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California Diaspora: Some blows, some clout

December 28, 2011 22:56 IST

Despite the Tri Valley University case and hate crimes, the Indian-American community gained ground in California, says Ritu Jha.

After turning pages of old notes, sifting through the year's saved files of all that affected the community in California, a few things stood out -- the case of the Tri-Valley University students, hate crimes targeting Indians, the Dream Act that lets illegal residents stay on under certain conditions, and, above all, the highs and lows the Indian consulate in San Francisco went through.

2011 saw serious changes at bureaucratic levels, both at the embassy in Washington, DC and India's consulate in San Francisco.

N Parthasarathi, the consul general for three months, seems to be trying to bring positive change to the relationship between the diplomats at 540 Arguello Boulevard and the community.

Just a few weeks ago, December 13, the consul community affairs bravely set off -- with no protective entourage in sight -- to hear the Sikh community's problems in procuring visas. Some of these people had feared discussing their problems with the consulate.

The new consul general, from his very first meeting, November 17, has been asking people to trust his officials, and trying to keep them away from agents who promise quick fixes.

The consulate assures people they will get visas for emergency visits to India, that there will be phones that officials will actually pick up, and, that the consulate will stay open Saturday afternoons. For now, the consulate officials are getting rave reviews from the same community that once distrusted all Indian officialdom. Of course, these are early days, so we have to wait and watch to see if the enthusiasm runs dry in 2012.

Things are not so rosy for the charges of immigration attorney Kalpana Peddibhotla. They are the 1,500 students, many of Indian descent, at the erstwhile Tri Valley University, which was closed January 19 without prior notice by the government.

Tri-Valley students across the US were hunted by federal agents, many were arrested and jailed for days, many were radio tagged.

Court documents show that federal agents had decided that Tri Valley was cutting corners for a long time, but kept stamping the visas of foreign students until the university was locked down. Then they described it as a visa mill and a sham university. Susan Xiao-Ping Su, the founder and president of TVU, was arrested in May, but was released on bail the same day. The case goes on.

Meanwhile, at Peddibhotla's office, hapless young students exhibited fear, sorrow and anger as the Notices of Intent to Deny their visas come in, a preliminary step before deportation.

'We aren't criminals,' many of them have declared from Day 1. It does not appear to matter to the powers that be.

There is no strong voice to fight on their behalf. Nobody claims the consulate or the Indian government did not do anything, but the students doubt if they have much clout with senior US officials. A group of attorneys from the North America South Asian Bar Association, community organisations like the Telugu Association of North America and the American Telugu Association have pressured the government, but nothing helped dam the flow of notices.

The latest US Citizenship and Immigration Services showed only 435 students were reinstated. Peddibhotla, who now believes the only recourse is the United States Congress, not the Indian government, has approached US Congressman Mike Honda, a member of the Asian Pacific American Caucus. A letter sent, November 4, to Janet Napolitano, the US secretary, Homeland Security, has evoked no response to date. The students who waited through 2011 for a positive result will have to see what 2012 brings in.

The year was a bad one for the Sikh community. Two elderly Sikh men were killed in Elk Grove, Sacramento county, March 4. One died on the spot and the other in hospital. The Sikh Coalition called it a hate crime. Various religious and civil rights organisations, including the Council on American Islamic Relations, joined the Sikhs in demanding justice, but the killers are still at large.

The case drew the attention of California's lawmakers who, to underline that prejudice and discrimination have no place in California, celebrated April 13 as 'American Sikh Day.' California Governor Jerry Brown flew to Silicon Valley to inaugurate the country's biggest gurdwara there.

Still, hate crimes against Sikhs are not new in California, having increased in number since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Despite all the attempts at raising awareness, a Sikh priest was stabbed at Fresno Yosemite International Airport, December 4.

For those in business, 2011 was a low-grade disaster. Standard & Poor's Ratings Services lowered its long-term sovereign credit rating on the US to AA+ from AAA, the rating that US had kept holding strong since 1917. That shook members of community-dominated organisations like The Indus Entrepreneurs. The arrest of Rajat Gupta, former head of McKinsey and Company, seemed a more direct blow.

There was reason to celebrate, too. TiE Silicon Valley chapter celebrated its first year of angel investment, funding 10 local start-ups.

Despite setbacks, the Indian-American community gained clout -- at least in terms of numbers. The population in California rose from 314,819 in 2000 to 528,176 in 2010, and we asserted ourselves in business and local politics. Which, perhaps, is why even in the face of tightened H1-B rules, Indian-run information technology firms continue to hire, albeit at a slower rate than in boom times. And why Kamala Harris was elected the first female, African-American and Asian-American attorney general of California.

Next year should be an interesting year with Anu Natarajan running for mayor in Fremont, Ricky Gill running for the 9th Congressional District, and Ami Bera of Elk Grove running for California's 7th Congressional district. There is also some buzz that Ro Khanna, a former deputy assistant secretary of commerce in the Obama administration, aims to represent the 13th Congressional District in California.

Attorney Harmeet Dhillon helped Trilochan Singh Oberoi win a discrimination suit that let him keep his religious symbols and gave him both a job -- as a correctional officer -- and $295,000 in damages. Mandeep Chahal, a UC Davis student, received a last-minute reprieve from deportation, which also made her a poster child for the Dream Act.

Thanks to her friends, South Asian Americans Leading Together and attorney Kalpana Peddibhotla, she is back on track on what could end up in medical studies. May things be as good for the rest of the community in 2012.

Ritu Jha covers the West Coast for India Abroad, the newspaper owned by Rediff.com

Ritu Jha