The seeds of social activism were planted early in Nisha Agarwal’s bloodstream. The current Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office took up causes and showing her community organizing skills since she was a little girl.
Her parents, psychologist mother Rita Agarwal, and father, Suresh Agarwal, a nuclear engineer, encouraged her to speak her mind and back it with action, she recalls. Agarwal is among numerous Indian-Americans of this generation who have brought their social activism into public office and policy reform from inside, after banging on doors from the outside.
As a community organizer-turned-implementer of government policies, Agarwal symbolizes the achievements of a new generation of community organizers to aptly feature on Asian American and Pacific Islanders month. Aggarwal spoke to News India Times in a telephone interview.
“My first campaign effort was for animal rights,” Agarwal told News India Times.
But her most “life-changing” influence was working with community activists in Mumbai on the issues confronting pavement dwellers. “Those women were incredible. That really convinced me that non-violence in the Gandhian tradition, civil disobedience, activism, taking collective needs and trying to bring change … so the rest of my life has been devoted to helping such organizations in the U.S.,” Agarwal said.
She went further to co-found the Brooklyn-based Center for Popular Democracy in 2012, an organization that has taken wings and gone national. It mission — “to create equity, opportunity and a dynamic democracy in partnership with high-impact base-building organizations, organizing alliances, and progressive unions” – the website says.
“The CPD is a good example of how my India experience influenced me on how to press for change and influence policy change,” Agarwal says.
One of Agarwal’s signature programs after she took office as Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs in 2014, is ID-NYC, which many immigrants in the Big Apple must be thanking her for, including Indian and South Asian immigrants. Two weeks ago, she launched a mobile ID-NYC van in Diversity Plaza, in the heart of Jackson Heights. “We got a tremendously positive response to that.”
More than 1 million New Yorkers have availed of the ID-NYC service since it started, according to Agarwal’s office. “In New York City we are going to be inclusive and not have the negative national rhetoric impact policy,” she asserted.
Even though progressives and liberals attribute the rise in anti-immigrant rhetoric to the rise of President Donald Trump, Indian-American activists like Agarwal, were on the frontlines of rights of immigrants and workers rights, even during the Obama administration. In September 2014, for instance, Agarwal, an attorney by training, was with Mayor de Blasio, announcing the City’s plan to station representatives at the federal immigration court to directly address the needs of unaccompanied minor children undergoing deportation proceedings, the first time the city had ever provided direct services at the immigration court.
But Agarwal says the anti-immigrant tenor nationally has heightened more recently. The challenge today’s immigrants face, she says “There’s a lot of fear mongering and rhetoric. More people are bing put in deportation proceedings. We are getting a lot more calls needing legal services. There’s been a 240 percent increase in calls in January and February,” according to her.
“The reality is immigrants have a very, very low rate of crimes. They come here, work hard, build families. So the fear mongering is not based in fact, but is causing a lot of fear in immigrants’ minds,” she said.
Indian-Americans in particular, are facing more hate crimes and assaults on Sikhs, Muslims, she adds.
“Our city has very strong human rights laws. As does the NYPD. We take these crimes very seriously,” Agarwal said.
Another issue Indian-Americans are grappling with, particularly the Sikh community, Agarwal said, was bullying in schools. The city’s Department of Education has put in place some measures including a “robust” training program for staff, as well as a $47 million infusion for mental health programs, and for improving school climate. Sikhs still have concerns, Agarwal conceded, “But we are trying to respond.” Her Office of Immigrant Affairs is very actively engaged with faith institutions, Agarwal said.
At the same time as Indian-American immigrants face challenges, so too they have been a great influence on New York City. Having been born in Camden, N.J., and brought up in upstate New York, Agarwal witnessed this rise. “I’ve seen how much they are entering different domains like the arts and culture, and law. There’s an expansion of domains.”
The growth of the community Agarwal believes, represents New York City – “You come here to make your dreams. You move out of niches, come to New York City, and accomplish them,” she said.
The Mayor’s office describes Agarwal as an accomplished public interest lawyer and a leading voice in immigration reform at the local and national level. “Her tenure as the Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs is marked by her entrepreneurial drive and proven record of enacting pro-immigrant legislation,” the office says. Agarwal earned her B.A. summa cum laude from Harvard College and her J.D. from Harvard Law School and was a Marshall Scholar at Oxford University. She currently lives in Brooklyn.