Bupendra Ram is a minority within a minority within a minority in America.
He is desi, queer and undocumented. In other words he is living proof that when it comes to immigration, the South Asian story is not just about H1-B visa quotas.
Ram remembers trying to do immigration outreach in Southern California’s Artesia, also known as Little India. One passerby was perplexed.
“He said ‘I am not Mexican,’” chuckles Ram.
“We don’t think of South Asians as border crossers,” says Priya Murthy, the former policy director for the advocacy group South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT).
Desis don’t realize that according to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) statistics there were approximately 240,000 undocumented Indians in the United States in 2011. “That makes Indians the seventh largest undocumented population in the U.S.” says Murthy.
Murthy and Ram both spoke on a panel about immigration reform at DesiQ, a recent conference on LGBT South Asian issues in San Francisco.
Immigration reform clearly matters to desis in ways beyond H1B and family backlogs. India and Pakistan are among the top 20 countries whose applicants filed for DACA or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals which offered temporary relief for people like Ram who came as children. The number of immigration detainees who are Indian nationals has almost doubled every year between 2009 and 2011 rising to 3,438 in 2011.
Ram knows that many desis do not have much sympathy for the likes of him. “There is this perception that they came here the right way, whatever that is. And we broke the law.”
A Coup and a Passage
Ram was born in Fiji in 1986. After a military coup there tensions erupted between the large population of Fijians of Indian origin and ethnic Fijians.
“There was a rush to move out of Fiji. A lot of my relatives moved to Canada and Australia. We were fortunate to get visas to come to America,” says Ram.
His parents knew a man who was bringing batches of people to the U.S. He assured them that once they landed in America he could get them a green card. The family sold their property to pay him. They didn’t realize that the cards the man got them on Alvarado Street in Los Angeles were fake.
“When our visa expired after six months, we realized we had fraudulent papers,” says Ram.
Bupendra Ram joined the ranks of America’s undocumented. He was not even three years old.
There’s been a push to allow people like Ram, who came to the United States as children, a path to citizenship through the DREAM Act. The idea is that those who came as children are out of status through no fault of their own.
At 23, Ram decided to come out and be a DREAM activist and go public about his status in the hope that personal stories would break through stereotypes about immigration.
He says he wanted to show people that immigration reform was not just a Latino issue. Ram says he’s gotten incredible support from Latino activists but remembers once going to a fundraiser and feeling terribly excluded.
“There were tamales and hot chocolate and music,” he says. But it wasn’t his culture. He wanted to tell people in his own community the anxiety of growing up undocumented in America. “I have to live a life in America that’s not guaranteed. At any moment, I can be taken away from my parent, friends and the only home I have knows as a child,” he says.
He remembers his parents having to struggle with low wage jobs because they didn’t have papers. His mother had never worked in Fiji. Now she had to. His older sister had to take on a parental role.
“My parents had these $5 an hour jobs,” says Ram. “My mother was like this typical aunty.
Except she was going to work on a bus, seeing druggies shoot up with needles.” They eventually found jobs at the airport but after 9/11 they were laid off because new rules required proof of citizenship for those jobs.
The Honor Roll
Ram worked hard almost as if he was compensating for his lack of papers. Honor roll in school. Volunteering for the March of Dimes, UNICEF and breast cancer research. He graduated in the top 5 percent of his high school. But when it came to college he couldn’t qualify for financial aid because he had no papers. Many colleges regarded him as an international student and thus subject to higher tuition fees even though he had lived almost all his life in California. He eventually graduated with a Business Administration degree from California State University at Fullerton—the first member of his family to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree.
All the American rites of passage his classmates took for granted—the driver’s licence, the credit card, spring break in Mexico—become harder, if not impossible, when you don’t have papers.
“I was just in survival mechanism,” says Ram. “If I had stopped to reflect I would not have been able to move forward.” He admits sometimes he would feel frustrated that his parents put him in this predicament. “But my parents didn’t come from an educated background.
They did what they thought was best for us,” he says. “And they did it all for us.”
Out of the Closet
His parents are a little baffled by his activist role. “Ours is not a very open community. We don’t like to talk about things that are uncomfortable,” he says. He says is family is even more troubled by his being open about being gay.
“Coming out as queer has been more difficult. Definitely,” says Ram. However now that the Defense of Marriage Act has been ruled unconstitutional in the United States, there is another way to legalisation. He could get married in a state that recognises same-sex marriage to a United States citizen. But he says he’d rather not.
“There has to be a logical common sense way for people to adjust their status. I’d rather fight for that instead of just getting married to get a green card.”
Ram is the first openly queer person in his family. He’s having to define what that even means to his parents.
“They have very negative ideas about what it means to be queer. I have to constantly rebut them because they say I don’t look queer meaning I am not feminine,” says Ram.
“And they say, yes, we get that you are queer, but why do you have to talk about it.”
But Ram says having broken through one closet, he cannot really go into another.
In fact, many young DREAM activists also happen to be queer. Ram says it makes sense. “People who are most vocal are the ones who have been marginalized the most,” he reflects. “Your fight becomes more personal.”
“I am undocumented, queer and South Asian,” he says. “I cannot tell my undocumented story without telling my queer story. It’s part of the work of being whole.”
Sandip Roy is the Culture Editor for Firstpost.com. He is on leave as editor with New America Media. His weekly dispatches from India can be heard on KALW.org. This article was first published on FirstPost.com.