This Immigrant Is The First Indian-American Woman Elected To The U.S. House

Photo: Courtesy of Pramila For Congress.
If she wins, Pramila Jayapal would be the first Indian-American woman ever elected to Congress.
Update: Pramila Jayapal just made history by becoming the first Indian-American woman ever elected to Congress. She defeated state Rep. Brady Walkinshaw by capturing 57% of the votes.

This article was originally published on October 14, 2016.

Pramila Jayapal has no patience for those who plan on voting for a third-party candidate or sitting this election out.

"As an immigrant woman of color, I simply don’t have the luxury to allow Donald Trump to get anywhere close to the White House," she said.

Jayapal, a Washington state senator, is currently campaigning to become the first Indian-American woman ever elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Jayapal supported Sen. Bernie Sanders during the primary and was endorsed by him. But after his defeat, she knew it was critical for her to support Hillary Clinton.

"It’s not only essential that we elect Hillary Clinton into the presidency, but that we defeat Donald Trump decisively," she said, "that we defeat him in the popular vote, that we defeat in the electoral college, that we make it very clear that what he is saying is simply not acceptable."

For Jayapal, Trump's statements feel terribly personal.

"He’s talking about me when he talks about immigrants and refugees and brown people," she said.

At the age of 16, Jayapal moved all the way across the world by herself to go to Georgetown University. Two decades later, she became a champion of the Muslims, Arabs, and South Asian immigrants who were being marginalized in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. With this came the founding of Hate Free Zone — now OneAmerica — an activist organization fighting for immigrants' rights. Jayapal's activism soon propelled her to the national stage.

Since being elected to the state Senate in 2014, she has worked to raise wages, protect voting rights for minorities, and advocate for immigrant communities.

"When you think of the political revolution, I want you to think about Pramila," Sanders said after Jayapal won the Washington primary in August.

Jayapal spoke with Refinery29 and shared her thoughts about her congressional race, Trump, and what it's like to be the only woman of color in the Washington State Senate.
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We have too few women in Congress, and I really believe that if we had more women, we would have better policies.

If you win, you’ll be the first Indian-American woman elected to Congress. What would that mean for you?
"Isn’t that incredible? I would be the first woman [ever elected] in the district, I would be the first person of color in the Democratic delegation here in the state, and I would be the first Indian-American woman ever elected to Congress. I think for me it’s the same thing — it’s the ability to bring forward the beauty of the diversity in our country and represent it in government.

"We have too few women in Congress, and I really believe that if we had more women, we would have better policies. We would have affordable child care for everybody, we wouldn’t be fighting these ridiculous fights on reproductive rights that we thought were done, we would have repealed the Hyde Amendment, we would be providing paid sick days to everybody, we would have raised the minimum wage. Data shows that women make decisions that are better for the community and for families when they’re in office. That’s huge. And the specific piece of being the first Indian-American woman for other Indian-Americans and all these other ethnicities — Latina, Black, all these different folks — it says, 'Listen, there’s a place for us here. Our voices can be heard and are important for this democracy.'"
Photo: Courtesy of Pramila For Congress.
Pramila Jayapal on the campaign trail with a group of young women.
How has your experience as an immigrant and a woman of color shaped the types of issues that you’ve tackled?
"I think that the experiences of immigration and really seeing firsthand how broken our immigration system is opens me to all of the injustices. And, really, what I lived is nothing compared to what many of the women I work with or have worked with over the years [have lived].

"I’ve been the only woman of color in so many rooms over the course of my life. Seeing the perspective of women of color rarely being brought to the table — whether it is immigrants or Black women or any Native-American women — has shaped how I think of legislation. It has shaped how I think about the most vulnerable, because often women of color are at the bottom of any scale. It has also shaped my deep, abiding respect for wanting to reframe the experience of women of color in politics and the general world, so we’re not just seen as victims, but we’re seen as the strong, resilient, courageous people that we are."

You had just become a citizen when the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened. Can you tell me about that experience and what happened after?

"I became a citizen in 2000. It was a fairly harrowing process. Not as harrowing as for some, but it took me 18 years to obtain my citizenship.

"When I finally got [it], it was this deep sense of gratitude, of relief, and a real recognition of how many tried to get the U.S. citizenship and don’t get it. And then I really had to make sure to use my place in this country to help other people.

"When 9/11 happened, it was just a year after I got my citizenship. And so all of the hate and the discrimination and the civil-liberties abuses that were happening — there was a piece of me that was like, 'I can’t believe this is the country that I just became a citizen of, that I’ve been so proud to be a citizen of. It’s violating the very same things that I think make it a great country.' And that’s why I stepped up to fight back against the Bush administration, against the Patriot Act, against civil-liberties violations.

"It was very, very personal, in a way, but it was also very political. It was not just about me. It was, 'Wait a second. We as a country cannot undermine the deepest values that make us who we are.'"
Fast-forward 15 years, and one of the defining issues in this election has been Donald Trump’s pledges to ban Muslims from entering the United States. How do you feel about seeing the nation so divided on this issue?
"It’s terrifying because it’s very personal.

"He’s talking about me when he talks about immigrants and refugees and brown people. So on that level, it just feels horrifying. And at the same time, I think I sort of feel much more prepared, in a way, to attack this. Because what I’ve seen and what I’ve gone through is that the United States consistently goes through this in phases. This fear of 'the other' continues to happen. I mean, we certainly saw it with the Japanese internment in 1942. We saw it after 9/11. Now we’re seeing it again.

"If I were to check the emails and the messages and the tweets and all the stuff that I’ve gotten over the years that threatened me with lynchings and other threats — some terrific, outrageous, hateful things — if I were to release them, people would say, 'That sounds like Trump.' It’s been happening for a long time. We feel it. But we’re just now seeing it in this very public stage and the highest level of office, and that feels intolerable."
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I think the biggest thing that is at stake is what kind of a country do we want to be and what are we willing to stand up for.

What’s the worst thing someone has told you that illustrates this fear of the 'other'?
"I think the worst was the lynching threat. I was just so stunned that there were people who were so angry at what I was doing — protecting the civil liberties of Muslims and Arabs and those post-9/11 communities — that I was threatened.

"I remember the words: 'If you don’t stop what you’re doing, you will be dancing on air.'

"I remember calling the FBI — who, by the way, we were fighting, we were taking on at the time — but that was the only place I could call to say, 'I’m actually scared.' And you know, I hadn’t done that, really ever, in my life.

"I generally have been able to take the threats, and I never felt so afraid for my life that I needed to call in the FBI. That’s probably the worst example. But I don’t know if a single example like that is the worst actually or whether it is the constant being told to go back to your own country. I have lived in this country for 35 years. When does a country become your own?"
Photo: Ted S. Warren/ AP Photo.
Sen. Pramila Jayapal, D- Seattle, center, speaks on the Washington state Senate floor.
The Seattle Times endorsed your opponent in the summer. One of the things they said is that because you're so "ideologically driven" about the big issues, maybe you wouldn’t be so in tune with the needs of your congressional district. What would you say to people who think that way?
"I think they got it wrong. It’s a false distinction between local and national, which is one of the things they said. Is immigration a national issue or a local issue? I can tell you that for the thousands of families here and immigrants here that we’ve protected from deportation, it’s absolutely a local issue. Is climate change a national issue or a local issue, when communities are going under water and they have to be moved? Is minimum wage a national issue or a local issue, when people can’t afford their houses or feel they’re one healthcare crisis away from bankruptcy?

"We’re not running for the Seattle’s City Council, we’re running for the United States Congress. The United States Congress, where we get to take technological and policy innovations from our local districts to the national level and take issues from the national level back to the local level. You really need somebody who can straddle both of those things. And I have spent 25 years delivering results for people right here at home."

What do you think is the biggest thing at stake in this election?
"I think the biggest thing that is at stake is what kind of a country do we want to be and what are we willing to stand up for.

"That is, I feel, the central question again in this election. Do we want to be a country that continues to welcome in diversity and be a place that offers opportunities for all? Or do we want to be a country that exists on hate and what is not our basic instincts? Do we want to be a country that invests in higher education so that young people don’t come out $40,000 in debt? Or do we want to be a country that subsidizes taxes for billionaires like Donald Trump?"

I’m proud of my support for Bernie Sanders. But I tell people that this is not the time to vote third-party or protest.

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You supported Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary and he endorsed you. However, in July you endorsed Hillary Clinton when she became the nominee. What would you say to Sanders supporters who are planning to vote for a third party or sit this election out?
"I’m proud of my support for Bernie Sanders. But I tell people that this is not the time to vote third-party or protest. It’s not only essential that we elect Hillary Clinton into the presidency, but that we defeat Donald Trump decisively. That we defeat him in the popular vote, that we defeat in the electoral college, that we make it very clear that what he is saying is simply not acceptable. If people cast a vote for a third-party candidate or just don’t vote, they’re essentially allowing the difference between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to be lessened.

"As an immigrant woman of color, I simply don’t have the luxury to allow Donald Trump to get anywhere close to the White House. I think there are little boys and girls of color who are growing up in this time and are absolutely stunned and scared of what the future holds because of this man who...there’s really no words to describe him. But he is an individual who really doesn’t seem to have a decent bone in his body."

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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