Sonny Singh

The Education of an Immigration Lawyer

How a high school teacher’s advocacy vs. bullying of Sikh students led her from the classroom to the court room.

By Sonny Singh
November 2, 2015 | , , , , , , ,

I first met Pertinderjit (Pert) Hora in 2008 when I was leading a city-wide campaign against bias-based bullying as a community organizer at the Sikh Coalition. At the time she was an outspoken teacher at Richmond Hill High School and participated in the anti-bullying march that I organized.

In her law office – a storefront on the corner of 118th Street and Atlantic Avenue in Richmond Hill – seven years later, Ms. Hora recounted her journey, beginning with her migration to New York at the age 14. We sat down to discuss her work, Sikh immigration, and her trajectory from a high school teacher to an immigration attorney in Queens.

What follows is her story – in her own words.

I am originally from Bombay, and came to New York in 1986. I feel for my clients because I went through this struggle for the green card. I’ve seen that desperation — not getting a job and having everything hanging on that one card.

My family first moved to Jackson Heights on 94th Street. Mom worked at McDonald’s, and we kids did odd jobs to help around the house.

I went to Newtown High School in Elmhurst. I remember the first day I came in. I was 14, and the counselor looked at me and asked, “What….Is….Your….Name?”

I looked at my dad and said, “Why is she speaking to me like that?”

I went to a Catholic school in Bombay and received a quality education in English as a child. I mean, I even spoke fluent French! Within half an hour, the counselor went from pigeon-holing me into an ESL class to placing me in the last semester of high school. I graduated at 14 because I was able to test out.

But we didn’t have the money for college. So I worked some random jobs in stores and laundromats for a few years.

 

“One day, my students came to me and said, ‘Ms. Hora, Ms. Hora, did you hear what happened on Friday? There was a poem jam session in the auditorium, and a teacher read a very anti-immigrant, anti-Sikh poem.’”

 

I applied to a bunch of colleges eventually and got into SUNY Binghamton. My parents were shocked I got into college. My grandfather was visiting [from India], so we all got into the car and drove to Binghamton. I was the first woman in my family to go to college. And I went sporting two pigtails.

It was so enriching to be in college. I was not ready for so much to hit me. I studied biology. I wanted to be a doctor.

But I did very well in sociology and got into Teach for America. So I went to Houston with Teach for America. Then, I got into University of Chicago for grad school in social anthropology. I did my thesis on “The Making of Sikh Identity,” which was an ethnographic study — I interviewed about 200 Sikhs. But I’m not good with libraries; I found them depressing. Academia wasn’t for me.

I decided to go to law school back in Brooklyn — I got some scholarships. But I had my teaching license in place, so I decided to juggle teaching and law school together.

I started teaching ESL biology and chemistry at Richmond Hill High School in 2002.

English and Punjabi texts are printed on the glass wall of Pert Hora's office. Photo by Sonny Singh

English and Punjabi texts are printed on the glass wall of Pert Hora’s office. Photo by Sonny Singh

In 2008, things started to happen. One day, my students came to me and said, “Ms. Hora, Ms. Hora, did you hear what happened on Friday? There was a poem jam session in the auditorium, and a teacher read a very anti-immigrant, anti-Sikh poem.”

They were very disturbed by it. I took it with a grain of salt because they were ESL kids, and I thought they may have not understood something. They asked me to look into it. Some of my fluent English-speaking students said, “Yeah, it was really bad. It said we all stink and we all end up becoming cab drivers.”

So I went to the teacher who read the poem, assuming there was some misunderstanding. I was very friendly and cordial and asked her to see the poem because everyone was upset about it. She took it the wrong way and was very defensive. And that was the beginning of the end.

Within 20 minutes, I was called into the principal’s office. I asked to see a copy of the poem, and the principal said no. I asked, “Why not?”

“Because if you saw it, you’d be very offended. It was done in the wrong context,” the principal told me.

The kids were brave enough to march into the principal’s office that Friday and complain about it, but she just gave them some milk and cookies and sent them away.

I was really upset, and told her these Sikh kids deserve an apology. Shortly after that incident, a Sikh student, Jagmohan Premi, got assaulted. Kids used to tease him a lot. I knew him; he was in my class. The kid who had done it was another one of my students.

Also, at that time, I’d come back to school after every summer and there would be another three kids, Sikh boys, who had their hair cut short. I was wondering, “What’s going on here, why is this happening?”

It turned out that in the gym and the lunchroom, Sikh kids were being picked on; they would sometimes get thrown into the trashcan — the typical bullying stuff.

In 2008, Hora joined the march to protest the bullying of Sikh children.

In 2008, Hora joined the march in Richmond Hill to protest the bullying of Sikh children. Photo by Sonny Singh

I reached out to the Sikh Coalition. At that time, Richmond Hill High was not faring well. With all the negative press about the Premi incident, the principal took it personally, and thought I had a hand in the situation. Then I was targeted.

Because I was leaving to go to Brooklyn Law School during my 8th period, which was my lunch period, they accused me of theft of service. I said, “Where’s the theft? It’s my lunch period.”

I did take part in the march organized by the Sikh Coalition (against the bullying of Sikh children in May 2008). I first asked my union rep if it was okay, and he said, “Yes, absolutely.”

Yet I was punished for that. I was reassigned for two years. That led me to starting the law firm. I reached out to a friend I went to Binghamton with, and he said, “Come work with me.”

I left the DOE in 2012 and worked with him. He really allowed me to grow. I got in touch with some people in the community, and things started coming together. We went from one office in Sheepshead Bay to three offices in two-and-a-half years.

 

“I sometimes ask them, ‘You’ve made the money, why don’t you go back?’ And they would say, ‘Go back where?’”

 

At first, we started using a friend’s office here in Richmond Hill on the weekends. People didn’t want to lose out on their work, so they’d come see me on Sundays after langar (at the gurdwara). Then we started seeing people on Wednesdays too. Eventually we redid the office and opened one up in Jackson Heights, too.

When we first started the firm, we mostly did regular family immigration petitions. We still do that, but the other end of my work is litigation — working on behalf of all the asylees who come here. I have to represent these kids crossing the border in all kinds of cases.

Some of my clients are people who got caught by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) at the border. I’ll get a call from someone saying, “Hey, my kid is stuck in a detention center in Texas, can you get him out?” or “My kid is in Arizona and I haven’t heard from him.”

Then we get involved and negotiate directly with ICE officers in those detention centers. When we first started the firm, I had one early success with getting a kid out of a detention center in Arizona in 48 hours. After that, the word spread in the community, and I started getting tons of calls.

I remember my second client came to me with tears in his eyes. He had AIDS. He was about to be sent back (to India) and put on a plane. But we got it stopped. It was a sad case; he did not do anything wrong. He came to the west coast when he was 17. Both his parents are dead; his father committed suicide. He and his sisters were dealing with extreme poverty. He literally worked like a slave doing construction here in Richmond Hill.

One day, he was walking right here on 114th Street and got upset with some guys who were harassing some girls in front of the gurdwara. It got physical and he punched one of them. The police came and arrested him. They looked up his records and saw that he was undocumented and was ordered to leave several years ago. He got so scared that he fainted and was taken to the hospital. And then the doctors realized he had AIDS—that’s how he found out.

Fortunately, we got his deportation order stayed. His T-cell count is good now, he’s stabilized. We just got his case reopened. His only wish is to return to India and see his sisters. and in this last round, his officer agreed to it.

Pert Hora in her Richmond Hill office.

Hora: I want to bring attention to this group of people. Photo by Sonny Singh

I feel for these guys (from India without papers). They are all seeking asylum. They came from Punjab. Look at the farmer suicide rates in Punjab, it’s the highest anywhere. Drugs, too, are a huge problem. The youth are aimless; they are looking for a political cause. There is a sense of hopelessness in Punjab. The asylum cases are political in nature but there are so many layers to their stories.

There are times when the work is heart-rending for me, especially when people, who have been here since 1981, still have very little going for them, almost 40 years later. You see these older day-laborers exhausted and run-down from the back-breaking work. They’re just sending money home.

I sometimes ask them, “You’ve made the money, why don’t you go back?”

And they would say, “Go back where?”

They don’t even know what they’ve left behind. They sometimes have married kids they haven’t seen past the age of two. They don’t know any other life other than this one.

Locals from gurdwaras said about 20,000 Sikhs from Punjab came to the U.S. last year. In one detention center alone in Texas, some 30 to 40 Sikhs were brought in a three-week period.

I’m blown away by them. They literally arrive here from Punjab, and by day three, they’re making $100 to $150 a day. They have this spirit in them. They are fighters.

I want to bring attention to this group of people.

Sonny Singh is a musician, writer, and educator based in Brooklyn, NY. He is a member of the band Red Baraat and collaborates with a number of other musicians as a trumpet player, dhol player, and singer. When he is not touring, Sonny regularly facilitates workshops and classes on social justice issues, organizing, anti-oppression, bullying in schools, and more. His writings on racial justice, Sikhism and social change, and Islamophobia have appeared in the Huffington Post; Colorlines; Race, Class, and Gender in the United States; Asian American Literary Review; India Abroad; and The Langar Hall (a blog he co-edits).

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