State Sen. Pramila Jayapal. • Courtesy Photo
State Sen. Pramila Jayapal. • Courtesy Photo

For Washington State Sen. Pramila Jayapal, immigration is both a personal and political issue. Jayapal, who announced her run for Congress in January this year, has dedicated her career to immigrants rights activism and advocacy. She herself was sent by her parents from her native India to the United States for a better education when she was 16. In 2001, Jayapal founded OneAmerica, an advocacy group for immigrants in Washington state, originally with a mission of addressing the targeting of Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians that occurred in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Jayapal served as executive director of OneAmerica for over 10 years.

Jayapal is currently the only woman of color in the Washington State Senate. If she wins election to the 7th Congressional District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, she notes that she will be one of few women of color there, and one of few immigrants. The International Examiner caught up with Jayapal to talk about her transition from activism to politics.

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International Examiner: How has your own immigration story informed your political work?

Sen. Pramila Jayapal: I am an immigrant from India and I came to the United States when I was 16 years old, by myself. My parents took all the money they had in savings, which was about $5,000 dollars at the time, and they used it to send me here because they felt like this was the place that I was going to get the best education and have the brightest future. … It took me almost 20 years to get my citizenship. I had many issues along the way. … I think that for me immigration has always been very, very personal. But also I’ve recognized how fortunate I am in working with people who really don’t even have a path to citizenship. All of the work I did at OneAmerica was not just with people who were here on legal visas but couldn’t get citizenship—but people who literally had lived here for 15, 20 years without any way to get in line even, and were living a much more dire life than I ever did. So I both kind of figured out how fortunate I was in many ways, and understood the complexities of the immigration system, and how it holds you hostage until you know that you’re legal.

IE: You’ve worked for immigrant and refugee rights both within the political system and outside it. What has it been like trying to make change in these different ways?

Jayapal: Most of my life has been spent working in the political system trying to create political change, but from the outside as an activist and an advocate. … What I realized part-way through is that we really need to have more people who come from the movement and are elected to office with a deep connection back to the movement. Because too often what happens is there are people who are maybe career politicians, and they’re good people. … But we need people who know how to organize, who have built movements, who have built relationships. … To me it’s another ground for organizing. And I think that being able to be in a minority in the Senate chamber, and being able to over time coalesce people towards a more progressive place on a number of important issues, to be able to bring a racial justice lens—I mean these are all things that are really important and we shouldn’t cede the political territory of elected office.

IE: Do you think there are barriers preventing people in activist movements from entering into politics?      

Jayapal: There are a lot of barriers. I mean the system is controlled by money, first of all, so to be a viable candidate you have to be able to raise money, and sometimes activists are like, ‘We don’t want to touch the money.’ … If we think about it as movement-building, people are very willing to raise money for their movements, or for their issues, or for their causes. I think it’s harder if you’re somebody who’s just a regular politician, you’ve never done anything with a movement. … But I think people need to start to understand that money, at this moment, is a fundamental part of politics. You have to be able to fundraise.

The second thing is for activists to realize that you’re not compromising your values by running for office—you’re actually taking on a new organizing platform. It’s a new stage. … And then there are lots of barriers particularly for women and people of color. … Even a state legislative position, a lot of people feel like they have to work their way up through school boards and other things and most of those positions are completely volunteer. … So a lot of times you end up with people in those elected positions … who have the financial means to do that. And that’s a real problem. … It puts a lot of burden on people who really need to earn a decent salary and a lot of very talented people of color or women will shy away from it because they simply can’t make the finances work.

IE: What do you consider the most important legislation you’ve passed this year?

Jayapal: Last session I was able to sponsor a bill that people had been trying to get passed for a long time that put five-and-a-quarter million dollars into pre-apprenticeship programs for poor, specifically targeted at women and people of color. And this was part of the transportation package that we moved last year. And my feeling was that, we’re creating 200,000 jobs across the state with this 15 billion dollar transportation package, but we’re not doing enough to make sure that women and people of color actually have access to those jobs, and so this was a huge investment in our career apprenticeship program in the state but specifically targeted to making sure we’re getting women and people of color into those jobs. So that was one.

The second is that I was able to ensure that millions of women who are on Medicaid actually have access to long-acting, reversible contraceptives, it’s one of the most effective means of contraceptives, and what I found out was that women on Medicaid were actually being reimbursed at lower rates than women who were not on Medicaid, and so that meant that low-income women who wanted to access these extremely effective contraceptive methods were not getting access to them because they were too expensive, doctors sometimes wouldn’t prescribe them, and even if they did women wouldn’t take them because they had to pay so much more, so we were able to change the reimbursement rate so that women on Medicaid are getting reimbursed at the same rate.

I also passed a dental access bill last year that basically expanded the scope for dental assistance to be able to do some additional things within the scope of their work, because we have a shortage of dentists across the state actually and particularly for low-income folks and people of color, they often don’t have access to that, so I was able to pass that as well.

And then I was also able to get significant amounts of money in the capital budget for a number of different really great organizations including the Wing Luke Asian Museum, El Centro, a number of other groups across the district for their capital projects, and that included a million-and-a-half dollars for a brand new project that I was spearheading called the Southeast Economic Opportunity Center which I’m working on with Tony Tho from Homesite and a number of other partners, and that will create a brand new center in the Rainier Valley that for the first time will bring a higher education campus to the Rainier Valley, will include government services, workforce housing and a place for a number of small ethnic, multicultural organizations to actually be based, because the rents are getting so high they’re getting kicked out of the Rainier Valley.

So those were some of the things I did last session. This session some of my key bills have been around voting. So I’m leading the negotiations on the Washington Voting Rights Act in the Senate, which is a bill that I actually helped work on with David Perez when it was first being drafted five years ago, and I was still at OneAmerica. It has passed the House three times and it essentially allows districts to be redrawn in a way that must address racially polarized voting in those districts. So some of what happened in Yakama through a federal Voting Rights Act lawsuit, we’re trying to create the ability for states to come up with their own local solution before they have to get sued at the federal level.

I also authored an automatic voter registration bill which I spent many, many months crafting, and I got two Republican secretaries of state to sign on, and it would allow for certain agencies that are already checking for citizenship status of people who are applying for those programs to automatically be registered to vote. And this is a huge deal, it has a lot of bipartisan support, but unfortunately the Republicans killed it in committee—it passed through the House and the House version sat in committee also and was killed. And I think that it goes to some of the challenges of actually ensuring voting rights, because it takes power away from people who have power, right now—or that’s what they’re afraid of—and so they don’t want to pass it. So those have been two really important bills.

And then I have another bill that is on the floor calendar right now that changes the eligibility for people applying to be troopers, fire fighters, or law enforcement officers. Right now you have to be a U.S. citizen, but if my bill passes you’d be able to be a legal permanent resident as well as a U.S. citizen. For the military, if you want to go fight a war overseas for the United States you only need to be a legal permanent resident. But you can’t be a fire fighter and fight a fire at home as a legal permanent resident. So these are areas where we have big shortages, and if we could include legal permanent residents it would address the shortages and we would increase the diversity of our law-enforcement folks, which I think in this moment is really important.

IE: Why do you want to make change in Congress rather than as a state senator?

Jayapal: Well my theory of change is really about taking a strong progressive voice that helps rebuild trust between residents on the ground and the government, and really representing people in a way that they need to be represented. So the 7th Congressional District is a very strong progressive district and needs a continuing strong, progressive voice. … My work on immigration reform and all the issues that I’ve worked on has been at the federal level before I got into state politics. I don’t think that there’s anyone who understands the politics and the policy of immigration better than I do, and particularly with Trump rising as the Republican nominee, we need people who are really strongly articulating the values of America as a country of immigrants and standing up for all of us, and our identity as a multicultural society.

IE: There’s been a lot of anti-immigration rhetoric in this presidential election. What do you think of this, and what do you think drives it?

Jayapal: This is what I’ve been working on for 25 years and it’s disturbing. What drives it is fear. And a lot of what you see with Trump now … he’s using fear to drive wedges amongst people, and he’s saying things that are so outrageous that people don’t know how to challenge them, but also that they tap into these fears that people have that are often racist, that are often sexist, that are often classist. And unfortunately, people have fear and our task, I think as activists and as elected, is to help people get beyond the fear … and actually build a vision of what it could look like if we all were to come together. … The way he’s talked about Syrian refugees, the way he’s talked about immigrants, the way he cuts down the disabled, and women—it is so un-American. But it taps into people’s fears, and people are tired of politics as usual, they’re looking for a populist. Trump is playing to the populism. … Trump is doing it in a way that is exploiting people’s fears and it’s really very disturbing.

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