The President and the Seamstress
Kazi Fouzia stitches clothes at her home in Jamaica, Queens. On Tuesday she’ll be waiting to hear what President Obama has to say to her and the other 11 million undocumented immigrants who live in this country when he makes his case for immigration reform.
“At this point, we’re not putting all our hopes up,” said Kazi (pictured above), who moved here from Bangladesh. “For the last 4 years, Obama had made a lot of promises but didn’t follow through on them.”
We met at the offices of DRUM NYC — Desis Rising Up and Moving — where she acts as a worker organizer.
She used to work for someone in Jackson Heights, but he only paid her $50 for a day’s work.
“Desi owners” — South Asian employers — are like that, she told me, willing to exploit their own by threatening to turn them in to the immigration authorities.
Minimum wage is $7.25 but five dollars an hour appears to be the norm for South Asian retail workers in Jackson Heights, according to a DRUM survey.
Pinky, who works at a retail store down the street, selling bangles, makes less than that, while putting in 12-hour days. If she didn’t have to be at work, she’d watch the president’s speech too.
“If real, genuine immigration reform does come through, we’ll be very happy,” said Pinky, who arrived here from Bangladesh 12 years ago. “And even before going back to our own country, I’d like to go on Hajj [pilgrimage to Mecca]. Where I’d make prayer for Obama and all those people who fought to bring about this immigration reform.”
In addition to traveling home, Pinky said she’d also look for better work; immigration reform could thus have an enormous impact on New York City’s economic landscape, as it would prevent many employers, South Asian or otherwise, from under-paying their workers.
Like Pinky, Kazi is hopeful that she’ll be able to travel freely — she lives apart from her son, in Bangladesh — and although she remembers the last time immigration reform came and went, she thinks the political climate is more promising this year.
“During the campaign Mitt Romney kept saying that every undocumented immigrant needs to leave the country,” she said, an apparent reference to his calls for self-deportation. “But now their tone is markedly different.”