country.” He paused, waiting for it to register before he turned and continued on.

Whitney Houston or Kishore Kumar continued singing, but we had stopped humming. The lights changed and we drove on.

1993 was the first time I was told to “go back to my country.” Since then I’ve received the words in a Target Health and Beauty aisle; while leisurely walking into Le Boulanger cafe with my nine year-old twin daughters chattering away beside me; and on several occasions in response to articles I’ve written. It was only the time with my twins that it scored painfully, for the deliverer of the message could hear my children babbling in their American accents, wearing their American clothes, and carrying their American books.

Those words should not really hurt, though. The strangers who uttered the words were angry, yes, but it was a careless, vaguely defined anger at their loss of momentum. They didn’t know enough about me, what I stood for, how long I’d been sharing their country, or for that matter, which country I came from for their anger to have much depth.

Their anger was not directed at me, but the idea of me—a non-white, non-native, un-American looking person competing for scant resources. For them, the words “going back …” were neither compensable nor redemptive. It merely seized the inconvenience of the moment and illuminated a shallow-seated aggravation, rooted in history and circumstance.

The notion of going back, it seems to me, demands a commitment to turn back time and space, both emotional and geographical; to return what is gained and to prevent further acquisition. It doesn’t matter that what I have gained has not come from someone else’s immediate loss.

Being told to go back gave me pause, each time, then and now. The words reflect how people place a value on me, my body, and my ideas. This value is inherently transient, for all three can be devalued instantly if I, my body or my ideas are not congruent with them, their bodies or their ideas.

My children and I never talked about the incident that occurred eleven years ago at Le Boulanger. At the time, it could be that they brushed it away as a rant, or they buried it because they could see that it disturbed me, or that they couldn’t understand what was said for they had never known any country other than the one they lived in.

I didn’t address the subject even in the years since because I wanted my children to process the words “going back to your country” without my own aspirational interpretations. Their belief in their belonging to America is something that they own. This ownership shouldn’t need affirmation or confirmation. They were born into this relationship between personhood and citizenship.

Yet I believe that they must prepare for the questions and comments. And if they lose some of their agency because of these questions or comments, it is only because they doubt who they are and where they’ve lived. Yes, we do own our spaces, though often we cannot choose our neighbors. We cannot control what others say, how they say it, or where they say it, so we must learn to regulate how much we allow it to affect us.

Jaya Padmanabhan was the editor of India Currents from 2012-16. She is the author of the collection of short stories, Transactions of Belonging.

Young Indian Girl Dies While Crossing Border

Did you hear of the death of 6-year-old Gurupreet Kaur?

Gurupreet’s body was found by U.S. Border Patrol agents in a remote desert outside the Lukeville, Arizona point of entry on Wednesday, June 12th, just days before her seventh birthday.

She died of heat stroke in the Arizona desert where temperatures were 108 degrees Fahrenheit, according to U.S. Border Patrol and the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner (PCOME).

Gurupreet and her mother were reportedly among a group of five Indian nationals who were dropped off by migrant traffickers in a remote area on the U.S.-Mexico border. Her mother and another woman went in search of water, leaving Gurupreet with two others from the group. Gurupreet’s mother was found by a U.S. Border Patrol agent 22 hours later. Four hours after that, Border Patrol agents found Gurupreet’s body.

Seven migrant children have died in immigration custody since last year. Hundreds more have died close to ports of entry while attempting to make the perilous journey through the desert along the U.S.-Mexico border.

South Asian Americans Leading Together SAALT is sending a letter of inquiry to Customs and Border Protection Commissioner, Kevin K. McAleenan this week, demanding an investigation into Gurupreet’s death and information about her mother and the other migrants in their group.

As U.S. Customs and Border Protection has escalated border enforcement and aggressively turned away migrants attempting to cross at ports of entry, deaths have continued to mount. Migrants are forced right back into the dangerous conditions that CBP and other federal agencies often blame on migrant traffickers and smugglers.

Lakshmi Sridaran, Interim Co-Executive Director of SAALT said, “U.S. border militarization, forced migration, and rejection of migrants attempting to cross at ports of entry have created an environment where a child like Gurupreet, can die in the desert, alone. Until this system is completely defunded and a new one is created that upholds the dignity of all migrants – we will continue to see unspeakable tragedies, not withstanding the countless deaths that go undocumented. While ICE and CBP have experienced unprecedented surges in their budgets, their treatment of migrants has plunged to new lows. ”

SAALT has been tracking both the rise in the number of South Asians crossing the border over the last 5 years and their treatment in detention facilities. Between October 2014 and April 2018, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) arrested over 17,000 South Asians.

Of the South Asians who end up in detention facilities, SAALT has tracked a pattern of abuse including inadequate language access, lack of religious accommodations, medical neglect, use of solitary confinement, and unacceptably high bond amounts.

We urge our communities to stay engaged and active on this urgent issue.

Stay updated and active by following our updates and action alerts on Twitter (SAALTweets) and Facebook (facebook.com/talktosaalt).

You can also support by donating to these organizations that provide immediate assistance:

  • The Fronterizo Fianza Fund is a community bond (fianza) fund based in El Paso and serving Far West Texas and New Mexico. Many detained migrants have no chance to be released while they wait the months or years until their trial. When someone does receive a bond, they are often way out of reach for most families, ranging anywhere from $1,500-50,000.
  • The Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project is the only organization in Arizona that provides free legal and social services to detained men, women, and children under threat of deportation.
  • The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) promotes justice by providing free and low-cost legal services to underserved immigrant children, families and refugees in Central and South Texas.

Rina Banerjee: Make Me a Summary of the World

May 16–October 6


This story was sent to us and Co-organized by San José Museum of Art (SJMA) and Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA)

Organized by Lauren Schell Dickens, curator, SJMA and Jodi Throckmorton, curator, PAFA

Rina Banerjee: Make Me a Summary of the World is the first mid-career retrospective of the artist’s work. The exhibition presents almost twenty years of Banerjee’s large-scale installations, sculptures, and paintings—including a re-creation of her work from the 2000 Whitney Biennial; sculptures featured in the 2017 Venice Biennale; and recent work for the Prospect 4 New Orleans biennial.

Rina Banerjee (b. 1963 in Calcutta, India) grew up in London and eventually moved to New York. While the visual culture that she experienced as a child in India greatly influences her aesthetic,  her immigration to the UK and her love of the diverse culture of her current home, New York City, form the core of her practice. Banerjee creates vivid sculptures and installations made from materials sourced throughout the world. She is a voracious gatherer of objects—in a single sculpture one can find African tribal jewelry, colorful feathers, light bulbs, Murano glass, and South Asian antiques in conflict and conversation with one another. These sensuous assemblages reverberate with bright colors and surprising textures present simultaneously as familiar and unfamiliar.

Amidst a progressively factious turn toward nativist politics in the United States, Banerjee relentlessly creates work that reflects the splintered experience of identity, tradition, and culture often prevalent in diasporic communities. Significantly, her career as an artist, beginning in the late 1990s, parallels the expansion of the global art world, the Internet, and the repeated rise and fall of “identity politics” in art.  Though Banerjee is one of the most important artists of the post-colonial Indian diaspora living in the United States, and her work has consistently gained visibility internationally (especially in Asia and Europe), she remains relatively unknown to U.S. museum audiences.

Rina Banerjee: Make Me a Summary of the World focuses on four interdependent themes in Banerjee’s work that coincide with important issues of our time: immigration and identity; the lasting effects of colonialism and its relationship to globalization; feminism; and climate change.


A full-color, ca. 160-page catalogue was published in conjunction with the exhibition and available for purchase at SJMA’s Shop.

Touring schedule

Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, October 27, 2018—April 7, 2019

San José Museum of Art, May 17—September 29, 2019

Palm Springs Museum of Art, CA Spring 2020 (TBC)

Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville, TN, August 6—October 25, 2020 (TBC)

Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, NC  (TBC)

Learn more about this wonderful exhibition here:  https://sjmusart.org/exhibition/rina-banerjee-make-me-summary-world

This Article was provided to India Currents by the San José Museum of Art


We Are The Party Of Opportunity

“We are the party of opportunity for all,” declared Seema Nanda in an exclusive conversation with me late last week. As head of the Democratic National Committee, a post that she holds as we head into the final year and a half before a crucial national election, she is busy planning party strategy at many levels. Her voice did not waver – there was clarity and a sense of clear purpose as she outlined the party position on various issues as we chatted.

After the unexpected defeat of Hillary Clinton in 2016, the question of what the overall party message will be in the coming months is a burning question in my mind. And, her answer was clear and unequivocal in its message of inclusivity.

“We have a message that resonates with all Americans – truth, opportunity, justice for all people, affordable healthcare and protecting all immigrants.” A positive message that aims to connect with all voters across the political spectrum. Her message was hopeful and inclusive – so I paused and asked her about her thoughts on the Republican message. Here, her answer was again clear and straightforward. “Hateful rhetoric has no place in our party; in fact, no party should appeal to our fear. When one group is attacked, we need to remember that no one is protected. This message stokes people’s fears about all sorts of immigrants.”

Seema Nanda pictured front row, middle

Seema says that she is so heartened with the woke community of South Asians working all over the country on behalf of Democratic candidates. “What I saw in Michigan shortly before the midterm elections resonated with me deeply. I was campaigning for candidates up and down the ballot. South asian community members were actively engaged in campaigning – many had never been politically engaged, but now they were signing up for shifts to knock on neighbors’ doors. They are also signing up to run for office at so many levels – from city councils to school boards to congressional seats. And, even if the South Asian candidate does not end up winning the primary, large numbers of community members are stepping up and doing their part.” This, she said, was a “positive development like none other.”

Also, as voters, she said, “Asian-Americans can ensure a critical margin for victory in countless races in the 2020 elections. They voted overwhelmingly for Democrats in the midterm election in 2018. We need to get the message out to all Asian Americans that we are indeed the party of opportunity; we are a pro-business party,” she declared.

Seema Nanda pictured second from left

When I asked her about the slate of candidates who have launched primary presidential campaigns in the Democratic party, she proudly said, “We have an embarrassment of riches with fantastic candidates on our side. At the DNC, my job is to make sure that the American people hear what they stand for, loud and clear. They are talking about issues that Americans truly care about – healthcare, the environment, gun violence – these are the issues that we should all care about. The fact that we have so many candidates is a very healthy process for the party.”

In focus groups, Americans continue to point out healthcare as being a crucial issue for them. “The availability of affordable healthcare threatens the economic security of millions of people, and the Republican party has been chipping away at the Affordable Care Act (ACA) without having an alternative plan in place.” Moving to issue based policymaking, I ask her about the setback because of the defeat of the new Green Deal. “In fact, the failure of the new Green deal is not really a failure, because we are the only party that is even talking about climate change – the other party is not even at the table. They are denying the findings of climate science.”

Moving to the hot button issue that fills our media channels day in an day out – she says, “Immigration – we have always lead on immigration, and lobbied for comprehensive immigration reform, and our efforts have been scuttled by the Republicans. The President has used his large bully pulpit  to confuse and mislead the American public. Our asylum policies comply with international law. Instead, today those seeking asylum are being treated in a despicable and inhumane manner.” When I pushed her saying that the obfuscation of issues has definitely led to a sea change in opinions of what immigrants contribute in our country, she said, “I agree with you – there are concerted efforts to confuse the issue. But, we are standing by the side of immigrants – we continue to ask about the children in detention. Even lawful immigration has been targeted. For instance, family based immigration which is perfectly legal is now being referred to as ‘chain migration’ an absolutely disgusting term. We need to unite around these issues, not be divided.”

As for nuts and bolts strategies in the coming months, the Rust Belt states are being organized differently this time. “We are on the ground organizing earlier than we did the last time around. One of the challenges we face when we are the opposition party is that after the nominating convention, we only have 5 to 6 months of national campaigning time before we go to the polls. This time, starting this summer, we are training 1000 young people in a special program, and once the nominee is decided, we will be able to ramp up dramatically soon to reach all segments of the population with our message. We are also campaigning for voter access all over the country, including on college campuses so that we hear from all segments, including young voters. Our challenge will be to counteract untruths from entering the election debate. We are on the lookout in cyberspace and we will counteract immediately that appears as lies to discredit our candidates and our policies.”

And, so ends my chat with Seema Nanda – with her articulating a clear, positive message – a message of inclusivity and of opportunity. As the weeks and months roll on, her ability to serve as the backbone in organizing a successful campaign on behalf of the Demoacratic party is sure to be tested at many levels. The American people will be watching the campaign and the party as they take the message of inclusivity and opportunity out to voters.

Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is the Managing editor of India Currents magazine.