Issue No 60, September 21-27, 2003 | ISSN:1684-2057 | satribune.com

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Immigrants in NY Voice Concerns, Live in Fear

By Pramilla Srivastava
Special to South Asia Tribune

NEW YORK: Hundreds of immigrants from a diverse set of communities gathered together in Jackson Heights last week at a Town Hall Meeting to address the growing erosion of immigrants rights.

Jackson Heights is considered the heart of the South Asian Community in New York City. Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sikh New Yorkers joined forces with Chinese, Latino, and other Muslim immigrants to hold their elected officials accountable on the issues that impact the lives of many of these residents.

The event was organized by the New Immigrant Community Empowerment, (NICE). Partha Banerjee, one of the organizers told SA Tribune that the purpose was to "provide immigrants direct access to policy makers".

The meeting also gave individuals the opportunity to testify before city officials about their experiences since 9/11; from job discrimination and arbitrary detention, to racial and ethnic harassment.

One woman gave a wrenching account of her husband’s deportation by the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. A Pakistani-American high school student described the incidents of anti-South Asian and Muslim bias he and his peers continue to face in hallways daily. Among those listening were four Queens City Council members - Hiram Montserrate, David Weprin, Eric Gioia and Peter Vallone, Jr.- and NY State Assembly member Jose Peralta, who accepted NICE’s invitation to respond to specific questions from the meeting’s predominantly immigrant attendees.

NICE ensured that simultaneous interpretation was provided for all those who testified.

The organization gave all those attending a report card (translated into all relevant languages) on where all NYC Council members stood on legislature to protect immigrants rights currently pending in the council such as: Intro. 326 (Access without Fear), Intro. 38 (Language Access to Health & Human Services), Resolution 909 (an affirmation of the Bill of Rights), and the Government Access & Accountability Campaign.

The town hall featured nine expert panelists who donated their time to respond to community members’ questions about civil rights, safety, immigration, labor and youth empowerment and to educate immigrants about local and national initiatives that will have a major impact. Amongst the South Asians speakers were Moderator: Partha Banerjee, Community Organizer NICE, Moe Rizvi, Director, Council of Pakistani Organizations, Deepa Iyer,Co-Chair, South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow.

Although the event may have been long , many immigrants are just beginning to recover from the fears which engulfed them for the past two years. The number of hate crimes, deportations and detentions, has decreased since Sept 11 2001, but reports indicate that they are still occurring in significant numbers.

Just recently in Woodside Queens three unidentified white men called a group of Sunnyside Sikhs "Bin Laden family" and told them to "go home" before beating them up. It was also reported that one of the victims, a 41 year old father would have been beaten to death were it not for the intervention of a passerby.

According to Banerjee this "may not be an anomoly". He noted a recent incident in which a Muslim man was stabbed in a bias attack in Brooklyn but never reported the attack because he was an undocumented immigrant.

Many Civil Liberties, Civil Rights, and Immigrant's groups have increased their effort and determination to challenge provisions of Patriot Act I enacted by Congress as a result of 9/11; a law which not only deprives immigrants of their fundamental human and constitutional rights, but also engenders a climate of fear, making immigrants victims of crimes as well as victims of the law.

While legal challenges are working their way up in the court system these advocacy groups are finding great success on local political levels. Many cities throughout the US have banned some or all provisions of the Patriot Act. Groups such as NICE are using these types of innovative grass root strategies to reach out to the least represented segments of the American society.

"For too long, new immigrant communities have been neglected or excluded from the democratic process," said NICE Executive Director Bryan Plugholes."The overwhelming turnout at the meeting sent a clear message that immigrants are ready, willing, and able to demand that their interests be fully represented in City Hall and beyond even during the most difficult times."

IANS adds: Seventeen people from the Hispanic, Chinese, Muslim and South Asian communities voiced their concerns. These ranged from increasing crime in Queens to hate crimes against Muslims to instances of racial attacks on Sikhs in cases of mistaken identity.

Sheila Mirza, now an activist of Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), said she was beaten up by four boys in her school and continuously humiliated by them. "Neither the school authorities nor the police took any action."

Hispanic Salvando Mainato, a limousine driver, said he had been continuously humiliated and abused in his workplace because of his skin.

Dalveer Kaur of United Sikhs said the first hate crime incident after 9/11 was on a Sikh. "Since then, on the assumption that Sikhs are linked to Osama bin Laden because they wear turbans, many members of the community have been killed shot, assaulted and beaten up. In almost all cases, the perpetrators got away."

The meeting was organized by a coalition of immigrant and civil rights groups led by New Immigrant Community Development (NICE) and had a panel of experts from groups like the New York Civil Liberties Union, South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow, Islamic Circle of North America and the Latin American Integration Center Some city council members were also present.

NICE Executive Director Bryan Pu-Folkes said: "New York City is close to 40 percent foreign born, many council districts are two-thirds foreign born, and yet immigrant needs are largely overlooked and neglected."

Hispanic Saja Karon wanted to know what elected members were doing to check crime. City council member Peter Vallone said "Operation Impact", an action plan put in place by the New York Police Department, brings in more officers in high crime areas because of which crime in that area dropped by about 50 percent.

Lizi Rehman from Bangladesh said she and her family have been targeted since 9/11 because they were Muslims. "By husband was mugged about five times, and we have every reason to believe that the incidents happened because of our skin."

Amanda Karim Tobakku, a Hispanic woman married to an Arab, said her husband was among the undocumented people detained after 9/11.

"He was finally deported though he had no links to terrorism or any other criminal activity. Now, the authorities say that I have to wait for at least five years before he can return. I don't know what to do," she said.

Faiz Khan, a native of Bangladesh, said it was time to get rid of President George W. Bush. Tamina Begum, also a native of Bangladesh, said she had come to the country with a lot of dreams and hope. "However, after 9/11, our lives have become hell. I could not move out of my home for two months."

Amarjit Singh, who was working in the basement of the twin towers when the terrorists struck on 9/11, said he was trampled upon by people who were fleeing the buildings, and was injured on his right shoulder and arm.

"The authorities examined me and diagnosed my problem as arthritis, and paid me a nominal amount each week which touched a maximum of $187. Now I am being paid $95 a week. If it had been someone else but me, a brown skin, they would have got adequate compensation. I want my benefits, I want justice," he said.

Based on the testimonials, NICE said it would work with other groups to produce a working legislative advocacy and action plan.

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