Oak Creek – The U.S. Department of Justice has asked the FBI to begin tracking crimes against Sikhs and other minorities, a major goal of Wisconsin’s Sikh community in the aftermath of the August massacre at their temple, federal officials said Monday.
And the Obama administration’s top civil rights attorney said he expects a bipartisan proposal for comprehensive immigration reform – a top priority for many religious communities – to be submitted to Congress early next year.
“I’m very optimistic,” Assistant Attorney for Civil Rights Thomas Perez told a gathering of faith leaders at Oak Creek East Middle School. The chances for true immigration reform “are as good as they’ve been in a long time,” he said.
Perez was in Oak Creek on Monday with James Santelle, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, for a series of meetings with the Sikh community, interfaith religious leaders, students and others.
The meetings were intended as a show of support for the local Sikh community – it lost six members in the Aug. 5 rampage by white supremacist Wade Michael Page – and to gauge the concerns of and challenges faced by a broad spectrum of religious leaders.
“We want to reaffirm for the Sikh community in Wisconsin and the country that the DOJ ensures the right of everyone to practice their faith freely and without the threat of violence,” Santelle said.
Members of the religious communities, brought together by the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, raised questions about a variety of issues, from gun control and racial disparities in incarceration rates, to hate crimes and immigration laws that separate families.
At the separate meeting at the Sikh temple, members echoed some of those concerns and added others unique to their community, including Sikhs’ inability to serve in the U.S. military because the men do not cut their hair, laws that bar them from carrying their ritual sword known as the kirpan and school textbooks that make no mention of Sikhs in American society.
Sikh physician Mohan Dhariwal called the U.S. statistics on gun violence “incredible” and implored the federal officials to do more to address the issue.
“If this were a disease, people would be marching in the street to stop this madness,” Dhariwal said.
Perez used the sessions as an opportunity to talk about the Justice Department’s priorities and lawsuits it has waged to ensure religious freedom in the workplace, education, housing and other arenas. He was accompanied by Eric Treene, the department’s special counsel for religious discrimination; and Anurima Bhargava, the chief of its education section.
Perez and Treene said the Justice Department has officially asked the FBI to begin keeping separate statistics on crimes against Sikhs, Hindus and Arab-Americans. A final decision, however, has not been made by the FBI.
They encouraged religious leaders and the Sikh community to continue to make their voices heard in Washington but acknowledged that change is slow and in some cases may require a state-by-state fight.
“The civil rights movement is about persistence,” said Perez, noting that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was first introduced in 1948, and that the hate crime law signed by President Barack Obama in 2009 took 14 years to pass.
Parvinder Singha, former trustee and president of the Brookfield gurudwara, the Sikh Religious Society of Wisconsin, said more needs to be done at the federal level to speed the pace of change.
“If we continue to fight these issues state by state, we’ll be here 100 years from now having these same discussions,” he said.
Although U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and first lady Michelle Obama had met with Sikh leaders after the August massacre, Monday marked Perez’s first visit to the Oak Creek gurudwara.
He toured the temple with Santelle and his staff, paying his respects in the main worship hall, and examining the bullet hole preserved in the doorway and the condolences and messages of comfort scrawled on sheets of paper mounted to the walls.
“It’s very moving,” Perez said.
“It’s about Americans coming together across religious lines to say we are all one.”
Source: JS Online