Pramila Jayapal, the first Indian-American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, came to the United States from India when she was 16.
Now, as the only newcomer in the Washington state congressional delegation that will be sworn in in January, she’s preparing to do battle with President-elect Donald Trump over his immigration policies.
Her backers say the Seattle Democrat is arriving just in time, bringing with her a long history of fighting deportations and hate crimes in Washington state.
Jayapal has a long history of fighting deportations and hate crimes in Washington state. Her backers say the Seattle Democrat will arrive in Congress at just the right time.
After becoming an investment banker on Wall Street, Jayapal, 51, grew angry at the backlash against minorities that followed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
When women started getting harassed for wearing hijabs, or headscarves, Jayapal created the Hate Free Zone Campaign of Washington, now called OneAmerica. And when her organization sued the George W. Bush administration over its deportation plans and won, Jayapal prevented roughly 4,000 Muslims from having to leave the country.
“A lot of the rhetoric of Donald Trump during the campaign and some of the people that he now seems to be surrounding himself with are the same people that we fought 15 years ago,” Jayapal said, sipping coffee in an upstairs booth at Capitol Hill’s Pret A Manger restaurant during a break from freshman orientation last week.
A lot of the rhetoric of Donald Trump during the campaign and some of the people that he now seems to be surrounding himself with are the same people that we fought 15 years ago.
Washington state Democratic Rep.-elect Pramila Jayapal
With Republicans running both the House and Senate and ready to advance Trump’s agenda, she said she was preparing for “a hostile Congress.” She said Trump’s election left her “feeling shocked and then fearful” but that big fights could not be fought only “when it is convenient.”
“I never back down from a fight, and I’m not going to start now,” Jayapal said.
Her work has gained plenty of attention. In 2013, President Barack Obama cited Jayapal as a national “champion of change” for using her immigrant past as a way to inspire others.
Deepak Bhargava, the head of the Center for Community Change, a national group that works on immigration and other issues affecting low-income people and minorities, called Jayapal “the right leader for these times” and said she was sure to be “a ferocious defender of immigrant rights” in Congress.
“Pramila is a genius, and she does her best work in crisis,” he said. “Her work to push back against hate in Washington state . . . prepared her for the challenges we’ll face under a Trump administration.”
Pramila is a genius, and she does her best work in crisis.
Deepak Bhargava, with the Center for Community Change
Jayapal said Congress should fix its immigration system by making citizens of the 12 million immigrants who are now in the U.S. illegally. And she wants Seattle to remain a “sanctuary city,” where those immigrants can live without fear of prosecution for violating federal immigration laws.
“We’re very proud of the work we’ve done in Seattle and Washington state to make our state and our city one of the best in the country for immigrants and refugees,” Jayapal said.
She won’t be the only Indian-American woman on Capitol Hill.
While she’s the first elected to the House, Californians voted to send Kamala Harris, the daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica, to the U.S. Senate to replace Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer.
Harris will become the first Indian-American in the Senate and the nation’s second black female senator. She’s promising to make resistance to Trump’s immigration plans a top issue, too.
Last week Jayapal joined all six Democrats in the Washington state delegation in criticizing Trump’s appointment of Stephen Bannon as a chief strategic adviser due to his ties to the white nationalist movement.
“It’s just remarkable, just horrendous, absolutely horrendous to have somebody who’s a clear white supremacist leader in that position,” she said.
Washington state Democrats say they’re eager to have Jayapal on board. She’ll replace the dean of the delegation, Democratic Rep. Jim McDermott, who’s retiring after serving 28 years in the House.
“It’s a good delegation and Pramila’s a great add to it,” said Democratic Rep. Rick Larsen.
It’s a good delegation and Pramila’s a great add to it.
Washington state Democratic Rep. Rick Larsen
Democratic Sen. Patty Murray said Jayapal would help make sure that “Washington state progressive values are heard loud and clear” on Capitol Hill.
“Pramila always fights to give a voice to those who need it most,” she said.
Jayapal, a state senator for the past two years, was one of the first elected officials in Washington state to endorse Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders for president.
“Had we stuck to a populist message, whether it was Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton, I think we could and should have won,” she said.
Had we stuck to a populist message, whether it was Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton, I think we could and should have won.
Democratic Rep.-elect Pramila Jayapal
She called Minnesota Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, a “very good friend,” and she is backing his campaign to lead the Democratic National Committee, saying Democrats need to lead the fight for “the little guy.”
“Keith is going to bring some of the organizing ability for how we build a progressive movement. That’s what we need,” Jayapal said.
She will be back in Washington, D.C., after the Thanksgiving break for her second week of orientation.
She has much to do: Get a new office. Find a place to live. Decide whether to back Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for another term as House minority leader. And land some committee assignments, hopefully from among her top three choices: Transportation, Judiciary, and Education and the Workforce.
“There’s so much that you’re taking in,” Jayapal said. “I’ve been to D.C. many times, but it is really different when you come back as a member.”
Jayapal will be officially welcomed to the Washington state delegation after she’s sworn in Jan. 3 and receives a gag gift, becoming the 27th recipient of a poster-sized painting of a newly hatched chick. She’ll be expected to display it in her office until the next newcomer to the delegation is elected.
It’s a tradition among Washington state House members that dates to 1972, when Republican Rep. Joel Pritchard received the oil painting as a gift from a friend who’d bought it at a charity auction. Pritchard, who did not like the painting, found a way to get rid of it, presenting it to Democratic Rep. Norm Dicks when he joined Congress in 1977. The painting, signed on the back by all newcomers, is now in the possession of Republican Rep. Dan Newhouse, who joined the House in 2015.
“It’s a historical document, in addition to being one of the worst paintings ever produced in the history of art,” Larsen said.