How an Indian American congresswoman responded to a rant about ‘these illegal aliens’

Rep. Pramila Jayapal waited 17 years for citizenship


Adapted from a story by The Washington Post’s Colby Itkowitz.

The first Indian American congresswoman in the United States listened as a man named John from Sebring, Ind., went on a screed about “illegal aliens” reaping government benefits and stealing American jobs. At first she shook her head slightly in disagreement, but then she sat expressionless as he went on.

For Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the caller’s rant was about something deeply personal.

Jayapal was 16 when her parents used all of their money, around $5,000, to send her alone from India to the U.S. to attend Georgetown University. Though she was never undocumented , she waited 17 years for citizenship, bouncing between visas and later obtained permanent resident status when she married an American man. She’s fought for immigrant rights her whole life as an activist, and last November, despite the anti-immigrant rhetoric that flared up during the presidential campaign, she became the first Indian American woman to be elected to Congress.

John called for children of undocumented immigrants to be “deported just like their parents.” Jayapal offered him a measured response:

“John, it sounds like you are in a lot of economic pain and that is true across the country, and there is no question we as a country need to deal with economic inequality and make sure we have good paying jobs for everyone,” she said, her voice even. “I am committed to that and I’ll tell you that right here looking into … I can’t see your face, but looking into your eyes, I’ll tell you to blame immigrants is completely wrong and here’s why.”

Jayapal explained that most undocumented immigrants are not taking public benefits and urged him to focus his blame on corporations that don’t pay their fair share rather than at immigrants.

She has no idea whether what she said resonated.

“I think it’s important instead of just calling people out, I think it’s important to call people in,” Jayapal said in a brief phone interview. “Of course I heard the rants and it always feels personal, and it never stops feeling personal because they are talking about people like me, but I also heard pain in his voice. I find if you start there and acknowledge something the other person said that rings true to you, I can get people to open up to what I want to say next.”

After John hung up, Jayapal told the C-SPAN host that throughout her years working on these issues, she’s been threatened with lynching and other threats, but it’s never deterred her from believing the best about Americans, she said.

Yet, as an elected federal official, Jayapal is still fighting for respect.

On the same day she appeared on C-SPAN, she voiced her opposition to an amendment offered by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) during a floor debate.

He retorted firmly, “the good lady … doesn’t know a damn thing what she’s talking about.” Then he said, “You may not know me, young lady, but I’m deeply disturbed.”

But Jayapal didn’t cower. She calmly asked that he take down his words. Minutes later, Young apologized (though still addressed her as lady).