A project of the Center for Community Change

Undocumented South Asians: The Numbers, The Faces, The Call to Action

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By Priya Murthy, originally posted on the SAALT (South Asian Americans Leading Together) blog.

When family, friends, and community members heard that I was an immigration lawyer, often I would be asked, “How can I bring my mother over to the United States?” or “When will I get my green card? I’ve been on an H-1B visa for years,” or “I’m planning on getting married – what is the immigration process like for sponsoring my fiancee?” I am still frequently asked those questions, but, especially in recent years, more and more South Asians are fearing deportation and wondering what their options are.

So, I wasn’t surprised when the latest figures on estimates of the undocumented population in the United States came out. The new statistics show that individuals born in India alone made up the 6th largest “unauthorized” immigrant population in January 2009. With an estimated 200,000 undocumented individuals from India, that’s an increase of 64% from 2000. And there are significant undocumented populations from other parts of South Asia residing in the United States as well.

The numbers, while staggering, only tell so much. Advocates and community-based organizations serving South Asians across the community know all too well the daily struggles that undocumented immigrants confront. Faces of the undocumented population in our community include:

  • Laid-off H-1B workers who may lose their immigration status if they lose their jobs (as Vikhas fears)
  • Students who were unaware that they did not have proper immigration status (like Dhanashree)
  • Domestic workers whose employers use their lack of immigration status as a tool for exploitation and control (as Sheela endured)
  • Individuals fleeing persecution in their home countries whose asylum applications were denied (as was the case for Harpal)
  • Workers being asked for identification by local police who are then turned over to immigration detention for lacking immigration papers (like what happened to Amarjit)
  • Individuals who may have overstayed tourist visas but now have established roots and raised U.S. citizen children (like Ravinder and Surinder)

And this is just a small slice of the undocumented South Asian population – numerous individuals from other South Asian countries with similar stories continue to live in fear of detention and deportation, despite the fact they work hard in this country and have established families and networks here.

Stories such as these remind us that legalization is no longer an issue that we can pretend does not affect the South Asian community. Here are three simple things you can do to make sure legalization and just and humane immigration reform happen:

  • Share your immigration story and add your voice to others’ calling for immigration reform. Participate in SAALT’s “Say It Loud! South Asians Share Stories for Immigration Reform” video documentation project.
  • Contact your Senators and member of Congress and ask them to support just and humane immigration reform, including legalization. To be connected, call the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121.
  • Write a letter to editor in support of legalization in response to media articles around undocumented immigration and the South Asian community. (In fact, check out this latest piece in India Abroad.) Contact us at saalt@saalt.org if you for tips and assistance.

This is a South Asian issue and community members have a role to play to highlighting the challenges that undocumented immigrants face and make legalization a reality.

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