CHICAGO - Approximately 65 percent of the more than four million South Asians who live in the U.S. - those who can trace their heritage to Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka - are citizens who can vote. Chicago is making new efforts to encourage more in the large South Asian community to cast a ballot.
Bangladeshi immigrant Rashida Parveen voted in her first U.S. election in 2000, when she was just getting a grasp on the English language. But exercising the right to vote was important to her.
“If you do not give a vote, you do not have any voice,” she said.
Sixteen years later, she is not just voting, but spreading the word to other South Asian immigrants who can cast a ballot.
“Asking them, please come and that I am here and I can assist you,” said Parveen.
Parveen assists as translator at a Chicago polling location where many South Asians can vote, an ideal place to put her language skills to use.
“I speaking four languages... Bengali, Hindi, Urdu and English,” she said.
She is part of a larger effort by the Chicago Board of Elections to comply with Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires language assistance to minority groups, outlined by population numbers in the U.S. Census report released in 2011.
“Now they were required by federal law to provide language assistance to a very high number of South Asians, mostly Indians, in Chicago,” said Shobhana Johri Verma, Director of South Asian Outreach for the Chicago Board of Elections.
Verma said one of the biggest challenges to meet the requirements was deciding how to best represent the diversity of the South Asian community in Illinois.
“The big decision was: which language do we choose to provide language assistance in,” said Verma.
Based on community feedback, Hindi was the best option. Since 2012 it is now one of the four languages found on election materials in Illinois. But language services are only one of the hurdles Parveen said those in her community overcome to vote.
“Most of the people, they do not drive, and then during official time somebody has to go and get them. That is an important thing,” said Parveen.
But she thinks the outreach efforts are working.
“Even some people I have seen here they never give vote in their country but they come here to give vote. I have seen three or four people here, so, it will be improving,” she said.
The next step, said Illinois General Assembly candidate and Indian immigrant Harish Patel, is encouraging more to run for office.
“A community’s representation only counts sometimes when people are elected from that community,” said Patel.
Chicago is home to the third largest South Asian population in the United States, a community that continues to grow with each election cycle.