On a dewy January afternoon, I take the 7 train, “the most diverse commute in the country,” to a temple in Jackson Heights, Queens, a center of South Asian diasporic life in New York. After pausing to clap my hands in time to the Sikh prayer service happening on the first floor, I eventually find the elevator that leads to the town hall Adhikaar is holding about TPS for the local community. Aside from TPS staff members and the core committee of TPS volunteers, Congresspeople and their representatives, as well as local activists and lawyers from other communities with TPS holders are all present to take part in panels and speeches. The session proceeds in English and Nepali, with time taken to translate in both directions. The red-carpeted room nestled on the second floor gradually fills up, until the crowd of attendees reaches back to the doors, standing-room only. Samosas and tea are served from a table in the back, and Adhikaar members patrol through the rows of people, asking everyone to sign a petition to demand TPS renewal.
Pema, one of the core committee members, offers a personal testimony illustrating what is at stake for those who are at risk of losing TPS status. She came to the US in 1994 and started working as a caregiver for the elderly before becoming a nanny. In 2013, she was seriously injured in a car accident and could not work for some time. Due to her health and her lack of status, it was difficult for her to go back to Nepal. When the earthquake hit, her son’s business in Nepal was destroyed, making the income she sent back to her family ever more important. Pema was one of the first people, she proclaimed, to apply for TPS in 2015. “I’ve lived here more than 23 years,” she said, “and I will fight until TPS gets legalized.” Together, panel members go through the proposed bills in Congress that tackle the long-term status of TPS holders and offer their opinions on each.
When a panel of immigration lawyers takes the floor to address the questions of audience members, the complexity of community member’s individual situations are revealed, as well as their knowledge of immigration bureaucracies. In translation, questions such as these are asked:
I was undocumented when I got TPS, and I went to Nepal last year. Could I get F1 or H1B status now that I have TPS?
Can I have my employer sponsor me for an adjustment of status?
If TPS is not renewed, what happens to someone who has a deportation order?
How risky is it to travel with my advanced parole before the TPS renewal date?
I have health insurance and am doing dialysis. What happens to my health insurance if TPS ends?
Is there a relation between U visas and TPS?
“There are a lot of TPS recipients who have never done anything with us in the past,” Executive Director Pabitra Khati Benjamin explained to Kajal over the phone in December 2017. She had just come back home from a civil disobedience action on Capitol Hill, where she got arrested along with other activists. “They’ve come in for services, come in to get questions answered for TPS; we helped them get their TPS status, whatever it may be.”
With the earthquake designation of TPS for Nepal in 2015, Adhikaar’s staff were also thrust into the role of being a center where eligible Nepalis could go get help applying for the status. In 2015, they helped over 1600 individuals navigate the application process to get TPS. “We have never purposely organized TPS holders before,” she reflected. “We are starting to do that now.”
The two Adhikaar volunteers’ presence at the November rally at Trump Tower was an example of the organization’s new forays into immigrant rights activism focused on activating TPS holders themselves. But fighting for immigration reform is not a simple matter of making a vague call for “rights” or “reform.” The backgrounds and legal status of immigrants are varied and complex, and what is a benefit for one class may be a deprivation for another. Demands are often made in specific terms, in the form of proposed legislation, in the jargon of the American regulatory state. Adhikaar’s staff and volunteers found themselves in the difficult position of having to learn the ropes while spreading knowledge to the community, and organizing community members for on-the-street protest.
“Ideally, in any organizing campaign if you’re living in a bubble, we’d be like, ‘Ok we’re gonna spend 6 months just on educating our community then once we have the political education built we’re gonna do a town hall. Then after we do a town hall we’re gonna reach out to our leaders and use our leaders to then reach out to these other folks,” Khati Benjamin said. But the speed and hatred with which the Trump administration has acted to strip immigrants of even basic protections like TPS has forced their hand. They had to act fast and improvisationally.
Khati Benjamin acknowledged that there is a lot of fear in the community about what will happen to TPS holders and their families if the program is not renewed in April 2018. Some TPS holders may have options for other forms of immigration relief, but others may be left without any protections from deportation. Even worse, some TPS holders without any other paths to legal status have children who are US citizens. If they lost TPS, then they are at risk of being torn from their families by immigration enforcement.
Despite the uncertainty and uneasiness in the community, Adhikaar is taking an assertive approach to their response: “I think what we really want to be pushing is that we want to be turning fear into the power to fight back.”
But what does fighting back look like for an organization relying on new volunteers who are less experienced in immigration advocacy? What is at stake for a community that’s rarely talked about when it comes to discussions of immigration reform, even within South Asian forums?
Khati Benjamin has her staff read and review every relevant piece of proposed legislation on TPS. Instead of gradually building up political awareness among their members, they ran public sessions that served as crash courses in American civics. Recalling a meeting of 20 community members where Adhikaar’s basic demands regarding TPS legislation were formed, Khati Benjamin said, “I had to do 101 about ‘What is Congress.’ So we’re starting at the level of what is a bill, what is law, you know. And about how can we even change the law to get TPS recipients a pathway to citizenship. We’re doing a lot of education in the matter of an hour.”
Many of the TPS recipients Adhikaar is trying to activate are working-class folks who have jobs with minimal flexibility around their hours, and they also have limited literacy and English proficiency. These two factors make it even more difficult for community volunteers to become involved in activities like street actions and lobbying elected officials. Nevertheless, Adhikaar put together a team of 20 volunteers and staff, including kids, who accomplished both efforts on a trip to Congress in December 2017 for the National Week of Action to protect DACA and TPS recipients.
The team not only engaged in civil disobedience actions and lobbying visits to congressional offices on Capitol Hill. They also used the week as an opportunity to learn from other immigrant advocacy groups with more experience about strategy and what longer term issues need to be considered. “Sometimes you can get caught up in all the things that are happening just now, and you’re not thinking strategically about where we wanna be in 10 years,” Khati Benjamin noted.
Crucially, the Adhikaar team also gained insights into the impact of racial politics even within advocacy movements for immigration rights. “The two communities that are often left out of the conversation around immigration are the Black community and the Asian community,” Khati Benjamin reflected.
At the same time, there has been a history of anti-blackness, particularly amongst Asian immigrants, that has hindered effective partnership and solidarity. In acknowledgment of that history, the National Week of Action included an AAPI-Black solidarity day managed by Undocublack and NAKASEC, two immigrant advocacy groups with nationwide presence. “We had a lot of training for folks around anti blackness and how that relates to anti immigration. And how we have stereotypes about one another in our communities and how that hinders us from building the type of solidarity and movement that we need. We lobbied and had a press conference together, and one of our staff members, Maya, spoke at that press conference,” she recounted.
The most affecting part of the week of mobilization, in Khati Benjamin’s opinion, was the way that young children from across the communities participating inserted themselves into the activism on the Hill in the We Belong Together campaign. They held their own press conference to talk about the ways immigration reform would affect them, and they followed up by singing political ‘Christmas carols” and delivering letters from other children of vulnerable immigrants to lawmakers’ offices. “I’ve been around civil actions, not a lot of things move me. but man I was bawling!” Khati Benjamin laughed, recalling the children’s actions. Adhikaar’s organizing director Narbada Chettri, a ten year veteran of the organization, agreed that the transformation she witnessed in the kids that accompanied the Adhikaar team was powerful and inspiring. “We [Adhikaar] haven’t really worked as hard to educate our young people, and it was like a wake up call to us why we needed to,” Khati Benjamin concluded.
Through participation in initiatives like the National Week of Action, Adhikaar certainly is channeling the fear in the community into the power to fight back. Yet, given the persistent, malicious way the Trump administration has thus far ignored pleas for reason and mercy when it comes to immigration reform, the fear cannot be fully eradicated through activism. The question remains in the back of everyone’s minds: What if we lose?
It is clear that despite the commitment displayed by Adhikaar’s team, and the encouragement and advice provided by the supportive lawmakers and other activists at the Town Hall, community members persist in thinking ahead to the worst possible outcome. And who can blame them?
Khati Benjamin is fully cognizant of this insecurity, and has been incorporating planning for worse futures into Adhikaar’s organizing efforts. “We want to work with groups like DRUM, in terms of reaching out to businesses and mandirs around creating sanctuary spaces–and not just creating sanctuary spaces, but to go beyond the sanctuary spaces to really protect our community. One of the things we have to think about is, ok if we don’t get TPS, let’s say the Trump administration comes down hard. How do we then protect the people that go out of status again? That will be through broader and bigger pushes in New York City to not just be a place of sanctuary in-name, but to really uphold the values that the political leaders in NYC talk about, and to really protect undocumented immigrants. That means keeping ICE out of courts. It means keeping the relationship between police and ICE separate,” Benjamin says.
It also means working within the broader pan-South Asian community, where Nepali folks also live and work, to build a sense of solidarity with the struggles of neighbors from different class and immigration backgrounds. A sense of kinship has not always been something working-class Nepalis have been able to rely on.
“When everything happened, a lot of our community that were undocumented or had TPS were afraid to start reporting their wage theft claims or their sick days, because their employers would threaten them with ICE. That’s happening unfortunately from within our own community. Unfortunately, a lot of the people that employ our people are Indian folks that aren’t treating our people right. The documented people that have more, that are middle and upper-class are paying our lower and working wage people like shit and threatening them around immigration,” Khati Benjamin stated.
She maintains that the best way to address the divisions within the community is through dialogue that has to be led by youth. “I do think it comes down to conversations, and people being brave and having conversations with their parents, neighbors, masjid, and temple leaders. Young desi folks should talk to their parents if they have a domestic worker to be like, Hey are you paying your people right? Are you giving them sick days? Are you helping them with their fight around TPS? I think that those are conversations we really need to start having.”
DHS will make the decision on whether or not to renew TPS for Nepal by April 25, 2018. Until then Adhikaar will keep fighting, through meetings in Washington DC and with local lawmakers and through street actions in collaboration with other immigrant groups. On March 30th, Adhikaar was joined in the struggle by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose office submitted a letter to DHS urging the agency to extend TPS for Nepal for the full 18 month renewal term. In addition to these tried and true organizing tactics, the members will make themselves heard through their social media presence and through the power of witnessing. As several activists encouraged the attendees at their town hall: share your stories. share your stories. share your stories.
No matter what happens on the TPS front, Khati Benjamin is excited about the ways this fight has energized the community and newly initiated people into grassroots organizing and advocacy.
”Expect good things from us in the next few years.”