Seattle City Council Member Kshama Sawant is no stranger to controversy or contradiction. And she’s stirring the pot yet again. This time it’s on an issue that’s way out of her jurisdiction — India’s Citizenship Amendment Act.
Here’s what she claimed on Twitter on Jan. 22 while campaigning for her resolution that’s up for vote in coming weeks: “The Citizenship Amendment Act & National Register of Citizens threaten to strip away the citizenship rights of — and render stateless — India's 200 million Muslims, and hundreds of millions of others — oppressed castes, women, the poor, and LGBTQ people.”
All the right catch-phrases for a “progressive” and self-proclaimed socialist. Except they belie the facts. India’s Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which was voted into law on Dec. 17, 2019, creates a fast-track path to citizenship for persecuted religious minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. In other words, it provides legal status and a slightly shorter wait time to naturalize the persecuted Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Sikh, and Zoroastrian (Parsi) refugees who arrived in India on or before Dec. 31, 2014.
India has not made a single change to the rights of existing Indian citizens. Naturalization requirements for immigrants not fleeing religious persecution remain unchanged. And other persecuted refugees, including Muslims, can still immigrate to India through normal channels.
The CAA is meant to provide refuge to tens of thousands of people like Amar Lal, a Pakistani Hindu who in 2010 grabbed his family, passports, and whatever few possessions they could carry to flee Pakistan. His younger brother’s wife’s kidnapping was the last straw. They knew there was little chance they’d see her again. She met the same fate that thousands of Hindu and Christian women in Pakistan face — kidnapping, forced conversion to Islam, and being sold into sex slavery or married off to strangers, often twice their age.
When they arrived in India, they were met not with a safe haven, but new dangers. Lack of legal immigration status — India had no formal refugee policy in place to handle the massive inflow of the religiously persecuted — meant they were forced to settle into a squalid, makeshift tent city.
Temporary permits restricted their movement to only a particular geographic radius, or else face arrest. Their dusty shelter of tattered canvases strewn together offered little respite from Rajasthan’s unforgiving desert weather.
Lack of adequate food, electricity, and sanitation, and the trauma of an albeit fear-laden life interrupted, made them prime candidates for depression, anxiety and respiratory and water-borne diseases. Without legal status, a steady job and education for his children — the surest means of escaping their misery and starting afresh — were also out of the realm of possibility.
As of 2013, there were hundreds of camps like the one the Lal family moved into scattered across western and northern India. An estimated 100,000 Pakistani Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs had fled their home country and approximately 1,000 persecuted people were annually crossing the border into Rajasthan alone.
Even though they met the criteria for refugee status under international law due to their well-founded fear of persecution and the Pakistan government’s failure to protect them, they were not officially recognized as refugees by either the Indian government or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Religious refugees from Afghanistan and Bangladesh shared a similar fate. Without a formal refugee policy in place, these people fleeing religious persecution were caught in legal limbo. That is until the passage of the CAA.
This is why Sawant’s outcry of concern, and that of others, including Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), is not only misguided, but heartless. It’s also hypocritical because we have our own version of this kind of law and Seattle has been a beneficiary.
The state of Washington has a great legacy of positively contributing to refugee resettlement. In fact, it ranks 5th in resettlement in the U.S. It’s also home to the largest Ukrainian refugee community — many of whom live in Seattle. It’s likely many, if not most, Ukrainians have been able to successfully seek asylum in the U.S. thanks to the Lautenberg Amendment (1989).
Similar to India’s CAA, the Lautenberg Amendment creates a legal presumption of refugee status for certain religious minorities. Thus, unlike other classes of refugees, those coming under its purview do not have to prove they faced a well-founded fear of persecution.
The original amendment specified Jews and evangelical Christians from the former Soviet Union, and members of the Ukrainian Catholic and Orthodox churches. Over the years, the law, with the passage of the Specter Amendment in 2004, has been expanded to include Baha'i, Christians, and Jews from Iran.
This means persecuted Russian Hindus, Mormons and Muslims are not barred from seeking asylum, but they are subject to the higher burdens of proof which Lautenberg lifts for only particular groups.
Indeed, any specific outlining of groups is prone to inadvertent exclusion which is why both laws could benefit from neutral language like replacing specific mentions of groups with the more general term “religious minorities.”
In Councilwoman Sawant’s resolution, however, one will find a lot of outrage and very little that’s constructive because she’s not seeking solutions, she’s seeking a stage. She wants to bash a U.S. ally like India for her own personal and political gain. Sawant's Trumpian tactics are what's wrong with our politics today.
Suhag A. Shukla, Esq. is the Executive Director and Co-founder Hindu American Foundation. (www.HAFsite.org)