Politics

American Sikh Congressional Caucus

By Anju Kaur | April 26, 2013

“American Sikhs have contributed to the strength and diversity for over 130 years,” said Judy Chu, co-chairwoman of the caucus, and a Democrat whose California district includes Pasadena. “But today, American Sikhs face unique challenges.”  
 
The caucus’s first priority is educating Congress, said David Valadao, co-chairman of the caucus, and a Republican whose California district includes Central Valley.
 
“We believe there are so many Congress members that do not know what is going on with Sikh Americans and just how enormous the issues are on so many different fronts,” he said. 
 
Twenty-one Democrats and 7 Republicans, more than half from California, pledged to work on Sikh issues in the US, including hate-crime data collection, school bullying, employment discrimination, profiling by airport security and enlisting in the armed forces.
 
“Our focus is really on what is happening domestically,” Chu said, when asked about international Sikh issues. “There are so many issues that are happening to Sikh Americans in the United States.” 
 
About 30 representatives of nearly all national Sikh organizations - including United Sikhs, the Sikh Coalition, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and Sikhs For Justice - gathered with caucus members and their staff on April 24 at the Cannon House Building for a news conference announcing the caucus. 
 
 
This was the vision of many individuals and organizations that have wanted to form this caucus for many years, said Harpreet Singh Sandhu, a political activist from Richmond, California.
 
One of the biggest hurdles was using the word ‘Sikh’ in the name. Because separation of church and state, using the word ‘Sikh’ implies that the Congress members are supporting a religion. But, after researching other caucuses, Harpreet Singh found one called the Latino-Jewish Congressional Caucus. 
 
The Committee on House Administration, which registers caucuses, recommended the name ‘American Sikh Congressional Issues Caucus’ to avoid the conflict of interest. But he pushed the committee to consider ‘Sikh’ as an ethnicity, just as it could consider ‘Jewish’ as an ethnicity. 
 
“(This) is not a religious caucus, it is that of the ethnicity of the Sikhs and the things that concern them,” Harpreet Singh said.
 
It did not take long after that to set a launch date, March 14, the Sikh New Year. But that was suddenly postponed a couple of days ahead of the launch date to garner more support from Congress members and to resolve issues on the involvement of SAALT, a South Asian organization. 
 
Chu was the only known member of the caucus at that time. But about a month later, the caucus had 28 bi-partisan members. And SAALT was given a less prominent role. 
 
The national Sikh American groups, especially those active in Washington, brought to the caucus members of Congress with whom they have closely worked, Chu told SikhNN.
 
“The timing wasn’t (right then) but today it was good timing, in the month of Baisakhi, when we are celebrating the birth of Sikhism along with the caucus,” Harpreet Singh told SikhNN. “With this caucus we’ll be able to address the issues of the Sikhs and educate and formulate many of the policies… We want to be able to serve this nation in our saroop, and that’s something that is wonderful that this caucus will take upon itself.”
 
“We want to make sure that all the national Sikh American groups participate or any of the local groups, that they all participate and that they see us as a conduit for us to affect policy in our government,” Chu said. “But if you want to talk to us directly, please feel free to contact us.”
 
Seven of the 28 caucus-members came to speak at the news conference.
 
“Following the attacks on Sept. 11, many Sikhs have been incorrectly stereotyped, Valadao said. “They have had to deal with bullying, discrimination and bias-motivated violence by individuals who incorrectly associated them with terrorist attacks on our country.”
 
Valadao’s district is home to more than 25,000 Sikhs, the largest population in the United States, and includes at least seven gurdwaras and the largest collection of Punjabi books in one of its public libraries.
 
John Garamendi, a Democrat whose California district includes Yuba City, said he had been working with Sikhs for nearly 40 years, calling them “very, very fine citizens of the community.” 
 
Last month, Garamendi helped form a coalition of more than 100 members of Congress to encourage the FBI to track hate crimes against Sikh, Hindu, and Arab-Americans, according to his news release. The FBI’s decision is expected in June. 
 
“With all the problems that have been described by the co-chairs, it’s real,” he said. “It’s very real in our district, it’s very real across America. We intend to address all that.” 
 
“This will play an important educational role in the country at large and specifically for members of Congress who, I must say, we have a lot to learn about the Sikh religion, about the culture and about what we can do as Americans to benefit from the richness of our diverse society, said Rush Holt, a Democrat whose New Jersey district includes Princeton.
 
Holt said he often visits the gurdwaras in his district and that he is “really impressed with the community spirit that we see all the time from the Sikhs in my district, and I’m sure in the other congressional districts around the country.”
 
“You’ve noticed that members of Congress have really (outdone) themselves to be with you, in ways I have not seen before,” said Mike Honda, a Democrat whose California district includes San Jose. “We’re all here, that after 9/11, make sure that the racial profiling or the targeting of Sikh community would not occur.”
 
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican whose Florida district includes Miami, said the caucus would advocate for solutions to end bullying, to end racial profiling and to protect the religious freedoms of everyone, especially in the workplace. 
 
Sikhs are suffering because so many people do not understand or are simply unfamiliar with this religion, she said. The caucus would serve as a way to build knowledge and raise awareness about the religion and the community.
 
“It’s time we embrace our Sikh brothers and sisters as peaceful and productive members of American society because you are American,” Ros-Lehtinen added. “The Sikh American caucus will raise awareness on the Sikh religion and on the culture that binds the community together.”
 
Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat whose California district includes San Jose, described the opening of the largest gurdwara in the US, on Vaisakhi two years ago. 
 
More than 10,000 people came to celebrate, she said. The governor of California, the mayor of San Jose and Lofgren were joined by representatives of other religious communities. 
 
“That is the society that we honor and celebrate,” she said. “It is that spirit of celebration of our differences that we hope to bring with this Sikh caucus.”
 
In a more candid moment, Lofgren held up her iPhone to show everyone the Fly Rights application, designed by the Sikh Coalition to submit complaints of excessive airport security checks. 
 
“The fact that we need to have this app because there is so much discrimination tells us something,” she said. “So I look forward to the day when this app is no longer necessary.”

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The following members of Congress joined the American Sikh Congressional Caucus, as of April 24.

Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles, California-37)
Rep. Judy Chu (D-Pasadena, California-27)
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Annandale, Virginia-11)
Rep. John Conyers (D-Detroit, Michigan-13)
Rep. Jim Costa (D-Fresno, California-16)
Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Modesto, California-10)
Rep. John Garamendi (D-Yuba City, California-3)
Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Tuscon, Arizona-3)
Rep. Joe Heck (R-Henderson, Nevada-3)
Rep. Rush Holt (D-West Windsor, New Jersey-12)
Rep. Mike Honda (D-Fremont, California-12)
Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Lithonia, Georgia-4)
Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Redding, California-1)
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose, California-19)
Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Granite Bay, California-4)
Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Stockton, California-9)
Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-New York, New York-12)
Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Sacramento, California-6)
Rep. George Miller (D-Concord, California-11)
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Clovis, California-22)
Rep. Frank Pallone (D-New Brunswick, New Jersey-6)
Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-Patterson, New Jersey-9)
Rep. Gary Peters (D-Detroit, Michigan-14)
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Miami, Florida-27)
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Chicago, Illinois-9)
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-San Mateo, California-14)
Rep. David Valadao (R-Bakersfield, California-21)
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Rockville, Maryland-8)