Speaking Out: Invisible South Asian Americans

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I guest-blogged this relatively nice piece for South Asian Americans Leading Together last week:

Six undocumented immigrant youth — Dulce (18), Jessica (17), Felipe (24), Richie (16), Nataly (16) and Leeidy (16) — sat down in the middle of an intersection in Georgia this past week, in a protest against the latest wave of anti-immigrant terror unleashed by the Southern state.

It is not the first act of civil disobedience led by undocumented youth and it is certainly not the last as more of us come out of the shadows and demand our right to live in the United States.

And yet, where are the undocumented South Asian youth in this movement? As part of the sixth largest population of undocumented immigrants in the United States, it often pains me to be one of the only vocal ones.

“Rehne do. Chodho. Jaane do.”

These are infamous South Asian attitudes passed on to us by our wonderful mothers and fathers — to suffer in silence and not say anything, to not protest or create a fuss when things are not right, to not step into the public arena to fight for justice. It’s a conditioned survival skill that may even come handy at times. But it is troubling when that survival skill propagates and perpetuates a fear that makes it hard to live our lives fully.

That’s how a lot of the South Asian 1.5 generation grows up in America. Afraid about what people would say. Afraid to shatter expectations. Afraid to live. Afraid to breathe. Afraid, afraid and more afraid till the die we finally die. Yeh bhi koi jeena hai kya?

I lived like that for many years. It wasn’t living; it was surviving. Then I decided that I’m not interested in surviving. I’m interested in thriving.

Read more at The Invisible South Asians in the Undocumented Immigrant Youth Movement

American Exceptionalism vs. the “Damn Paki”

Posted on by Prerna in Desi, LGBTQ | Leave a comment

I think everyone should read about how ICE is trying to drug and deport a young immigrant back to South Africa and especially this in particular:

Immigration is not just black and white, fueled by immigrants’ search of money and better economic opportunities. There are many underlying socio-political forces and policies that drive migration flows, whether it be NAFTA, genocide, war, drugs and other goods, or the still-too-relevant effects of imperial colonialism. People are quick to say, “Oh, Country X has had its independence for 38 years now! You can’t possibly blame the problems it has today on Imperial Country A; stop being so sensitive.” Au contraire, mon frère. A country might be independent on paper, but the effects of colonial rule are made to cripple domestic growth and silence the voices of “uncivilized natives” to the point that damage becomes deep-rooted, dooming future generations to colonization by corporations and the imprisonment that come with lack of autonomy.

I’m glad Ms. Bello — a good friend — is pushing the envelope and talking about neo-colonialism and neo-liberalism as an integral part of immigration to America. Of course, our politicians do not want to talk about it. Most of the immigration reform movement won’t touch it with a 10-foot pole.

Too often, stories of exceptional immigrants, miracle walkers and TV personalities serve to perpetuate the myth of the American dream. What’s lost in this narrative is not only the murderous side of American Empire but also the impact of neo-liberal capitalism on developing and underdeveloped economies, which compels people to flee to America.

It happened to my great-(great) grandparents. They were lied to and compelled to leave their homes in an India under British rule to go and work on the sugar-cane plantations of the Fiji Islands as indentured servants. The Indian indenture system was started after the “end of slavery” in America as a way to continue the same old system with a new name? During the Civil War, the availability of cotton drastically fell around the world since Americans no longer had access to free black labor to work in the cotton fields. To alleviate this dramatic fall in the cotton supply, Americans zeroed in on the Fiji Islands. It seemed like a good idea at the time to steal some land from the warring tribes of Fiji or give them guns, alcohol and disease in exchange for valuable land. The story is all too familiar.

But it didn’t work out quite as planned. The Fijians killed and ate some American missionary who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Appalled, the United States demanded payment for his life. The Fijians did not have a Eurocentric form of government or currency and they tried to cede themselves to the United States as payment. America refused. After some back and forth, the British accepted to pay the American debt and take over the islands of Fiji. They started using it as a sugar-cane colony, importing over 60,000 Indians to work in Fiji as indentured servants. A hundred years later, an American-supported anti-labor and anti-Indian coup would ensure the migration of thousands of Indians once again, in search of a new home.
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Video from the #SAALT Summit

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This is a video of me from the South Asian Americans Leading Together Summit talking lightly about the history of the DREAM Act movement. No, it isn’t as boring as it sounds because I really do take this situation lightly on most days. It’s the best way to deal with it.

If you live in Maryland or Washington D.C., you should definitely consider volunteering with SAALT.

Seriously, consider it a favor for me.

Undocumented, Unafraid and Unapologetic: 21st Century Girmitya?

Posted on by Prerna in Desi | 2 Comments

Prerna Lal, a GW Law School student and immigration activist, faces deportation after spending more than 13 years in the U.S. She is fighting in court to achieve legal status.If you want the definition of “undocumented, unafraid and unapologetic” then this article in my school newspaper pretty much sums it up.

Some straight-talk from me, with no pun intended:

“I think a lot of people are angry,” Lal said. “I’m more amused, personally. They can’t kick me out of the country.”

As a well-known advocate for the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act – which, if passed, would offer illegal immigrant students a path to citizenship – Lal said her deportation case is going to blow up in the government’s face. She said she has a top deportation lawyer on her side.

“The people who know me best, the people I work with, are amused as well. They want this fight to happen in court. They’re looking forward to it,” Lal said. “They’re following up with DHS officials and the White House on this. It’s going great.”

I feel like I am in a war and people are dropping bombs on my home, my family, my friends and my community. I tend to internalize all my pain and anger and unleash it in the most unexpected places and frequently on the people that love me most. I hope I don’t face retaliation from my school or my professors for my words. Grades are the least of my concerns though, so it hardly matters. I am just trying to keep my family together.

Today, I was struck by this revelation that my great-grandparents left India for Fiji in the 1800s not knowing what the future held for them and maybe fully expecting to go back once the indentured servitude system was over. Maybe some of them were coerced, kidnapped and trafficked thousands of miles against their wishes. The indenture system was certainly not voluntary and most signed up under economic duress and hardship. The Indians sent to Fiji were called girmityas, referring to the “agreement” of the British Government with the Indian laborers as to the length of stay in Fiji. They had to stay and work for ten years. They experienced the most painful, degrading and gruelling conditions in the small Pacific island country.

After 10 years, they stayed. They spun a new fabric for the island nation and became an indispensable part of the country.

You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m also a 21st century girmitya in the United States.

I just hope that analogy is not offensive to my ancestors. I have a lot more rights and freedoms than they had while growing up. And yet, I was brought here involuntarily much like my great-grandparents. I’ve been put through the most grueling tests, which continue regardless of my achievements and contributions to this society. I’m waiting to become an indispensable part of this country’s history. Maybe I already am. I don’t know.

Girmit, as in Contracts, is knocking on the door.

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Navigating the Space Between the White Gheys And Queer POC

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Not Gay as in Happy but Queer as in Fuck You

Image by Michael Holden via Flickr

I picked up on some disdain towards same-sex binational couples work in some queer desi spaces this weekend. I was amused but not surprised by it.

I would like to take several steps back and note that I do get nasty emails and tweets from privileged white gheys who are annoyed by my support and work for undocumented youth. In queer spaces, I get questioning glares and nudges from people of color for supporting what is perceived as a white mainstream issue. It’s static noise. Usually, I navigate around it and keep my eyes on the actual target.

The fact that U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents in a same-sex relationship cannot sponsor their spouse or partner for immigration is unquestionably and irrevocably a matter of discrimination. Just because the more visible case of discrimination involve a vast majority of white gay (fe)males citizens does not make it alright to support the status quo or question the importance of the issue or question the work that people are doing on it.

One could oppose DADT repeal (and the DREAM Act!) because the idea of fighting for the rights of young queers to join the military to kill brown people is deplorable. But one can also support the repeal of DADT because it is a simple matter of employment discrimination. Obviously, opposing the repeal would not deconstruct the military industrial complex so it is a calculated decision to make sure people are not fired from their jobs for being gay, lesbian or bisexual (sorry, the military still disallows transgender persons from serving). Similarly, opposing Uniting American Families Act or the rights of same-sex bi-national couples to stay together in this country won’t dismantle the institution of marriage or white privilege. That’s just how I look at it. It’s my bottom-line, underlined in bold and all-caps, and it’s not about to change.

(Note: UAFA concerns partners, not spouses. If the bill ever passes, it may actually go some way in allowing people to stay in relationships without marriage. There’s also the question of whether it is permissible to allow same-sex partners to gain immigration rights but not straight ones, but we just aren’t that legally evolved yet).

However, it is true that LGBT immigrants need much more than just legislation like UAFA or administrative relief from the Obama Administration. LGBT immigrant youth have their own set of unique needs ranging from homelessness to anti-bullying legislation to the DREAM Act. I believe that we must put more effort and emphasis on asylum and detention reform for the mere fact that these are more vulnerable populations who may not have the resources to advocate for themselves.

While the categories are often not rigid and intersect quite a lot, most same-sex bi-national couples are educated and resourceful enough to advocate for their own rights. Honestly, if a dozen undocumented youth can run a national movement without any institutional support and funding, I don’t see why a more privileged set of people cannot fight the system more effectively.

It is painful to be separated from the person(s) you love. Period. However, the criticisms levied against organizations that focus primarily on bi-national couples are fair and valid in their place. At the same time, unless you are working on a better plan or policy to combat institutionalized discrimination, I’m not sure why it really matters.

We probably need to entirely deconstruct citizenship and the privileges that go with it. We can do that academic exercise but it is not about to change the lives of thousands of immigrants. I could have sat around and deconstructed the DREAM Act for the way it plays into the awful good immigrant versus bad immigrant construct or I could have helped build the infrastructure for a national movement of undocumented youth while others used their privilege to engage in such academic exercise.

I’m sure it is fruitful on some level. I can offer to throw people into the same room to duel it out. I’m just not interested in playing referee or being in the same space to witness the duel. There’s bigger fish to fry.

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#SAALT South Asian Summit

Posted on by Prerna in Desi, Immigration | 3 Comments

This was truly an honor. I would have never expected an award from anything South Asian. Heck, I don’t even identify as South Asian on most days.

I don’t get involved in South Asian diaspora politics. However, I do take offense when people assume I’m from India — my great-grandparents left India for Fiji in the 19th century, as part of the indentured servitude system. But if anyone asks, I am ethnically Indian. (And I bleed blue – Congratulations Team India)!

Talking about immigration with South Asians is a different ballgame. Maybe the lens is different. I’m not a South Asian concerned about immigration issues. I’m just concerned about survival. And I’m always in survival mode: how do I tolerate and maximize my time to enjoy life in a system that does not consider my mother as my immediate relative? How do I keep my family together in defiance of the arbitrary political violence that seeks to separate us? And finally, how do I beat the system at its own game?

As someone noted last night, I’m only half-illegal. I thought that was hilarious. I’ve learned to not only survive but thrive in this system. Despite the odds, I seem to have it all together but with the knowledge that it can be taken away at any second. I could probably pass for a model minority as long as I keep my mouth shut and not play gay.

While not homogeneous, the community does not have much exposure to outspoken undocumented young people. The stigma and shame is immense and resources quite limited. And it’s harder to stop the deportations of undocumented South Asian youth when they are so reluctant to talk about themselves. For example, the campaign to stop the deportation of Taha — a Bangladeshi-American teenager — was riddled with such problems but I won’t go into details about it. If you are an undocumented South Asian, I urge you to contact me or get in touch with the amazing people at The National Immigrant Youth Alliance. There’s safety in numbers and community. We can help but the first step is always to come out to yourself, and then to others.

But of course, our troubles with immigration are not limited to those South Asians who are undocumented. Ten years after 9-11, the country is still racially-profiling and targeting South Asians, especially at airports. “Muslim” has become synonymous with a racial classification and anyone who “looks” Muslim is a target for immigration and customs enforcement. And the problems that plague H-1 and H-4 visa holders continues.

Anyway, the conference was fantastic. It even ran on time! I thoroughly recommend people to check out SAALT, maybe come to a summit and get involved in their communities.

10 Warning Signs for “Overbearing Desi Parents” Syndrome

Posted on by Prerna in Desi | 2 Comments

1. You score a 99 on a test and instead of congratulating you, either mom or dad asks “where did you lose the one mark?”
2. You manage to get a 105% in class and they wave their hand dismissively while focusing on the drama or cricket match on television.
3. Anything other than majoring in medicine or engineering is not good enough.
4. You must be No. 1 in all fields or else you are a failure. An A- is a failure and B+ is the end of the world
5. If something goes wrong in your life, it must be because you aren’t wearing the right colors or the right element rings on a particular day and it is YOUR fault.
6. If you get an injury or get into an accident, it is your fault and the expenses causes them more pain than the fact that you are hurt. In fact, you are afraid to call for help because you’d be scolded for being weak.
7. You are forced to listen to stories about their struggles to give you a (perceived) better life and how much better you have it today.
8. You have to constantly listen to how your uncle’s wife’s sister’s cousin (or some other distant relative you’ve probably never met) is so much better than you at just about everything
9. There’s no such thing as depression or dyslexia. Pick yourself up and keep going.
10. You are just not good enough. Ever. Repeat and recycle till you start believing it yourself and being harder on yourself than your parents.

And then people wonder why Indian kids are either OCD overachievers or lack self-confidence and underperform.

Top 5 Ways to Commit Suicide

Posted on by Prerna in Desi | 14 Comments

I was roaming around San Francisco last week and looking out at the Golden Gate bridge, which is the most popular spot for committing suicide. I couldn’t figure out why until I researched that the impact of hitting the water at 75 mph can kill someone instantly and even if the person survives, s/he can drown or die of hypothermia. Surely, there has to be better and easier ways to kill yourself?

Here is an easy list:

5. Live like an American. It is the best way to go: Eat like you want to have a heart-attack and never work out.

4. Surround yourself with morons. You will be brain-dead in no time but you’d be too brain-dead to realize that in fact, you are brain-dead!

3. Go to a desi club or party. You’ll see some great looking people and maybe some fantastic music. But the lack of deodorant will kill you.

2. Listen to Justin Bieber. Actually wait, don’t. You might just wake up from the dead.

1. Watch Deepika Padukone here or Jennifer Beals and Laurel Holloman kiss here or Sheetal Sheth and Lisa Ray making out here:

How can you not die and go to heaven?

Someone Has Stolen My Identity for RootsCamp!

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Thanks for featuring my biography New Organizing but I think I am a victim of identity theft. Who is this PREMA LAI person?
I think @neworganizing desperately needs to hire more people ... on Twitpic

Credit goes to NOI for fixing it within a few hours, though these things really shouldn’t happen. This actually isn’t the first time I have been called “PREMA LAI” by someone at NOI. I was ticked off when it happened at a RI4A summit last June and made a fuss about it. I wonder if the same mistake would be made again and again, if NOI hired someone with knowledge about India and Indians (read: people of color desperately needed in new media organizing). Then again, it can be solved by just having someone who can copy-paste and spell properly.

I am proud of my name and have been told that it suits me. PRERNA means Inspiration (popularized by the TV serial Kasauti Zindagi Kay) and LAL is a common Indian last name in both India and Fiji and it means red (color). I am not Indo-Chinese from Singapore; I am an ethnically Indian Fiji Islander.

Spelling my name wrongly (and those of other ethnic minorities), consistently, is yet another way of othering through a labeling process and a denial of our unique ethnic identities. I think I should start mis-spelling the names of white Americans in a counter-hegemonic labeling process.

Make Sure to Go Watch My Name is Khan – Feb 12

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Shahrukh Khan and Kajol–two of the biggest Bollywood celebrities–made history when they rang the bell to open up NASDAQ on Monday.

I am not sure what promoting capitalism has to do with the film.  Does Shahrukh Khan’s character (Rizwan Khan) in the movie also ring the NASDAQ ‘ghanti’ to reunite with his loved one? But anyway, it seems part of the heavy marketing scheme for a movie that promises entertainment value as well as progressive thought.

Watch the NASDAQ event here:

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