On a recent Sunday evening, some 150 people gathered at the Hindu temple in Secaucus seeking answers to questions that were more earthly than spiritual.
Prayer temporarily took a backseat as those assembled wanted to know from community activists and an Indian diplomat who had been invited to the event if the future holds any hope for Hudson County’s undocumented Indian Americans after President Obama’s executive action last year announcing possible legal status for all undocumented residents.
Those gathered have been living in the shadows for years, and like many others, had heard about Obama’s announcement but had no clue what to do to get permanent resident status.
Most work in convenience stores, groceries and restaurants to eke out a living and have little knowledge about the path to green cards.
Questions like “Can I visit India once and come back?” and “What do I do now for a green card, as my passport expired long ago?” were posed at the meeting, which was organized by activists like Ravi Patel.
The temple had nothing to do with the assembly besides allowing use of its facility.
“People have been living in fear and anxiety for years and now, for the first time, the presidential announcement has brought some hope,” Patel, an Edison resident who launched the social media campaign “Indians for Identity” late last year, said. “But the problem is that most people have no legal document, like a valid passport, to prove their identity.”
That lack of paperwork that is needed for filing applications for legal status, Patel said, could lead to exploitation by middlemen.
Patel stressed the importance of having passports and talked about how to go about getting one renewed if it has expired.
“The Indian government must provide some kind of identity like passports to these people so they become eligible for change of status,” he told The Jersey Journal.
People like Bhavesh Dave, a businessman in an Indian market on Newark Avenue and president of the Newark Avenue-Jersey City Chamber of Commerce, however, would like to see the Jersey City administration, rather than the Indian Consulate in New York, issue identity documents for people working in Indian Square in Jersey City.
“For most people in our community, Mr. Obama and Washington are too far off, and they trust the local administration more than federal government agencies for delivering the goods,” he said.
Dave insists the city could provide some immediate relief if it wants to.
He recalled that some four years ago, the county Sheriff’s Department issued some 200 identity cards to Indian American senior citizens and non-citizens at an ID camp he organized. A few undocumented people also got such IDs as they did not need to provide proof of their immigration status on the form.
“These IDs without expiration dates have helped illegal people rent space for living although it has not legalized their stay here,” Dave said. “Still, people are better off having a government-issued ID rather than being without one.”
The mayor of New York City has launched an ID card project for all city residents, including undocumented ones. Hudson’s County’s neighboring Newark City likely will follow suit.
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said last month that his administration will explore a municipal identification program for undocumented city residents. He said the program would give undocumented Newarkers an identification card that could give them access to city services and the ability to hold a bank account.
Jersey City is considering such a program, Mayor Steven Fulop’s office said.
“We are actively exploring the issuance of these cards and think they can be effective in solving some challenges,” city spokeswoman Jennifer Morrill said.
Official estimates say the Indian American population in Hudson County was a little more than 40,000 in 2010, the second largest Indian American population in the state after Middlesex County. Both Dave and Patel estimated that the Illegal Indian American population in Hudson would be anywhere from 5,000 to 7,000 strong.
Dave made a pitch for such identity cards for undocumented residents, particularly those living and working in Indian Square, where there are some 160 small businesses, including 20 restaurants.
“These workers, both young and old, are extremely hard-working and willing to pay taxes and want to open bank accounts,” he said. “Some of them work during the day and go to community college to further their job prospects. Imagine how the government coffer would benefit if these people could open bank accounts and pay their taxes.”
People like Shovan Alam, 31, or Bhavat Shastri, 68, both of whom work in groceries in the Indian market, are hungry for change.
They live, they said, with both hope and frustration as they do not know if something positive will ultimately come out of Obama’s executive order and if so, when.
“I have not seen my folks in the last 16 years as I could not visit my native Gujarat due to my immigration situation here,” Shastri said in Hindi. “I want to visit them at least once before I become too old and infirm to travel. … Do you think the mayor will someday do something for undocumented people us?”