Kripa Upadhuay

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Former Program Coordinator, South Asian Network

Colonization has fostered enmity between Hindus and Muslims, Indians and Pakistanis, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis.

The first phase of immigration from South Asia was the brain drain – doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists. Then extended families came over through family unification, bringing in more of a working class population. The third wave of immigration brought in people from outlying areas, like Bhutan, Sri Lanka, or Nepal.

The “diversity visa” is also allowing more South Asians to come in. And many immigrants from East Africa or the Caribbean are also of South Asian origin.

A lot of South Asians – maybe half – arrived as undocumented immigrants. Many have been here for as long as 20 years or even. Because of that, deportations have a devastating impact on families.

SAN [South Asian Network] includes seven different nationalities. The organization began in 1990 around issues of health and legal assistance. At that time South Asians were a growing population. Their numbers have skyrocketed over last two years.

Immigrants need legal status so they can get health care and social benefits. We also take a wholistic approach to health care – bias incidents and family violence are also part of health.

In masjids, mosques, high schools, and at house meetings – we have brochures in Gujarati, Hindi, English, and Urdu.

In the past, the South Asian community has been sequestered and has not made alliances. Now, issues like legalization or enforcement abuses have brought together groups from various communities, creating very broad-based coalitions. The campaigns around the DREAM Act has brought together groups like CHIRLA, the Bus Riders Union, the Clínica Romero, the Korean garment workers resource center, the African resource center.

It’s changing the way legalization is thought of – making it more of an issue of human rights, rather than an issue of productivity.

The South Asian community has a religious and political history of enormous strife among different communities. Colonization has fostered enmity between Hindus and Muslims, Indians and Pakistanis, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis.

The advantage of SAN is that we are pan-ethnic and multi-lingual. We have taken our divisions and made them into a strength. We have established a relationship with the community so that people of various ethnic groups feel safe here and take ownership of the organization. In masjids, mosques, high schools, and at house meetings – we have brochures in Gujarati, Hindi, English, and Urdu.

During Special Registration, Asian-Pacific, Latino, and Arab attorneys were all giving free legal advice to Indonesians and South Asians.

SAN works on detention and deportation and against hate and discrimination. We want to get the South Asian community out of victim mode, so that more of us become activists and organizers. We help the community to see the targeting of others before them – and on broadening alliances, especially with Japanese Americans. It goes along with building support for a broad-based racial justice agenda.

Lawyers of different ethnic groups helped everybody with the problems they faced after 9/11. During special registration, SAN organized free legal clinics outside the immigration office. Asian-Pacific, Latino, and Arab attorneys were all giving free legal advice to Indonesians and South Asians. We had 70 or 80 people in the parking lot getting one-on-one counseling. People met with attorneys from India, Pakistan – or with Japanese Americans. It challenged our community to come to terms with our own bias and prejudice.

Within the community, we still have a long way to go in dealing with bias and prejudice. There are biases over social status, income, class, caste – and also when people came over and how they came, whether they came on a plane or crossed the border on foot. We have a long way to go to address all these biases.

There is a huge tide of immigrants from South Asia, new people are constantly arriving. But we’re constantly pushing the envelope as well.

From January to April [2003], until the last day of special registration, we were outside the LA immigration office from 4:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. every day. Volunteers of different ethnic backgrounds, speaking different languages, were there with t-shirts and banners from SAN. We had people from Libya and Jordan coming up to us, saying, “I’m not South Asian – does it matter?” A Pakistani asked one of our people if they were Pakistani, and got the answer, no, I’m from Nepal – but it doesn’t matter.

Some individuals are still caught up in their biases. They would say to us, “I’m not from one of those countries,” the ones that needed to register. Our answer was, you may be tomorrow…

SAN is equipped to deal with hate crimes because we’ve been doing it for several years. In 1998, a businessman was assaulted by four youths, white kids aged 13-19. They were sentenced to do community service at SAN. We showed them movies and talked to them about Gandhi.

We were just starting a domestic violence program back then. One of them told us a friend of his had been molested, and we were able to get her to a counselor. Another one we referred to a health clinic for people with no insurance. At lunchtime we would give them South Asian food. Even after their sentence was completed, they still kept dropping by.

After 9/11, we sponsored community town hall forums. It empowered the community. Within the South Asian community people are ashamed to be victims of hate violence. After the forum we got a lot of calls from people who were victims and had never reported it.

Some people would say to us, I’m not from one of those countries, the ones that needed to register. Our answer was, you may be tomorrow.

We’re challenging the community as well as the government. At one town hall, we had someone from the INS answering questions. Both the INS representative and we realized the depth of anger and resentment people felt toward the government. People fear anything that has to do with the government – their view is that there is no answer and no hope for them.

Just after the passage of the Patriot Act, representatives of the FBI and the Justice Department came to defend it, appearing on a panel with civil rights attorneys. People stepped back and said, “it’s ok for us to challenge this.”

In immigrant communities, people make no distinctions between different branches of law enforcement. There is an overwhelming fear of reporting anything to law enforcement – and an appalling lack of sensitivity coming from law enforcement.

We’ve provided training to law-enforcement agencies about community perceptions. Police think they’re there to serve the community. I ask them, what service have you rendered? Do you even talk to minority business owners?

What are they doing to the psyche of the entire community?