Sudha Acharya remembers vividly the flurry of applications filed by Indian children after the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals memorandum was issued last June. DACA, as the measure is called, focuses on individuals who came to the United States illegally as children, but meet certain guidelines that make them eligible for employment authorization.
For Acharya, director of the South Asian Council for Social Services, the moment was both personal and poignant: She hired two people who were granted employment authorization under DACA. Both employees have master’s degrees in health and social services; one was 3 and the other 5 when they were brought to the United States and both had lived in the shadows until now. The council helps hundreds of economically distressed South Asian families in the greater New York City area, and according to Acharya, 30 percent to 40 percent of those who seek help are undocumented.
“The children are the most in need among South Asians. We have so many ‘DREAMers.’ So many have interned with us,” Acharya told News India Times, referencing the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act that lists the general requirements for deferred action. Though there are no numbers, Acharya hopes that like the two youth hired by her group, others get cleared quickly through the system.
According to a report by the Department of Homeland Security, in 2010, there were about 200,000 undocumented Indians in the country. Then there are at 1 million more who “played by the rules” and continue to wait for family members, green cards and citizenships. But data show that, overall, Indian-Americans are united on the need to legalize the undocumented.
A Jan. 29 poll released by the California-based National Asian American Survey showed an overwhelming 72 percent of Indian-Americans, support a “path to citizenship” for the undocumented, Karthick Ramakrishnan, director of NAAS told News India Times after analyzing the data on Indian Americans. Sixteen percent were opposed to it and another 12 percent did not have an opinion, he said. according to his analysis based on the survey data. The poll report, entitled “Opinions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders: US Immigration Policy” showed that on the issue of the massive visa backlog in the system for those who played by the rules, 67 percent of Indian Americans considered this a “very serious” or “fairly serious” problem for them and their families.
“So we are an excellent example of those who want the ‘path’ and those who want the backlog cleared. One does not exclude the other,” Ramakrishnan said. “This is a very interesting story because it shows that Indian-Americans are not thinking only of their own self-interest.”
Unfortunately, DACA does not offer a path to citizenship. That has prompted the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund to push for family reunification clauses favorable to Asian-Americans, said Bethany Lee, staff attorney with the fund. “Even Dreamers emphasize that they be protected but also that their families be protected. So any law must incorporate not just a path to citizenship for Dreamers, but also for their families,” she said.
According to Prakash Khatri, a Washington, D.C. attorney and former ombudsman at the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, the number of undocumented among Asian- and Indian-Americans is growing, even if it is relatively small compared to other communities.
Columbia University Professor Mae Ngai, author of “Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America,” agrees. In an article in The New York Times, she attributes the rise in the number of undocumented directly to the existing system of allocating green cards, or visas for permanent residency by country quotas – not more than 7 percent of the total each year for each country, whether it is India or Sweden. She calculates that with the annual ceiling of 366,000 family- and employer-sponsored visas, the per-country limit is 25,620.
“In practice, this means it is easy to immigrate here from, say, Belgium or New Zealand, but there are long waits – sometimes decades – for applicants from China, India, Mexico and the Philippines. These four max out on the limit every year. When critics admonish prospective immigrants – as well as the 11 million plus undocumented migrants currently in America – to ‘go to the back of the line,’ they should realize that for many people the line is a cruel joke,” Ngai wrote.
Ron Hira, public policy professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, in New York, pointed to the category of “overstayers” – people who are unable to get their visas renewed because of various reasons (including the country quotas), overstay and thus become undocumented. It is an area that does not get enough attention, he said, adding, “The Asian overstayers are the fastest-growing segment according to some figures.”
According to Khatri, the most important issue for Indian immigrants is not only family reunification but employment-based green cards. He argues strongly against the existing country quotas for visas which pits a huge country like India against such small countries as Sweden.
“India, with its diversity and huge population is like a Europe of many countries, and why should Sweden have the same quota as India?” he questioned. “Immigration laws should conform to our country’s laws banning discrimination on the basis of national origin.”
He urged Indian-Americans to focus their lobbying on ending national origin quotas. “A vast majority of Indians here are highly educated and should not be subject to the kinds of quotas. The same standards that we use for employing people here under our civil rights and equal employment opportunity laws should continue into our immigration laws. That would benefit our nation,” Khatri said.
He also called for merit-based green cards – an Indian or international student pays two to three times more than a local student, thus paying for the education of others as they study here. “The president has recognized the importance of highly educated international students. Plus a person educated here, who has already been strenuously processed, why should they not be co-opted?” he asked.
In his Jan. 28 speech on immigration reform and the changes needed to bring the 11 million undocumented people into the fold, President Barack Obama said, “We can’t allow immigration reform to get bogged down in an endless debate. We’ve been debating this a very long time.”
His proposal outlines four parts: first, continue to strengthen our borders; second, crack down on companies that hire undocumented workers; third, hold undocumented immigrants accountable before they can earn their citizenship – this means requiring undocumented workers to pay their taxes and a penalty, move to the back of the line, learn English, and pass background checks; fourth, streamline the legal immigration system for families, workers and employers.
Proposals put forward by a bipartisan group of senators working on immigration reform includes similar steps – stronger border enforcement, checks on employers recruiting undocumented workers, temporary work visas for agricultural workers and highly skilled engineers and scientists.
This is not the first time such proposals have been put forward. In 2007, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., put forward their proposal for comprehensive reform. It died an early death because of massive opposition from forces on the left and right who brought down Senate phone exchanges with calls to “Kill the Bill.”
As to President Obama’s pledge that the undocumented will have to go back to the end of the line while the pipeline is cleared of legal applicants, Acharya said that Dreamers don’t mind waiting “so long as there is a bright and sure light and a ‘path’ at the end of the tunnel.”
Ngai has said that the proposals floated by the president and the senators are familiar. “Many critical details are still missing, but the general framework is notable for its familiarity. Variations on all of these measures have been tried before, with mixed results. Legalization of the undocumented is humane and practical, but the proposals for controlling future immigration are almost certain to fail,” she wrote in the Times.
Hira added that the euphoria over comprehensive immigration reform is just that – euphoria. “People in the know think comprehensive immigration reform will be tried but will fail, and then, be tried piecemeal,” he told News India Times. “I think something will happen, but it will be in smaller pieces which they will wrap up and call ‘comprehensive.’ “
But he does see a glimmer of hope positive in how the immigration reform debate is unfolding today compared to 2007 when the McCain-Kennedy blueprint crashed and burned in the face of opposition from unions on the left and the right wing. This time, the labor unions are working with the politicians and factors like the Republican Party losing the Latino and Asian-American vote are synthesizing to produce an environment in which change is more possible.
Entrepreneur-cum-researcher on skilled immigration, Vivek Wadhwa also hoped that this time round, “extremists” will not hijack the immigration debate. He has been calling for keeping back highly educated immigrants and offering them incentives to stay, plus clearing immigration hurdles expeditiously in order to gain from their contributions to the American economy and society. He sees several of his proposals in those put forward both by the president and the senators.
“It is all going in the right direction so far,” he said, “But our leaders have a habit of taking victory and turning it into defeat.”