Bringing it Home, Out of the Shadows

Yesterday afternoon I joined several faith leaders from diverse communities for a meeting with Congressman Anthony Weiner (D-NY) in his district office in Kew Gardens, Queens to discuss immigration reform. The Sikh Coalition is a part of growing group of organizations around the country bringing a faith-based voice to the immigration debate, and in particular has been active in the New York Interfaith Network on Immigration Reform.

In the meeting with Congressman Weiner, we discussed what it’s going to take to realistically fix this broken immigration system that has deemed the lives of 12 million undocumented immigrants in this country worthless. 12 million people living in the shadows, at risk of being torn apart from their families and loved ones at any moment. This is a statistic we hear a lot, but as Sikhs, what does it really mean to us? How does it hit home? What is our responsibility as Guru-oriented people?

Yesterday it hit home for me.

Walking out of a productive meeting towards the bus stop, I felt somewhat hopeful about the progress we might be able to make on this issue in the next year. As I was figuring out which bus to take to get to Richmond Hill, an older desi man with a scruffy beard and short pony tail smiled warmly at me and struck up a conversation in Punjabi. He helped me figure out which bus to get on, and then got on the same bus.

I invited him to sit by me. We made small talk for awhile and transitioned to English once my tutti futti (broken) Punjabi wasn’t cutting it any more. Soon enough, he told me that he had just gotten out of jail. Surprised, I asked him what happened and if everything was okay. He responded matter of factly with a story that began with an NYPD officer asked him for ID one night on the subway several months ago and ended with him spending two and a half months incarcerated in an immigrant detention center in Texas. He just got back home last week. Sitting next to me, he was wearing the same thick blue shirt that was given to him in detention.

His name is Amarjit Singh, and he is a part of our community. He came to New York over 20 years ago and speaks perfect English. He was born and raised in Delhi and survived the anti-Sikh pograms of 1984 and beyond. He makes a living by selling perfume and handbags. He is a Sikh. He is undocumented.

He asked me what he should do. He said he can’t go back to India, that it’s not his home. We talked about the need for an immigration system that recognizes the humanity of all people and provides a path to citizenship. I told him about my work with the Sikh Coalition, which he was excited about. As I was getting off the bus I gave him my card, and he said in Punjabi, “One day, I will call you.” I wish I could have given him a good answer to his question about what he should do, but this immigration system doesn’t have a good answer.

As I walked down 95th Avenue towards the gurdwara, my eyes filled with tears, blurring my vision and my optimism. What is going to happen to Amarjit Singh, who has sadly turned to alcohol to drown out his pain and struggle? He was so glad to be “free again,” as he put it, but has no way to even apply to become a legal resident of the United States. He and millions of others will continue living in fear unless we fundamentally change the immigration system.

This is a South Asian issue. This is a Punjabi issue. This is an American issue. This is a Sikh issue.

What are we going to do about it?

Click here to read the Interfaith Platform on Humane Immigration Reform, signed by hundreds of faith and religious organizations including the Sikh Coalition.

Click here to read the Sikh Coalition’s community advisory from 2006 about Sikhs and immigration reform.

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