Immigration Reform in Post-9/11 America

Right now, our lawmakers are in the midst of considering landmark immigration legislation. This policy debate is fundamentally grounded in one question: How should we treat immigrants here in the United States now, and those to come?

The answer to this question is especially important to the communities with whom I work at South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT). Three-quarters of the South Asian community are foreign-born. We are undocumented students, H-1B workers, green card holders, and immigrant entrepreneurs. South Asians have also experienced the impact of harsh immigration enforcement measures, especially in the years following September 11, 2001. In fact, for many South Asians, Muslims, and Sikhs, being an immigrant in post-9/11 America has come at a heavy price. Our community members have borne the brunt of a backlash which has manifested itself in workplace discrimination, school bullying, racial and religious profiling, surveillance, and hate violence, as well as immigration enforcement often meted out in the context of national security.

As the years have passed, this backlash has decreased in frequency but it has not abated. Instead, it gets reignited by anti-immigrant sentiment and by perceived or actual threats to national security. One need only look at some of the headlines over the past few years to understand the impact: the Park 51 community center controversy; threats to burn the Quran; communities seeking to block the construction of mosques; congressional hearings on radicalization of Muslims; evidence of surveillance by the New York Police Department; the massacre at the Oak Creek gurudwara that killed six Sikh congregants; and the backlash after the recent Boston bombings.

The treatment of South Asians, Muslims, Sikhs, and Arab Americans cannot be seen only in a national security context or solely as a repercussion of September 11th. It is important to understand that hate violence and discrimination against our community members happens because we practice a particular faith, because we are from a certain country, and because we happen to be immigrants. Xenophobia, anti-Muslim sentiment, and racism all come from the same source. This is why South Asian, Muslim, Sikh, and Arab American communities have long engaged in the movement for comprehensive immigration reform and in efforts to push back anti-immigrant laws. 

At its core, immigration policy must preserve and strengthen civil rights protections for all immigrants. Our history and our present experiences clearly demonstrate this. After all, it was the civil rights movement that ushered in the sweeping 1965 immigration law that at long last eliminated decades-old quota systems that had discriminated against Asian American immigrants. Immigration policy must prohibit the use of profiling of immigrants on the basis of race, religion and national origin. It must not single out immigrants for differential treatment based on their countries of origin. It must not criminalize or scapegoat immigrants. 

In answer to the question I raised at the start of this piece, immigration policy must treat immigrants as people worthy of human and civil rights protections as they provide vital services, contribute to our economy, and raise their children in the United States. 

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