Cosmopolitan: Even if You Weren’t Born in America, You Can Still Represent It With Pride
By Pramila Jayapal, As Told To Rebecca Nelson
Even though Pramila Jayapal has been in the U.S. for more than 30 years, she’s still afraid someone might revoke her citizenship.
The Democratic congresswoman from Washington state knows it’s not rational. But every now and then, the harrowing thought nags at her. “It is very close to my consciousness that somehow this citizenship that's been granted to me can be taken away,” she says.
Jayapal, who moved to the U.S. from India for college, says that feeling, however disconcerting, has never stopped her from speaking her mind. In just her first term in Congress, she’s made a name for herself as one of the leaders of the resistance: She tried to speak out on the House floor in objection to the Electoral College results certifying Donald Trump’s victory. She skipped his inauguration. And she’s urged her colleagues to protect Dreamers — undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as kids — by passing immigration reform.
Here, Jayapal discusses how being an immigrant helps her better represent her adopted home.
I came to the United States when I was 16 years old, by myself. My parents had about $5,000 in their bank account and they used all of it to send me here because they really believed this was the country that I was going to get the best education, and it had the most opportunity. I had to make their investment worthwhile and I had to make them proud. So I just gritted my teeth and was like, “I'm going to figure out how to navigate this new country,” and grew up very quickly.
It took me 17 years to get my citizenship. People who think that the immigration system is easy and people should just apply legally — it just isn't that easy. I was on a student visa when I was in college, and then I went on to something called practical training, which allows you two years where your company has to sponsor you, and then from there I went back to a student visa [during business school] and then I was sponsored by a company that I worked for right out of graduate school. And then I got married, and that allowed me access to permanent residence. Then I left to go on a fellowship to India for two years from the Institute of Current World Affairs. My son was born in India very, very early. He was one pound, 14 ounces, 26 1/2 weeks. I wasn't able to leave his bedside because he was literally going to die, [so we had to stay in India]. In order to keep your green card status current, you have to come back once a year. So my green card status actually got taken away from me. The folks at the Institute advocated to get it back, and I finally was able to come back to the United States with him, but I had to start from square one again, in terms of qualifying to be a citizen. So I had to wait another three years, and then I finally became a citizen in 2000.
[That day] was deeply moving. I don't think I expected it to be, honestly. In some ways I felt like I had been through so much trauma around feeling like I might be separated from my son. His dad was a U.S. citizen. He was a U.S. citizen by virtue of his father. And yet I wasn't going to be allowed to come back into the country. So I made this vow when that was all going on that as soon as I could get my citizenship, I would. I was thinking about it as a very perfunctory thing. I was going to get my citizenship, and then nobody was ever going to separate me from my son again. But when I walked into the ceremony, I was overwhelmed by how grateful I was to be one of the lucky people that got to be a citizen. Because there are so many people who try and are never able to do that. Saying the Pledge of Allegiance, it was meaningful that day. To really think about this country that I had lived in for so long and that I now finally get to call my own.
I never thought I would run for office. I was an activist on immigrant-rights issues and started an [immigrant advocacy] organization after 9/11. We did a lot of work with legislatures at the federal level and state level and local level. I always had to explain the issues I was talking about. And I just thought about how different it would be if our elected government actually represented the diversity of our population. Diversity is not just about the fact that the pictures look better. I mean, they always do look better! But it really is that we approach the job differently. We chair hearings differently. We tell stories differently. We tell different stories. Our experiences are different. We craft different legislation. It really does change and shape policy for the better by having these diverse viewpoints represented. I just decided that it was time for me to actually run for office. So I ran for the state senate [in 2014] and became the first South Asian American ever elected to the [Washington] state legislature and the only woman of color in the state senate.
I've always believed that immigration is really about who we are as a country and what we're willing to stand up for. Even though personally I always feel very humbled by the stories of other immigrants who have had it much, much harder than I have, I still have a deep connection and experience myself of how difficult it is to be an immigrant. It gives you a deep understanding, empathy, and resolve to correct the horrendous things that the other side says about immigrants. I mean, it is personal.
I've been the brunt of hate violence, hate threats, lynching threats. People saying really horrendous things to me, telling me to go back to my country. I can't think of a month where I don't hear that. I can't think of a year where I haven't gotten multiple threats like that — including a lot of physical threats. There's no question that people would like to utilize that immigrant piece, even on the floor or in committee hearings or in nasty comments on news articles. People want to utilize that to question patriotism or to question ability. Whether it's an off-the-cuff comment from a member telling me to learn how to read or whatever it is, the reality is that there's this sense that somehow there's a definition of what it means to be an American patriot, and perhaps some of these people who are immigrants don't fit that definition.
This is the greatest democracy in the world. There is no other country that has the kind of diversity and the kind of attachment to an immigrant narrative as the United States. And that doesn't mean there are no blemishes on our history — there are so many blemishes on our history. But this has always been an experiment. A very, very successful one on so many levels. The opportunity to perfect democracy, the opportunity to have free speech and to fight for the values that define us as a nation, and the opportunity to continue to ensure justice for all and to uphold the Constitution — what an incredible honor it is to be a U.S. citizen and to be a member of Congress now, pushing to ensure that we stand up to some of the great lofty principles that were part of the founding of this democracy.
Just last [month] the Trump administration announced that they were going to implement a rule where they could start collecting social media, going through the social media accounts of immigrants, including legal, permanent residents and U.S. citizens. And I said to my communications director, “When are we gonna be American enough?” I've lived in this country for 35 years and I'm a U.S. citizen. I've done all these things, but clearly this administration, and there's some people on the other side, who don't make any distinction even between a naturalized citizen and anybody else. It is personal every single day. But it's our experience with personal experiences that allow us to be more compelling about making it a collective experience and not just a personal experience.
Refuse to be patronized or minimized. Stand up for yourself, speak out, deal your power, and don't be afraid to share it. You can speak for the communities you represent, you can embrace your story proudly as an immigrant. Don't listen to people who tell you you should try to hide somehow that you're an immigrant. It enriches who you are and it enriches the country. And if there are guys out there who are going to be intimidated by you, let them be intimidated. You do not have to be small for somebody else to be big.