Rep. Pramila Jayapal speaks at an alternative State of The Union in January 2018. • Photo courtesy of the office of Rep. Jayapal

On Wednesday, May 2, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (who represents north, west and downtown Seattle, Burien and Des Moines in the House) hosted a town hall meeting with about 200 constituents. The event was moderated by the editor of the South Seattle Emerald, Marcus Harrison Green. The former State Senator for the 37th Legislative District (covering the CID, much of south Seattle, Skyway, and Renton) hosted the meeting as a dialogue between her and roughly 200 people.

Before the town hall began, I sat down with Rep. Jayapal in bathroom-style “green room” at Seattle’s Central Library for an interview to discuss issues that are on the minds of Seattleites:

Cliff Cawthon: Thank you for meeting with me Rep. Jayapal, let’s dig right in. In D.C. I’m sure things are very interesting right now. What kind of concerns have you heard from your constituents?

Pramila Jayapal: Thank you. We’re fortunate to have the most engaged district in the country. I’ve gotten over 3,700 emails, phone calls, and letters from constituents in the district. The top five concerns of constituents in the district over the past five months have been: Net neutrality, the tax cut, poverty, affordable housing & homelessness, SNAP, we got a lot of feedback about the Medicaid work requirements- which I vehemently opposed. Also, we’ve gotten a lot of attention around immigration, particularly around DACA over the last several months. The last category is a big one, it’s just basically ‘anti-Trump’. In the latter category, people are deeply concerned about Trump himself and the impact he has on us. Oh, and of course climate change! Scott Pruitt [The Director of the Environmental Protection Agency] and Betsy DeVos [The Secretary of Education] are two of Trump’s appointees people are very concerned about.

CC: Wow, that’s a lot! Let’s zoom in on one of those topics: Poverty. In the President’s proposed budget, there were major cuts to the Department of Housing and Urban Development and there are expected to be rent increased in state subsidized housing, given the housing crisis in the region, what are you doing to address this?

PJ: The tripling of rents in subsidized housing announced by Secretary Ben Carson is outrageous. We are facing a deep homelessness crisis, a deep housing crisis and it is very frustrating. Unfortunately, he’s doing these things administratively and it is very difficult for us in Congress to stop him because he’s using some of these approaches.

For example, he’s just rolled back Obama-era fair housing rules, which basically said that cities around the country had to look at discrimination and disproportionate [outcomes] in housing and come up with plans to address that discrimination. They had to submit them to get funds for housing. I wrote a letter of concern, co-wrote it with Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) that said that we should maintain the fair housing rule. The impact of these rules is enormous, we’ve been able to take on the impact of these rules; for example, in this last budget we were actually able for the first time to get increases to our housing stock. This included section 8 vouchers, vouchers for AIDS patients, for seniors, disabled folks and veterans. We dramatically increased the amount of money that goes into our affordable housing fund. It’s criminal, in my mind that in a city with so much wealth, we have people sleeping on the streets.

CC: My spidey-sense told me that I should ask you about a recent Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) authorization bill, in which, you were able to get some money for infrastructure improvements and sound mitigation equipment around the airport for your constituents.

PJ: I got two very important amendments into the bill, as a part of an unblock package that featured a whole group of amendments on a whole range of issues, which featured what you had mentioned before. Before the campaign, I met with elected representatives and community members in Burien. There’s a lot of issues with mitigation and how there was not adequate consideration when the additional runway was added. Now we’re going into a phase where there’s an enormous growth of passengers through SeaTac Airport and we need to think ahead to how we can work with local government to do the planning, analysis and community engagement to figure out how we’re going to manage that growth. Are we going to add another runway? Maybe another airport? Where will that be? I got the Greater Seattle Area added to that list and I’m really proud and excited about that, given that we’re in the minority (note: Democrats only hold a minority of seats in the House of Representatives).

CC: In the last couple of months, as reported in the International Examiner, people from the immigrant and refugee community came together to denounce Trump’s hostility towards countries in the global south and immigrants and refugees from there. You’re a notable advocate for immigrants and refugees across the country, and an immigrant yourself, can you share with us some of the key challenges that you’ve faced in fighting back against the xenophobia from the administration?

PJ: The biggest problem is that the Republican Party and Trump is stooping to immigrant-bashing to win a shrinking minority of their base to fire them up. I’m one of a dozen members of Congress who were born outside of the U.S. I’m proud to be an immigrant and to see them scapegoat immigrants, it is just incredibly difficult to sit through.

I’ve questioned Jeff Sessions and Scott Lloyd who oversees the Office of Refugee Resettlement in committee and he does awful and terrible things, and I have also put forward my own proposals on how we fix this ridiculous immigrant detention system that the Trump administration has unleashed. I have a bill called Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act that specifically overhauls the immigration detention system, stops the privatization of the immigrant detention system; making sure we address the needs of pregnant women in detention, who are shackled in detention centers when giving birth. Not giving asylum hearings to people. These issues aren’t just about policy, but they are what we are willing to stand for.

CC: Awesome, that’s all we have time for, thank you for speaking with me and good luck in Congress.

PJ: Thank you.

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