Pramila Jayapal on Her Immigration Story, the 2024 Election

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, of Washington state, is known for being an outspoken advocate of social justice, reproductive freedoms, and immigrants’ rights. Ahead of International Women’s Day, we wanted to hear more about her own immigration story and her message to young voters in a crucial election year. Read it all, in her own words, below.

It was a dream of my parents to give me the opportunity of education in the United States and everything that would provide, so they really made that ultimate sacrifice. I don’t know if any of us really understood what a sacrifice it would be, because I would never end up living on the same continent as them again. Now, decades later, I understand what that meant, and I’m very, very grateful. I think it’s part of what drove me as a teenager — I was only 16, I was here by myself and in a brand-new country, trying to make my way on my own — I think I have this sense of, I have to pay it forward, I have to be successful, I have to make sure I make my parents’ sacrifice worthwhile. Maybe it’s every immigrant’s story.

Immigrants are huge to building this country. They’re doing all types of jobs, from low-skilled to high-skilled. But if you look at how families survive, if you look at the food that people eat, the hotels or restaurants that they eat or sleep in, if you look at domestic work, care work, across the board, so much of this is powered by immigrants and immigrant women. The level of deep resilience, courage, and contribution to community, family, and country that immigrants bring — I see how that contribution is really not recognized in policy and that the other side puts immigrants through so much nasty rhetoric. I feel that even Democrats don’t always stand up in the way we should for immigrants, without whom we literally would not be able to function as a country.

I know we say that it’s incredibly important to vote in multiple elections — we certainly said it in 2016 and we saw what happened when Donald Trump came in and worked to destroy everything we hold dear, including our democracy. And he’s back. So the stakes are incredibly high. And at the same time, I know it is deeply frustrating for young people in particular to look at how screwed up the world is and to feel like somehow maybe they can’t make a difference. And the message I have is: you absolutely can make a difference. We don’t have perfection in our democracy, we don’t have perfection on our ballots, but we do have progress. And the most progress is made when people use their voices and use their votes to demand better.

We don’t have perfection in our democracy, we don’t have perfection on our ballots, but we do have progress.

I think this is going to be a very tough election, and I’ve come out strong for a cease-fire. I think the Gaza war is an issue that people feel are deep moral issues. So I know there’s a lot of work to do. But I also know that what we got done in the first two years of a Democratic White House, barely Democratic Senate, and a Democratic House was kind of incredible. Because of young people, we got the first gun legislation passed in decades. Because of young people, we got the biggest investment ever in climate change. There’s so much more I could go through. It’s not to say we’re done, it’s to say that people can make a difference, that it matters who controls Congress. And it matters to get more of us who are women of color, immigrants, Gen Z into Congress who can help to shift from the inside as well as the outside.

I’m inspired every day by my grandmother, who is an incredible woman who got a high school education and married very young and would still go out there and do things that just weren’t done. A woman who would go out there and play tennis in a sari. She’s passed, but I still feel her presence with me. Also women whose shoulders I stand on, and for me, Sojourner Truth is a really important figure in my life because of who she was, because of the courage she had to speak truth to power, and because she was fundamentally shifting public perception of what was possible. She’s incredibly important. And then the third is — I have been on the streets and in civil disobedience protests, getting arrested with undocumented women and immigrant women from all over the world, and I bring them into every room with me. The joy, the courage, the resilience, the risk I take — it reminds me every day that what I’m doing is nothing compared to what they’re doing, and it gives me the courage to keep fighting.

— As told to Lena Felton

Lena Felton is the senior director of features and special content at POPSUGAR, where she oversees feature stories, special projects, and identity content. Previously, she was an editor at The Washington Post, where she led a team covering issues of gender and identity.

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