For the Sikh-American community and greater Asian-Pacific Islander American community, the fight for the rights of citizenship, including the right to vote, is a critical part of our history in the United States.
In 1922, Takao Ozawa, a 20-year resident of the U.S., and in 1923, Bhagat Singh Thind, a veteran of World War I, were denied the right to become citizens and have voice in their home by the Supreme Court because they were not white. It was not until 1956 that Dalip Singh Saund would become the first Asian-Pacific Islander American congressman and the only Sikh-American to serve following years of advocacy for the right to become a citizen and have a vote and a voice in his country.
When the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, which struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act and stripped critical protections for voters, Chief Justice Roberts called upon Congress to update the Voting Rights Act.
With every day that passes without this revision, new voting procedures are proposed and implemented while the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) ability to protect the right to vote is limited.
Recent history proves that Asian-Americans have faced discrimination at the polls, and our communities’ political voice can be stifled during the redistricting process. For example, in 2012 the Asian-American community supported the DOJ in Perry v. Perez when the Texas state legislature’s redistricting plan diluted the voting power of Asian-Americans and other people of color.
During a 2004 city council primary in Bayou La Batre, Alabama, a Vietnamese-American candidate, Phuong Tan Huynh, ran against incumbent Jackie Ladnier. Ladnier and his supporters challenged more than 40 Asian-American voters at the polls, saying that if they could not speak English well, they might not be citizens. The DOJ intervened, and Huynh went on to become the first Asian-American on the city council.
The Voting Rights Amendment Act offers bipartisan and fair protections that would allow the voters in Texas, Bayou La Batre and across the nation to exercise their rights without interference. While the bill is not perfect, we firmly believe that now is the time to build on the critical tools in this piece of legislation by working together to strengthen the overall bill and stop discriminatory voting practices wherever they occur.
Jasjit Singh is executive director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF). He wrote this for this newspaper.