With her 76-year-old mother from India watching in the House gallery, Washington state Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal made history Tuesday, becoming the first Indian-American woman to join the U.S. House of Representatives.
“It has been very emotional, thinking about how she and my dad used all of their money to send me away when I was 16 so I could get a good education,” Jayapal said in an interview. “I don’t think that they or I ever had any notion that this might be where I would end up.”
On the opening day of the new session, Jayapal, 51, of Seattle, also became one of five Indian-Americans in the 115th Congress, a record.
All of them are Democrats, including three from California – Sen. Kamala Harris and Reps. Ami Bera and Ro Khanna – and Illinois Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi. The Hindustan Times called them the “Indian-American Fab Five.”
“Having five of us here sends a message to Indian-Americans and others across the country that we care deeply about our country and we intend to be engaged,” Jayapal said. “It gives us a natural caucus.”
On a day of ceremony on Capitol Hill, Jayapal raised her right hand to take the oath of office twice.
The one that mattered most came at 2:28 p.m. when Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan swore in all 435 representatives en masse, with family members allowed on the House floor to be next to them. Jayapal planned to do it again later with Ryan, this time as part of a mock swearing-in for picture-taking.
Jayapal cast her first vote by backing California Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi as House speaker. With the GOP once again controlling the House, Pelosi lost to Ryan, but she will keep her position as the Democratic minority leader.
In her first remarks on the House floor, Jayapal said she supported Pelosi for the top job “because the people’s House should be ethical, accountable and open to free debate.”
Jayapal is the only newcomer in the Washington state congressional delegation, replacing veteran Democratic Rep. Jim McDermott, who retired after 28 years. Later this month, she’s hoping to win committee assignments from her top three choices: Transportation, Judiciary, and Education and the Workforce.
Jayapal, a Washington state senator for the past two years, worked as an investment banker on Wall Street but then switched gears to focus on fighting deportations and hate crimes in Washington state.
She said she 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.
In 2013, President Barack Obama cited Jayapal as a national “champion of change” for using her immigrant past to inspire others.
Jayapal said she hopes her background now helps her fight President-elect Donald Trump’s immigration proposals, among others.
She said she’s particularly worried about might what happen to issues involving climate change, reproductive rights, health care, Social Security and Medicare over the next four years.
“It’s a very, very important moment in the country’s history,” Jayapal said.
Jayapal has already been elected as a vice chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. She’s backing Minnesota Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, in his bid to head the Democratic National Committee. And she was one of the first elected officials in Washington state to endorse Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders for president, saying Democrats “could and should have won the presidency” if they had “stuck to a populist message.”
Midway through her first day of work, Jayapal said her experience on Capitol Hill so far had been “very intense, in a good way.”
“I looked at my name on the door and once again was humbled,” she said. “It’s been an incredible experience.”