Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal. • Courtesy Photo

Early in January, Pramila Jayapal—Seattle’s newly-elected Congressional representative—decided she wouldn’t attend Donald Trump’s inauguration, and would instead meet with immigrants and immigrant advocates in her district. “I recognize that President-elect Trump will be sworn in and he will be the president of this country, whether we like it or not,” she wrote in a January 15 press release. “But I believe my first responsibility is to listen to my constituents and to be with them, through the darkest of times.”

This makes Jayapal one of 67 House Democrats who boycotted the inauguration—almost a third of the 192-member Democratic Caucus. While it’s customary for members of Congress to attend the inauguration, Jayapal wrote in the press release that “this is not a normal time and we cannot pretend it is so.” Jayapal said Trump’s refusal to address conflicts of interest related to his business, which would put him in violation of the Constitution, was a factor in her decision.  Her decision was further bolstered after Trump attacked Congressman John Lewis, an iconic civil rights leader, on Twitter, after Lewis suggested Trump would be an illegitimate president due to Russian interference in the election.

Jayapal was elected in November to represent Washington’s 7th congressional district, which includes Seattle and several surrounding cities and communities. She replaces Congressman Jim McDermott, who represented the 7th district for 28 years in the House. Jayapal’s election is trailblazing in multiple ways: She’s the first woman to represent the 7th district in Congress, the first Asian American to represent Washington state in Congress, and the first Indian American woman elected to the House. Previously, Jayapal served as state senator for Washington’s 37th district, which includes the Chinatown-International District, much of South Seattle, Renton and Skyway.

The International Examiner spoke with Jayapal the week leading up to Trump’s inauguration.

International Examiner: You were planning not to attend the inauguration from the beginning, but after Trump’s attacked John Lewis on Twitter, you framed it more explicitly as a boycott. What was your thought process behind this?

Pramila Jayapal: President-elect Trump’s tweet back to John Lewis turned into a boycott. Since he tweeted, there are now, I think we’re up to 42 lawmakers who have said they’re not going to go. [Editor’s note: This number has now increased to 67 at the last count]

So people are boycotting because of what he did. But for me, I made a decision that I felt was best for my constituents, which is to be here with people who really fear what is going to happen with this administration, and to be clear that I want to be right here to work with them and to help plan and to help assure them that we’re going to be safe. And I just did not feel like I could be on that stage celebrating the inauguration of somebody who has been so divisive, who has said so many things that are deeply offensive to so many of our community—and frankly someone who will actually probably be in violation of the Constitution on day one unless he sells off his assets. So I made the very clear decision to stay here in the district with my constituents. We’re having an immigration roundtable that morning, Diane Narasaki from ACRS will be there, and we’re going to listen to both advocates and people who are directly impacted, and make a plan for what we want to do moving forward. I think if Donald Trump had not tweeted what he did, then he’d probably have a lot more people attending, but I think that he needs to show that he’s the president and to actually represent everybody.  

IE: Instead of attending the inauguration, you’ll be meeting with immigrants and refugees in your district. Trump has said many things and taken many positions on immigrants and refugees over the course of his campaign. What are you most worried about when it comes to the future of immigrants and refugees, and what might you do as a representative to address these fears?

PJ: I think it’s really about whether or not we stand a country that welcomes, recognizes, and respects immigrants and refugees, and there are all kinds of laws and policies that allow us to do that, from civil rights and protecting civil rights, to protecting voting rights, to actually protecting immigrants who are here and facilitating immigrants and refugees to be able to come to this country and be successful. So if, for example, he refuses to move forward on any kind of immigration reform that legalizes 11 million undocumented immigrants and deals with the huge family backlog that’s been such an issue for API communities over the years—I’m very afraid of what. I’m very afraid that he’s going to roll back DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] and use the system that we actually encourage people to sign up for, to go after them.

So there’s immigration policy, but there’s also the overall way in which he talks about immigrants and refugees, and unfortunately he’s been other-izing immigrants and refugees so much. The Muslim registry, portraying immigrants as criminals, all of those kinds of things are undermining the deep respect and value that we should have for immigrants and refugees in this country.

IE: If, for example, Trump decides he wants to deport millions of people or repeal DACA, what can you and other Democratic lawmakers do?

PJ: Well I think it depends on how he decides to do it. Obviously DACA is an administrative action and so he can do that—he has the authority to take back what President Obama did. What we have is the court of public opinion. And we have got to make sure that we are telling the stories, getting people to call in, getting people to pressure their elected officials wherever they might be, and really pushing back on anything like that that he tries to do, and that’s really our best tool on something like DACA, because that was done administratively. I think if he were to institute a Muslim registry, he could do that legislatively, he could also do that administratively—so it depends on how he’s doing it. But there’s no question that since we’re in the minority in the House and the Senate and now he has the presidency as well, that the most effective pressure is going to come from both inside and outside advocacy and efforts to try to slow down or stop what he’s trying to do, by making it very clear to the American people what’s at stake.

IE: There’s been a lot of debate about what the Democrats’ strategy should be with Trump—whether to oppose him entirely or work with him on certain issues. What’s your position on this?

Well I really believe that it depends on what he’s proposing. If he’s proposing things that are going to be good for the American people and are going to move forward people’s lives, then I’m ready to work with him. But so far I haven’t seen any indication of that. I am determined to be at the forefront of fighting back any undermining of voting rights, of immigration reform, immigrant rights, women’s rights. If he tries to move some of those things that I think are going to be really bad for the constituents of my district and for people across the country, I’m going to fight back on that. If he’s got some good ideas and he wants to really move things forward, then look for me to be one of the first people to say I’m ready to work on that. I just haven’t seen any evidence of the latter, unfortunately.

IE: Are there any upcoming pieces of legislation that you’re looking forward to working on in the coming year?

PJ: We are putting together our legislative plan right now, but I think some of the issues that I spoke about during the campaign are still some of my top priorities. Obviously I’m working very hard right now on saving healthcare and having both a strong defensive attack, but also looking at some proactive ways or offensive ways that we can ensure that we provide healthcare for everyone. I want to make sure to protect social security, and so it depends on what they do—we don’t need a bill necessarily to do that at this point. I am working with a number of people on the free college proposal that I talked about during the campaign. And there’s a smaller group, a couple of Republicans who we’ve discovered really want to work together on investing in the trade and apprenticeship training and that’s very exciting to me because I did that work in the state senate, so that’s also an area that I’m going to be working on.

IE: Are there any issues facing immigrants and refugees in your district that are unique or different from the situation nationally that you’re interested in addressing?

PJ: Well one thing is, I don’t think it’s unique as in nobody else in the country faces this, but I do think that we’ve been on the forefront of bringing Asian Pacific Islanders into the conversation on immigration. When we had our rally several years ago for immigration reform, we had the largest contingent of APIs of any such rally across the country. And so we’ve been on the forefront of putting forward the issues around family reunification and family visas. We have a significant portion of immigrants, Asian immigrants as well as Latino immigrants, who are undocumented. We know that issues of H1B and workforce visas are really important in this district. So all of these different pieces are going to be very important.

And the thing that’s frustrating is that we’ve actually found answers to what the policies should be—it’s not like we’re wondering what the policies should be. We helped pass a bill that passed the U.S. Senate in 2013 with 68 bipartisan votes, so we know what the answers are, we just need to get Congress to pass them.          

IE: Anything else to add?

PJ: Just to say that I’m obviously going to be thrilled to continue my work with the API community—a very important part of my life as an API myself, and I’m really honored to be the first Indian American woman in Congress and to continue to help create pathways for other APIs and other API women to see themselves in politics. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

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