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Deepa Iyer: Leading A Campaign for Immigrant and Civil Rights

 With the nation confronting urgent issues such as the economic downturn and reform of the immigration system, more than 200 individuals, including representatives from 33 organizations in 17 States, gathered for the 2009 South Asian Summit to amplify local voices and experiences at the national level. The Summit, co-sponsored by South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) and the South Asian Law Students Association (SALSA) of American University Washington College of Law in April this year.

"The 2009 National South Asian Summit created a space for organizations, community members and activists to reconnect with each other and strengthen networks and strategies that will enable us to continue our work to support social change movements," said Deepa Iyer, Executive Director of South Asian Americans Leading Together.

Deepa Iyer, who moved from India to Kentucky when she was 12 years old, has come a long way, blazing a path from there to being the executive director of the increasingly influential SAALT, which "advocates around civil rights and immigrant rights issues facing the South Asian community in the United States. I look forward to a discussion about the experiences of immigrants in the United States, and how immigrants are being treated."

 Iyer says, "Immigrants face many challenges when they come to the US – they are in a different culture; they might have problems understanding or speaking English; and they sometimes face harassment or mistreatment. Your immigrant experience will also depend on where you live – if you are in an area like California, New York, Florida, Texas or Illinois, which have the highest numbers of immigrants, you might find a support network to rely on." The combination of hard work, timely opportunity and key influences has shaped her perceptions of democracy.

"Part of the reason I am active with an organization like SAALT and really believe in the mission of civic and political engagement is due to the adjustment period that I had and some of the experiences that my family and I faced," she says. These were not unusual or traumatic experiences, but she recalls times "when my family felt marginalized and isolated in the community."

She says people made assumptions about her family’s origins and their English-language skills based on inaccurate stereotypes. Seeing other immigrants and minorities have similar experiences "shaped my desire to become part of a movement in the United States that was based on social justice and equality," she says.

That, she says, is "the promise of America, in that there is this amazing diversity in race, national origin, in so many ways, and the promise is that we can all have the same rights and share the same benefits and privileges that come with the Constitution." The opportunity for social justice is great, she says, "but it’s also a struggle, and it’s something that sometimes gets harder with time."

Deepa Iyer’s struggle has centered on immigration issues, which rank high on the SAALT priority list. In her recent testimony before a House immigration reform subcommittee, she appealed for legal means for immigrant workers to contribute to the U.S. economy and become permanent residents. An immigration clinic at Notre Dame University in Indiana, where she got her law degree, piqued her interest in immigrant rights issues and the legal challenges immigrants face. She decided to pursue civil rights work, leaving an Indianapolis law firm to take a job with the Asian American Justice Center, where she learned the importance of governmental, legislative and grassroots advocacy.

For several years, she was a trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice, which gave her valuable experience in litigation. She left within a year after September 11, 2001, "primarily because it was difficult for me to be in the Department of Justice as a civil rights lawyer when the government was also responsible for implementing initiatives that were so detrimental" to some minority communities, she says.

Subsequently, while legal director for the Washington area-based Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center, she worked with a coalition that successfully advocated for the passage of a language access law in the city, one of the few in the country. It mandates multilingual materials and sometimes bilingual staff be provided by city agencies.

Since 2004 when she joined SAALT as director, she has spearheaded programs that effectively educate immigrants about their rights and issues important to them. To raise awareness, SAALT hosts town meetings and other events, which have intensified ahead of 2008 presidential elections, in which immigration will be a top issue.

Emphasizing that immigrants range from naturalized citizens to those on special visas and the undocumented, Iyer says, "I don’t think civic engagement and civic participation is just about voting and being a citizen," adding, "You don’t have to be a citizen in order to feel connected to this country and in order to feel connected to your community."

Defending civil rights is Deepa Iyer’s passion. Early on, she says, "I found what I am passionate about and I feel really lucky about that. I was able to recognize what I was interested in … and chart a path based on that interest in what moves me and drives me."

According her, there are about 2.5 million South Asians in the United States, who are currently, getting very involved with the 2008 elections. During the last presidential election period, there were numerous efforts to register people to vote; and people campaigning for McCain, Obama and Clinton. She says, "It’s doubtful that South Asians can be a swing vote by themselves, but it is interesting to see how engaged South Asians - especially those in the second generation, have been in the past election-cycle."

Under her leadership, several initiatives have been taken. The latest in the series has been the 2009 South Asian Summit. In June 2008, more than 30 community- based organizations around the country came together to announce the formation of the National Coalition of South Asian Organizations (NCSO). Members of the NCSO came together around shared progressive principles and social justice values. Since our formation a year ago, the Coalition has issued statements in response to current events, published joint opinion editorials about relevant issues and gathered for the 2009 National South Asian Summit that took place in Washington, DC in April 2009.

On the one-year anniversary of the formation of the Coalition, the members of the NCSO have unveiled a new campaign - One Community United: A Campaign for Immigrant and Civil Rights. The One Community United campaign will raise awareness about the immigration challenges and civil rights violations that South Asians encounter; mobilize community members around these issues; and encourage policymakers to strengthen civil rights protections and reform immigration laws in a just and humane manner. Over the next year, broad changes in immigration and civil rights policies are expected. These opportunities highlight the need for South Asians to speak out about our community’s experiences and mobilize towards policy change. As part of the campaign, members of the NCSO will be advocating with policymakers, conducting town halls around the country and sharing stories with the media.

One Community United kicked off with an inaugural town hall in Atlanta, GA co-sponsored by Coalition partners including Raksha and South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), on June 16. Town halls in New Jersey, Chicago, the Bay Area, and the Washington, DC area will occur over the next few months. Some of the participating groups included, Adhikaar, Andolan, Apna Ghar, ASHA for Women, Chaya, and Chhaya CDC, South Asian Progressive Action Collective, South Asian Youth Action, South Asians for Progressive Action, Trikone NW, Turning Point for Women and Families, and UNITED SIKHS. Deepa has taught classes at Columbia University, Hunter College and the University of Maryland about Asian and South Asian American communities, and has published articles about the impact of post 9/11 policies on South Asians in the United States. Deepa is the Executive Producer of a documentary about hate crimes in the post 9/11 environment, and was recently featured in Beyond the Big Law Firm.