While it is often glossed over in school textbooks, no retelling of American history can be told without recognizing the integral contributions of South Asian Americans. For centuries, immigrants from all parts of South Asia as well as the diaspora have been coming to the shores of the United States, going back as far as farmers laboring in the fields of California’s Imperial Valley.
In more recent decades, South Asian immigrants have continued to strengthen the fabric of this country and fuel its economic engine as engineers, taxicab drivers, entrepreneurs and innovators, convenience store clerks, doctors, nail salon workers, and so much more.
Indeed, the strength of the South Asian community only continues to grow as the demographic landscape of this country shifts and community members increasingly flex their political muscle.
What Immigrants Face
The experiences and difficulties that South Asian immigrants encounter are as diverse as the community itself. There is the U.S. citizen waiting over a decade to be reunited with siblings abroad who are stuck in the family immigration backlogs. There is the undocumented domestic worker toiling away to care for the families of others even if her immigration papers say otherwise. There is the wife of an H-1B engineer with her own college degree and technical skills but who cannot contribute to the economy simply because of her visa. There is the software worker who has been waiting years to get his green card and cannot advance in his career because his immigration status is tied to his employer. There is the mother who lost her sons to detention and deportation simply for being Muslim after September 11. There is the courageous survivor of domestic violence who has become too afraid to call local police for help due to agents’ greater authority to carry out immigration laws. There is the undocumented student brought over by his parents who hides the fact that he does not have immigration status out of fear he will face shame from his own community. Behind all the rhetoric and numbers that are often tossed around when it comes to immigration, our community knows that we cannot lose sight of the human faces at the core of this issue.
Why Immigration Reform?
Immigration reform is an imperative for South Asians, given that the majority of our community is foreign-born. Among the over 3.4 million South Asians living in the United States, over 75% were born outside the United States. As a predominantly foreign-born community, most South Asian Americans have needed to navigate the country’s immigration system at some point in their lives.
The community has entered the country through a diverse set of pathways, including those joining loved ones through family-based visas, dependents of spouses on temporary worker visas, refugees and asylum-seekers fleeing persecution, and undocumented individuals. In fact, as of November 2012, approximately 4.5 million people were awaiting their family-based immigration visas and approximately 4.6 million were awaiting their employment-based immigration visas. Of these millions, over 330,000 are Indian, nearly 162,000 are Bangladeshi, and over 115,000 are Pakistani. Though the available statistics are limited to the countries with the highest application rates, these numbers mean that more than 610,000 of the immigrants separated from their families while awaiting the resolution of these backlogs are South Asian. Additionally, some South Asians have been known to wait nearly ten years for certain employment visas and eleven years before obtaining their green cards from a sponsoring U.S. citizen sibling. For our community members without family or support in the United States, this waiting period is even more detrimental to their integration and success in this country.
Denied the American Dream?
The United States is premised on the ideal that all individuals are created equal, regardless of who we are, where we come from, or how we arrived here. Yet, many South Asians who lack immigration status are denied the American Dream simply because they do not possess the proper documents.
Contrary to popular perception, a sizable number of South Asians have been living in the shadows as undocumented immigrants. Within the total estimated 11.5 million undocumented individuals in 2011, approximately 240,000 are from India alone—making up the seventh largest undocumented population in the country.
In 2012, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) rolled out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which provides two years of temporary relief from deportation and work authorization for eligible undocumented young immigrants. These individuals must submit evidence related to date of birth, age upon entry, continuous residency, educational enrollment or military services, absence of certain criminal convictions, and not posing a threat to national security or public safety. As of August 2013, USCIS reported accepting for processing 2,835 applications from Indians and 1,425 applications from Pakistanis. While deferred action offers much-needed temporary relief, it does not provide a path to permanent residency or citizenship and cannot be extended to family members.
Preying on the Weak
For many South Asian women trapped in violent marriages, their immigration status is often an additional weapon used against them. Securing their stay in the United States can be challenging as maintaining legal status often requires cooperation from the abusive spouse.
This dependency allows batterers to exact control over women, for example, by not filing immigration papers or even threatening deportation. This reality forces many women to choose between two equally disempowering options: remaining in a violent situation or losing their immigration status.
In fact, according to one study, a quarter of participants stated immigration status prevented them from leaving abusive relationships. Severe power disparities resulting from dependent visa statuses can also prevent women from obtaining protection orders, accessing domestic violence services, obtaining custody of children, calling law enforcement for help, or participating in abusers’ prosecutions.
Another factor perpetuating domestic violence is the inability of certain South Asian women to work or access basic services due to restrictions placed on their dependent visas. For example, spouses of H-1B workers, many of whom are from India and other South Asian countries, cannot obtain employment authorization, gain public benefits, or get a Social Security Number. As a result, many women cannot become economically self-sufficient and instead become more reluctant to leave these relationships.
When the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was reauthorized in 2005, it included provisions that allowed abused H-4 visa holders to self-petition for green cards and gain employment authorization. Over seven years later, in December 2012, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) finally issued draft guidance on the issue. While this guidance was an overdue and much-needed step, further information from the agency is still needed regarding applicant confidentiality, duration of work authorization, evidentiary requirements, and cultural competency trainings for application adjudicators.
Furthermore, individuals from Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan were no longer eligible for diversity visas (also known as the “green card lottery”) beginning in 2013 because they have reached the cap over the last five years. In addition, among the leading countries for refugees admitted in 2012 was Bhutan, and for those granted asylum within the United States was Nepal. Any attempt to improve our country’s immigration laws must address each of these issues in order to alleviate the breadth of challenges that our community faces.
What’s on the Table?
Last year appeared to be the first time in decades that Congress had the political will to overhaul this country’s immigration system. In 2013, the Senate passed and the House introduced bills (S. 744 and H.R. 15) garnering bipartisan support that take significant measures to reform current immigration laws. While imperfect bills with numerous flaws, the heart of the legislation was to provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the United States, alleviate family- and employment-based visa backlogs, and take other measures to fix the broken immigration system.
However, the Senate bill also included odious border enforcement measures and both bills cut the diversity visa program and eliminate various categories in the current family immigration system. In 2014, immigrants across the country waited with bated breath for the Republicans principles on immigration reform. Yet this proved to be more of the same—a focus on enforcement, prioritizing employment over family, and failing to provide any pathway to citizenship for those who lack immigration status in this country. Currently, we are at a moment in the political debate where all eyes are on the House of Representatives. But, rather than moving forward H.R. 15—which has co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle—House leadership have halted efforts to move any common sense immigration solutions forward.
A truly holistic approach to immigration reform must provide an accessible and timely pathway to citizenship for all; modernize our country’s family immigration system by alleviating visa backlogs and allowing same-sex partners to participate equally within the system, without eliminating visa categories; allow all individuals access to health care, regardless of immigration status; restore fairness and judicial discretion within the detention and deportation system; provide strengthened protections for immigrant survivors of violence, trafficking, and political conflicts; and protect workers’ rights and employment authorization without undue restrictions for all.
Looming in the background is also the harsh reality that immigration enforcement continues to be on the rise. In fact, this spring will mark the shameful benchmark that two million individuals have been deported from the United States—all while President Obama has been in office. That means that over 1,100 individuals are being torn apart from family members and ripped from their homes on a daily basis. While Congress is going back and forth about whether or not to move forward on some type of immigration reform, advocates are also pressing the White House to do what it can in its power to halt the deportations and provide relief to families across the country.
Across the country, immigrant communities will continue to exert pressure on Congress and the President as part of the April 5 National Day of Action and as well through events taking place on May 1. Although the political outlook for immigration reform may appear bleak, it will only remain so if we let it.
Our country is transforming into a more diverse and stronger society—and our laws regarding how we treat immigrants should not be falling behind. Join the movement and make your voice heard.
Priya Murthy is the Policy and Organizing Program Director of Services, Immigrant Rights, and Education Network based in San Jose, CA. Manar Waheed is the Policy Director of South Asian Americans Leading Together based in Takoma Park, MD.