As a commission tasked with reshaping New York City Council district lines prepares to release its revised and potentially final map, South Asian community leaders are expressing fear that their electoral power in Southeast Queens will further be diluted over the next decade.
The revised map is scheduled to be released on Sept. 22, following a series of public hearings held throughout the city. Based on a draft map released by the NYC Districting Commission, “the South Asian Indo-Caribbean community gets left out to dry,” said Jerry Vatamala, director of the Democracy Program at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
The district lines are important because they help determine how communities of common interest marshal power, including how to spend vast sums of public tax dollars in City Council districts. Redistricting happens every 10 years following the U.S. Census Count.
South Asians are among the fastest-growing populations in the city, comprising an estimated 330,000 residents, or 4% of the population. The area in question includes Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park, two adjoining neighborhoods home to large populations of Indo-Caribbean and Punjabi residents, as well as Bangladeshis. Under the existing map covering the neighborhoods, the area is covered by four separate council districts.
This is not just a battle of lines, this is a strategic movement of people that either the commission cares about or they don’t.
During the redistricting process, advocates with the Unity Map Coalition, an initiative comprising a number of Black, Latino, and Asian voting rights organizations, have fought for a single council district that would represent these populations, arguing that under existing council maps, they are split across three council districts: primarily Districts 28 and 32, along with a portion in District 29.
Under the proposed map, Vatamala said, the commission not only fails to unify the South Asian community, but further fragments it into five council districts. These include three southeast Queens council districts in which Black residents are either the majority or the largest racial group, as well as District 32, which elected a white Republican official, Councilmember Joann Ariola, who defeated a South Asian candidate, Felicia Singh, last year.
In a press release Tuesday, the APA Voice Redistricting Task Force, a group representing Asian American community advocates, argued that “the Districting Commission and Speaker [Adrienne] Adams’ draft maps ignore the South Asian community in Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park.”
Under the New York City Charter, the 15-member commission includes five members appointed by the majority party of the council, currently Democrats, as well as three by the Republican minority, in addition to seven members who are appointed by the mayor.
In response, Breeana Mulligan, a spokesperson for Adams, referred to an August statement by the speaker in which she faulted the draft maps for diluting the voices of Latino and Black voters, and for having "unfairly divided" South Asian communities in Southeast Queens.
"It is critical that new City Council district lines not only keep communities of interest together, but also preserve principles that were established to protect and enfranchise historically marginalized communities of color," Adams said at the time.
The council has until Oct. 13 to decide whether to approve or reject the maps. Should they approve the maps, the commission will submit the maps to the City Clerk's Office. If the council rejects them, it will trigger a new round of hearings.
South Asian advocates, however, said that by being divided across multiple council districts, the community’s needs would fail to be addressed.
“The fear that we have is, if right now if 10% of our community is in one district, 12% is in another district, 15% is in another district, that they don’t make up a concise majority in any of these districts to be able to advocate for the funding that they might need,” said Jagpreet Singh, the political director of DRUM, or Desis Rising Up and Moving — a group representing poor and working-class South Asians in Queens.
Jagpreet Singh said the lack of political clout resulted in a failure to provide members of the community with critical resources, including “quality, free English classes” for immigrants currently on a path to naturalization.
“We have many folks in Richmond Hill who have green cards who have not been able to get their citizenship – and this is across the Bangladeshi, Punjabi, Guyanese, Trini communities – because they can’t pass the citizenship test,” he said. “English language classes don’t get that level of funding.”
Another area was housing: Jagpreet Singh said many members of the South Asian community occupy basement units but struggle to have their needs met by elected officials.
“Why do immigrants, why do South Asian Indo-Caribbean immigrants that live in Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park have to travel outside of their district, [to] other neighborhoods to access city services?” asked Mohamed Amin, executive director of the Caribbean Equality Project. “In a lot of ways it’s because of the lack of funding, it’s the lack of access to these services in the community.”
Felicia Singh, who lost to Ariola by a wide margin in the District 32 race, said the redistricting process failed to consider the needs of immigrant communities, “where we speak different languages, where we are excluded workers, where we are working class, where we take the train and the bus to work.”
“This is not just a battle of lines,” she said. “This is a strategic movement of people that either the commission cares about or they don’t.”
Much of the problem, said Vatamala of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, is that the work of the redistricting process is “murky.”
“Who’s really making the decisions here,” he asked, “on what the commission’s map is going to look like?”
This article was updated to reference and link to an August statement on redistricting by City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams. Her office provided the wrong link and prior statement in an earlier version.