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'Just because you're an immigrant doesn't mean you should live in fear'

By Aziz Haniffa
March 26, 2015 16:56 IST
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Three years after the horrific massacre of Sikh worshippers at the Oak Creek, Wisconsin, gurdwara by a gunman with ties to supremacist organisations, a federal system to help track hate crimes against Sikhs, Hindu, Arab American communities has been formalised.

Resources will be provided to train law enforcement agents to work with these at-risk communities that are often targeted by race-baiters and bigots.

At a Capitol Hill press conference March 25, several US lawmakers, led by Congressman Joe Crowley -- the New York Democrat, who was the driving force behind this effort to convince the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to put such a system in place -- welcomed this long sought after final step in tracking and quantifying hate crimes against these at-risk communities.

The DoJ and the FBI have now updated its hate crimes database and FBI training manual to start tracking hate crimes committed against these groups. The system is now fully operational.

Besides Crowley, the lawmakers on hand to celebrate this victory, all Democrats, were Dr Amerish ‘Ami’ Bera of California, the only Indian American in Congress, Bill Pascrell of New Jersey, Mike Honda of California, Grace Meng of New York, John Garamendi and Judy Chu, both of California.

The lawmakers had led a three year-long Congressional effort to encourage the DoJ and FBI to document hate crimes against Sikh, Hindu and Arab Americans, writing numerous letters to the DoJ and FBI, introducing a Congressional resolution in the wake of the Oak Creek gurdwara massacre and submitting testimony, urging action on hate crimes.

‘I have been so proud to stand with my colleagues who have worked so hard to bring attention to this issue,’ Crowley, vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus, and erstwhile co-chair on three occasions of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, presiding over the press conference, said.

‘I'm proud to stand alongside these incredible civil rights groups who refuse to let injustice slip by,’ Crowley added.

‘For years, collectively, we've pushed the Department of Justice and FBI to include attacks against Sikh, Hindu and Arab-American communities as part of their hate crimes tracking efforts,’ Crowley said.

‘Today, we are proud to say that those efforts have paid off. The Department of Justice and the FBI have officially updated their hate crimes tracking system and training manual to include Sikh, Hindu, and Arab Americans just as it does for other at-risk communities.’

‘Tragically, these communities are no stranger to unspeakable acts of hate,’ Crowley said. ‘Whether it be in New York or Sacramento, or the horrific massacre we saw unfold at the Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, the sad fact remains that many in these communities have -- and will continue to be -- targets of hate.’

‘That has to change,’ he asserted, ‘but we can't fully grasp or solve a problem until we know exactly what it is we are dealing with. That's why collecting data on hate crimes is so critical.’

‘Tracking hate crimes is more than the questions of who, or when, or how. It's about why? What could have prevented this? What could be done to better protect this community?’ Crowley argued. ‘These are the questions we could never get answers to. Until now.’

‘Now, we can help ensure that police officers are trained and educated to effectively identify members these communities and the specific threats they face. Now, we can ensure that resources are being funnelled to the right communities, the right locations to help prevent crime in the first place.’

‘Now,’ Crowley said, ‘these communities know that their government is behind them. This has been a long time in the making. But make no mistake: This is no small change. This isn't an edit that needed to be corrected. This is a monumental moment that has a very real impact on these communities.’

‘Since the September 11th attacks,’ Dr Bera said, ‘too many Americans, especially Sikh, Hindu and Arab Americans have been wrongfully subjected to hate crimes and discrimination, including the shooting of two Sikh Americans in my own city.’

‘I’ve been calling for these steps since I got to Congress because they are important to  confronting hatred and increasing public awareness about the crimes committed against often-targeted people,’ Dr Bera said. ‘This is a big win for these communities, and a huge win for justice.’

‘Just because you're Muslim or a Sikh or an immigrant doesn't mean you should have to live your life in fear,’ Pascrell, who noted he represents ‘one of the most diverse districts in the nation,’ said.

‘This is an unfortunate, ongoing, issue for these communities -- where in just the last few months -- an Islamic center, a Hindu temple, two multiple Muslim families, and an Indian grandfather were all targets of hate,’ Meng said, adding, ‘I want to applaud Congressman Crowley for his hard work on this issue.’

In April 2012, the group of lawmakers present at the press conference led a letter signed by 93 of their colleagues urging the FBI and DoJ to begin tracking and documenting hate crimes committed against Sikh Americans.

Following the August 2012 attack on the Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, the members spearheaded the introduction of a Congressional resolution recognising the contributions of the Sikh-American community and urging action on hate crimes.

In March 2013, this group of lawmakers again spearheaded a letter signed by over 100 members of Congress to the FBI Advisory Policy Board to express strong support to begin tracking and quantifying hate crimes against Sikh, Hindu and Arab Americans.

Subsequently, the advisory board recommended that the FBI begin collecting this information.

Two years later, the DoJ has formalised its hate crimes tracking mechanism and FBI training manual, used by law enforcement agencies across the country, to include guidelines for tracking hate crimes against Sikh, Hindu, and Arab Americans.

Lakshmi Sridaran, Director of Policy and Advocacy, South Asian Americans Leading Together, said ensuring that the FBI hate crimes training manual was updated to include Arab, Hindu and Sikh categories is ‘more important now than ever with the recent spike in hate violence targeting our communities.’

‘Our work ahead will be to ensure our communities are informed of these critical updates and are able to build trust with law enforcement,’ Sridaran added, ‘so that hate crimes targeting South Asians, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Middle Easterners and Arabs are appropriately documented and prosecuted.’

‘Year after year, Sikh Americans were being targeted for harassment and violence because of their distinct identity,’ Rajdeep Singh, Director of Law and Policy, Sikh Coalition, said, adding, ‘For the first time, the FBI officially acknowledges that Sikhs are targeted for being Sikhs. While refinements are needed to the agency’s tracking system and training standards, we are making progress.'

It ‘marks a step towards ensuring accurate reporting of hate crimes committed against Sikhs,’ Jasjit Singh, Executive Director, Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said, ‘an important step that will ultimately aid the Sikh community as we continue to address the roots of anti-Sikh bias.’

‘Even as our community grows, Hindu Americans remain uniquely vulnerable to harassment, bullying and violence,’ pointed out Harsh Voruganti, Associate Director of Public Policy, Hindu American Foundation. ‘The federal tracking of anti-Hindu, anti-Sikh and anti-Arab hate crimes is an important, if long-overdue, development.’

‘On this historic day,’ Voruganti wanted to ‘remember Sunando Sen, a Hindu from Representative Crowley’s home state of New York, who was murdered in a New York City subway station because of his faith.’

‘While this tracking comes too late for Sunando,’ Voruganti said, ‘it can help ensure that hate violence is combated effectively in the future.’

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