Tag Archives: #votingrightsact

Rahima Begum Wins AALDEF Lawsuit To Vote In Bengali

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%, an 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 Assstance

“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
Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash


 

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.