Born to Indian immigrants from Kerala in the United States, Shekar Krishnan could be on his way to becoming one of the first-ever South Asians to be elected to the New York City Council. He won the Democratic primary in District 25 of Queens held in June, representing the Jackson Heights and Elmhurst neighbourhoods that have a significant immigrant population. The New York City Council election is scheduled to be held on November 2.
Krishnan has been a community rights lawyer for almost 12 years now, working primarily in the affordable housing movement. His candidature has been endorsed by Daniel Dromm, the outgoing council member representing District 25.
Scroll.in spoke to Krishnan about life as an immigrant, his election campaign, and his plans for the communities of Jackson Heights and Elmhurst neighbourhoods.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
Tell us about your life as an Indian immigrant in the US. What motivated you to enter politics?
My parents came to the US around 30 years ago, and they struggled with discrimination and the inaccessibility of resources all through their careers as research scientists in the pharmaceutical industry. When they first arrived, they qualified for every single public benefit available at the time but did not receive them because they didn’t know what they were or how they could have applied for them. Our immigrant community faces similar struggles even today.
I saw my parents struggle with a feeling of not belonging here, and I can relate to similar experiences of immigrants in my community. My parents came here with official documents and education, but I saw their struggle despite these privileges. They were discriminated against because of their skin colour, accents, etc, and all that left an indelible impression on me, which is why I chose to become a civil rights lawyer, and eventually venture into politics.
When President Joe Biden declared June as National Immigrant Heritage Month, he said in his statement that “immigrant families and communities of colour who were disproportionately struck by the virus”. Why do you think that is?
This is something most of us here in Jackson Heights know personally – we were at the epicentre of the epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic. Elmhurst Hospital, which was utterly overwhelmed, receives much less in terms of public dollars compared to private healthcare facilities around the city. I don’t think it is an accident that a hospital in an immigrant-dominated neighbourhood has less than one bed for every 1,000 patients. This is a result of decades of disinvestment in immigrant communities.
Immigrant communities living in Jackson Heights and Elmhurst were the most devastated by Covid-19 because there has been a lack of investment in our hospitals and in our housing to make it truly affordable. My campaign focuses on housing because where your home is affects everything else around you. It affects the services that we need but don’t receive from the city government.
We have seen how the housing crisis is linked to the public health crisis. When you look at the systemic inequalities and discrimination that immigrant communities face, you know it’s no accident that immigrants were the ones that were most devastated by the pandemic.
What according to you drives the racial difference in how government services are made available, and what are your plans to resolve it?
The deep-seated historical injustices in our city and across the country, where the government has made deliberate choices over decades to invest and prioritise some communities at the expense of others is what drives racial inequality and how it affects the services we can access.
Covid-19’s disproportionate effect on communities of colour is the result of decades of unequal investment in our social infrastructure. Covid-19 did not create these inequalities, it exacerbated them. New York City has a long history of systemic racial inequality and residential segregation.
The work ahead of us for our city government is to finally respond to neglected neighbourhoods and ensure investment in all services that my communities need, including access to resources in a range of languages, and reasonable funds to our public hospitals, schools, parks, and open spaces. These are the things that the city needs to prioritise for neighbourhoods like mine, the way it should have been all these years.
Tell us about the causes that your campaign stands for, and the reasons why you chose to throw your weight behind them.
Among the many things that I’ve been fighting for through the campaign was to call for a citywide unemployment insurance programme to help the undocumented workers who didn’t receive any relief during the Covid-19 pandemic. The negligence itself shows you how immigrant workers are thoroughly disregarded by our city, even though their labour is essential.
The unavailability of resources in the languages of the immigrants is also a huge problem here that I’d like to address if elected to the council. Immigrants who are not well-versed in English find it difficult to navigate through the bureaucratic processes in the US.
Growing up as a dark-skinned child of immigrants, I saw your skin colour affects the way you are perceived by society. Such things make it clear how fundamentally unequal our society is. This was one of the motivating factors for me to decide to become a civil rights lawyer and ultimately enter politics. Without our communities represented in government, there is no way that we are going to be able to make sure that we get the resources we deserve.
Do increased hate crimes against Asians affect the candidature of a South Asian immigrant?
Hatred against the Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities is not new and goes back decades. Asian Americans have always been invisibilised, tokenised and unseen by American society, leading to prejudices and stereotypes against us.
In my opinion, this is an opportunity to ensure Asian-American representation in our city government. We want to send out a message that we are here, we are not going anywhere, and we are going to fight to make sure that our society and our government sees us, respects us, and gives us the resources that we need for communities to keep us safe. This is a moment to really break down that door and address hate against immigrant communities first-hand.
When Asian Americans were targeted during the mass shooting in Atlanta, we held one of the first vigils at a plaza in our neighbourhood. We ensured instant mobilisation in response to the attack because an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us. It was also very powerful to see hundreds of locals come together in solidarity.
If you are elected to the city council, of which there is an overwhelming possibility, you could be one of the first South Asians to achieve the milestone. How important is that representation in the current sociopolitical atmosphere?
It is critical that we have South Asian representation because a lot of the problems we are talking about affecting our immigrant communities stem from not receiving government benefits and not having our voices at the table when decisions are made. From South Asian business owners to undocumented workers to taxi drivers being preyed upon by rideshare companies, many immigrants find it difficult to navigate through the bureaucratic procedures without support.
Representation matters because it ensures our presence at the decision table. I remember the story of a Bangladeshi family – a father had come up to me when I was campaigning in Elmhurst. His son was ten years old and would get bullied in school for his dark skin. “I’ve shown him your campaign posters and photos to make him understand that it is important to be proud of who you are and where you came from, and even those with dark skin can accomplish great things in their lives,” he told me.
I was moved by this interaction because it made me realise that my candidature as a South Asian can be impactful in ways that we know and ways that we can’t even tell. Growing up, I never saw someone like me or with my skin colour in the government and I know it makes a big difference to so many South Asian youth now who are also navigating their way through this city and in the society.
What do you think of the Texas ruling against DACA?
The Texas ruling is horrific and shows just how much work lies ahead of us to make sure that our country finally values and respects immigrant labour. We worked with dreamers on our campaign too. These are issues that are really personal to so many here in Jackson Heights and Elmhurst and that’s why I was really proud to march with the New York Immigration Coalition, Make The Road New York, and other immigrant organisations my city to say that we need reforms from this presidential administration immediately. We do not accept the Texas ruling and we will fight it with everything we’ve got. It just makes it far more urgent that our federal government finally protects our dreamers and provides a pathway to citizenship for all immigrants.
The political atmosphere in India is quite fragile at the moment. Do you see these divisions (on the lines of religion and caste) represented in the Indian American community as well, and to what extent?
I think casteism is one of the very serious issues in this country too and unfortunately, they can be swept under the rug or denied often. You look at what happened in Silicon Valley or in New Jersey where a temple was built by exploiting Dalit labours. We need to recognise casteism as a serious problem in American society too as much as it is in India. We also have to make sure that all of us are working together to root out and eliminate casteism and religious fundamentalism in all its forms. I don’t think that India or Indian American Society here can ever truly succeed unless we eliminate these evils from among us.
Does having a Vice President of Indian origin help? Has it made it easier for Indian Americans to be accepted more readily in political roles at the grassroots level?
I think that representation wise, it is definitely significant that our Vice President is Indian American as well but that is not nearly enough. It’s not enough to simply have our brown communities represented in government. The bigger question is what will the elected officials from South Asian communities do to actually fight for our South Asian communities, especially the most vulnerable ones.
From that standpoint, representation isn’t about lip service, it isn’t about having someone who is brown in higher positions. It’s about truly making sure our South Asian communities have a voice in the government and I think we have a long way to go till that’s achieved. These historic milestones here and there, while relevant, are not enough to make sure that communities are represented, and there’s far more work to do.