The first Indian American elected to Congress talks immigration, bolstering public schools


by Mary Ellen Flannery

Recently, U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), the first Indian American elected to Congress, talked with Education Votes about immigration and the future of public education under the nation’s new education secretary, Betsy DeVos.

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Q: We know people of color are living in fear of violence and vilification, especially since hate-fueled attacks are increasing. What is the way forward?

The reality is that the anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies of this Administration and some Republicans in Congress have unleashed what seems to be legitimized hate. There are real consequences to their actions. So, first, we need to put real resources into protecting communities targeted by hate. That’s why I introduced a resolution with U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley calling on the President to strengthen hate crimes investigations and support of targeted communities. Second, we need to demand that this President speak out strongly against hate crimes, but also that he stop vilifying and otherizing immigrants and people of color. Third, we need to engage in compassionate, comprehensive education at every level—education that engages our youth and implements strong anti-bullying campaigns in our schools. We need people to not look the other way when hate rears its ugly head, and to stand up for each other. Fourth, we need our students to have teachers and community leaders who look like them. Our government must be more representative, because women and people of color will bring a knowledge and decisiveness that is informed by their lived experience—an experience that drastically differs from those who have historically run the country. To achieve this, we need grassroots leadership that brings people together, so that we can have a collective conversation about the vision we have for our future.

Q: You recently teamed up on a bill that would protect Dreamers—young immigrants brought to the US without legal permission—from deportation for three years. Can you tell us why this is an issue that moved you to action?

When President Trump was elected, we all saw the same fear that has plagued our immigrant communities come back. Our Dreamers, who signed up for the DACA program thinking that their information would never be used against them, suddenly feared that they were now an easy target for the new administration. And so, the BRIDGE Act is a bipartisan piece of legislation to assure Dreamers who signed up for DACA that we would extend their protection legislatively so they would not be in limbo.

All Dreamers deserve to feel safe and supported. For the same reason, we also need compassionate immigration reform that protects their parents, preserves family unity and ensures protections for all immigrants. We need to make certain that our policies don’t result in families being torn apart and kids living in fear of coming home to an empty house. The BRIDGE Act will move us in that direction by protecting our Dreamers for three years, while we continue the essential work of passing a truly comprehensive and humane immigration reform for all.

Q: As an immigrant to the U.S., you must understand the value that immigrants bring to our nation. But not all of your colleagues see how immigrants make our nation strong. How will you work with them to protect the American Dream?

U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, representing District 7 in Washington

The reality is that immigration has never been about immigration—it has always been about who we are as a country and what we are willing to stand up for. By not engaging with immigrant communities and learning the stories and important contributions of people in their districts, my anti-immigrant colleagues are closing themselves off to the tremendous beauty and joy and contributions that immigrants bring to make our country the great, innovative, successful, diverse place that it is.

I am an immigrant. I came to the United States by myself when I was just 16 years old. My parents used their last $5,000 to send me here, because they believed this was the place I would get the best education and have the brightest future. Before I became a U.S. Congresswoman, I was an activist. I walked the halls of Congress, not as a member myself, but to educate members about the necessity for comprehensive immigration reform. While many across the aisle paint all immigrants with one stroke, I will not do the same to them. In 2013, the U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill. I believe there is hope that we can still move that forward. There are Republicans who understand that we will all be better off when families can stay together and immigrants can live full lives without the fear of being jailed and deported. And I look forward to working with those representatives.

Q: The appointment of Betsy DeVos—a woman who has no experience with public schools—to be the U.S. Secretary of Education angered millions of teachers and parents of public school students. What would you say to them? Is the fight over, or just begun?

The appointment of Secretary DeVos is a horrifying development. Her hearings showed that she knows nothing about public education, and seems out to destroy it. She has presided over companies that make profits from providing subpar education, and is utterly clueless about federal obligations around ensuring equality and equity, and preventing discrimination of any kind.

It is also important to remember, at the same time, that these attacks on our public schools are not new. For years, free-market ideas about unregulated school choice have fueled a disinvestment in public schools across the country. Instead of investing in our public schools and teachers and giving more resources for them to be successful, teachers are blamed and underfunded.

School vouchers funded by taxpayer money are rarely enough to cover the cost of tuition for the neediest families who want to exercise educational choice, and most importantly, they pull essential resources away from the very public schools we should be supporting.

Moreover, this defunding of our public schools in favor of charters has been based on the false notion that all charters are better than all public schools. This is simply not the case. While there are some examples of successful charter schools, a vast majority have terrible results. Many cherry-pick the best students, and few provide the range of language and other options that many students require. Research that dates back to the 1990s has shown that school vouchers make no improvements to, and sometimes actually harm, a student’s school performance. Unregulated school choice has had adverse social effects like increases in school segregation by class and race.

Our fight to invest in public education is absolutely critical to the future of our nation. We will need to continue to take on Secretary DeVos if she implements her agenda of defunding public schools and cutting support to teachers. We must continue to organize while at the same time improving our public schools so that they can best serve the needs of all of our students.



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