Half-way into their two-year term, Indian-American lawmakers on Capitol Hill are deeply engaged and moving forward on issues affecting the nation and the community

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Capitol Hill, Washington D.C. (Photo credit: Nimra Fatima)

Indian-American lawmakers on Capitol Hill are perhaps the best gauge of the immigrant experience of this community in America. In 2016, the banner year for this community, four Indian-Americans were elected to the U.S. House (3 for the first time) and one to the U.S. Senate, all Democrats. Two of the five are women, one from Washington State, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, and the other from California, Sen. Kamala Harris. One of them was re-elected to a third term, Rep. Ami Bera, MD, and another, Rep. Ro Khanna, caused an major election upset defeating a longtime incumbent fellow Democrat Mike Honda, both from California; and last but not least, Illinois sent one of them to the House of Representatives.

While this sudden increase was a long time coming, especially considering Indians have been in this country for at least a hundred years, and the first Indian-American elected to Congress, Dalip Singh Saund, D-California, was back in 1957, many a Ph.D. thesis will be written about whether it was the ‘Obama wave’ that catapulted several from this minority to Capitol Hill. Notably, the biggest waves of Indian immigrants began in 1965, with the Immigration and Nationality Act, and the population has grown exponentially even since as recently as 2000.

This November 8 marked a year into office for four of the five lawmakers Reps. Bera, Khanna, Jayapal, and Krishnamoorthi. Halfway into their twoyear terms, each of these lawmakers has made a mark on the national scene, introducing legislation, taking strong stands on major national issues like healthcare, immigration, homeland security, tax reform, and rules governing Internet and communications. A couple of them are ranking members in committees, and even vice chairs in Congressional caucuses. They are all members of the Congressional Caucus for India and Indian-Americans. They keep in close touch not just with their constituents, but rally together on issues that come up from time to time affecting the Indian-American community in particularly, and India, such as the Feb. 22, shooting death of Indian techie Srinivas Kochibothla in Olathe, Kansas by a white man.

Some of them have visited India within the year, and all of them are pleased in general with growing bilateral relations with New Delhi in both Democratic and Republican administrations. As they gear up for their re-election campaigns, News India Times asked them to reflect on the past year, their biggest achievements, issues that most concern them, matters impacting the Indian-American community, and the bilateral relations with India. Three of them responded via email. Rep. Bera preferred a telephone interview. Below are their responses to some questions.

Ami Bera
  1. What do you consider your main achievement in first the year since you were elected and why?

I consider my biggest achievement and what I am most proud of is being the founder of the Problem Solvers Caucus when in my first term when it grew to 100 members. It’s starting to have an impact. If we want Congress to work, it’s going to take Democrats and Republicans coming together.

On the Indian-American side, when I was first sworn in, I set a goal to elect five Indian-Americans in the next decade. It took only four years for that to happen. I can’t take credit for the victories of Raja, Pramila, or Ro, or Kamala Harris, but what we can all do is be role models for those running in elections around the country. We all have a responsibility to be role models.

2. What is your approah to dealing with the Trump admin/GOP majorities in all branches of government and how have you cooperated with the majority and what have been the results?

Early on, we sent a message to the Trump administration to focus on issues that unite the country, like passing an infrastructure bill. President Trump chose not to do that, and instead went in a very divisive direction. That has forced us to defend issue like immigration, where we value immigrants and their contributions. America is a nation of immigrants, one generation after another who bring their culture, their religion, their ethnicity and their heritage, all woven together. That’s the strength of America. We will continue to send a message to the Trump Administration about uniting us, but that is not the direction he wants to go in right now.

3. How do you see the future of the Congresstional actions in the coming year? Apart from any other issues that you identify, could you talk about hate crime, DACA and healthcare as you see it.

Unless President Trump and Republicans in Congress decide to work with us, you will continue to see dysfunction. For instance on health care reform – there are only two Democratic doctors in Congress – and Republicans chose not to talk to either of us on health care. Now, Republicans are trying to do tax reform on their own.

My message to President Trump and Republicans is “come to the table and negotiate with us.” Compromise is not a bad thing.

As for specific issues – I will continue speaking out against hate crimes. We have to stand up and fight the divisive rhetoric Donald Trump puts out there.
With regards to DACA, these are children who have not committed any crime, this is the only home they know. We’ve got to stand up for the DACA kids.

On healthcare – our Problem Solvers Caucus put out a proposal to stabilize the individual health care marketplace. It’sgoing to take Democrats and Republicans working together.

4. How are you preparing for re-election and what is your fundraising situation and what has the Indian-American community done to help you?

The best way for me to get re-elected is by serving my constituents and the community. And that’s where my focus is. We’ve helped the people of Sacramento recover $4.5 million of benefits they were owed. If I continue to serve and do my job, that’s the best way to get elected, do your job.

5. Does the “Samosa Caucus” as Rep. Krishnamoorthi has called the slew of Indian-Americans now in Congress, meet and coordinate? How?

When Raja, Pramila and Ro first got elected, I sat with them and tried to help anyway I can – it’s overwhelming – to try to figure out staffing and all the committees. Now we work together to try and inspire the next generation.

Our schedules are different and it’sdifficult to connect often, but we certainly have discussion on how to inspire the next generation of Indian Americans. That generation should know there are these five members of Congress in the House and Senate, and they do have representation.

6. What do you count as your contributions to ties with India over the last one year? You did go in a Congressional delegation to India and it would be great to hear your concerns and plans? Could you also talk about how you plan to deal with H1-B visa, or with DACA, and bills going through Congress that might impact the Indian community here and in India directly?

U.S.-India relations remains very strong – it certainly grew during the Obama administration. President Trump and Prime Minister Modi have strong ties.

When I visited India earlier this year, I saw a very strong business-to-business relationship, and increasing recognition of India’s vital strategic role. We’re doing many naval exercises between the U.S. and India, but also India and Japan. India is a key player keeping South Asia open and secure.

We should also support the reforms of Prime Minister Modi and his efforts to make it easier to do business with India. I would echo what President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden said – the relationship between the U.S. and India can be the defining relationship of the 21st century.

7. You are on the very important House Foreign Affairs Committee. What do you consider your main achievements on that committee and what do you plan to focus on in the coming year? Which region in the world causes you most concern and which one the least concern and why?

I think we’ve elevated the US-India relationship. More Members of Congress visit India on a regular basis. Now that Democrats are out of power, it’s incredibly important for us to stand up and project American values. It’s a mistake for the United States to retreat from the world, and the world is a better place when America leads with our values of freedom, democracy, and open markets. Right now the Trump administration isn’t doing that.

Pramila Jayapal

1. What do you consider your main achievement in the year since you were elected and why?

Since being elected, I have introduced 12 bills in the House and co-sponsored over 300 pieces of legislation, but I think the achievement I am proudest of is energizing and engaging people in our fight for justice. Since January, I’ve held eight town halls on issues from immigration to tax reform and I regularly hold constituent coffees to really talk through the issues with our community. I’ve met countless people who are engaging in the political process for the first time, and it is a thrill to help them find their power and stay engaged. I’m also proud of the direct work our office does to help constituents navigate government agencies to solve problems. We helped hundreds with immigration cases, as well as helped get over $350,000 back to constituents for social security, disability and many other issues.

2. What is your approach to dealing with the Trump admin/GOP majorities in all branches of government and how have you cooperated with the majority and what have been the results?

I know that in the face of the news and the policies coming out of this administration, it can be disheartening to get up and fight every day, but the fight for justice is rarely easy. My motto is that we can’t just be an opposition party that fights against legislation that we know is wrong. We do have to oppose bad legislation, but we must also be a proposition party that puts forth a vision of what we want the world to look like and works to make that vision a reality. So far, I’ve found that being a proposition party is very beneficial for people on both sides of the aisle. At a meeting a few months back, I was discussing the need for immigration reform and protecting immigrant rights with a Republican colleague and we found that we had a lot of common ground. Now, I host bipartisan meetings on immigration policy and we’re working toward real proposals and real solutions to make our nation stronger.

3. How do you see the future of the Congressional actions in the coming year? Apart from any other issues that you identify, could you talk about hate crime, DACA and healthcare as you see it.

With a president who is increasingly unpredictable and sends dog-whistles to a shrinking base of hateful people, Congress has a critical role to play. We have to stand in the way of this undoing of progress and ensure that families across the country are protected and that their rights are upheld. After the presidential election, we saw hate crimes rise, and I introduced legislation demanding justice for hate crime victims. With the cruel termination of DACA protections and the GOP’s attempts to strip health care from millions, I made sure to fight both with legislation, speeches, organizing and constituent outreach. We are still fighting for a clean Dream Act to help immigrants and I am prepared to do whatever it takes to make sure Trump doesn’t stomp on the rights of immigrants, people in need of health care and all people across this country.

4. How are you preparing for re-election and what is your fundraising situation and what has the Indian-American community done to help you?

My race last year cost about $7 million, and I was so honoured to have 82,000 donors across the country contributing. Many of those donors were Indian-American and they have continued to stand by me. But we do need to do a lot more education of our community so that they understand how hard it is to run, and how much we Indian-American candidates need their financial support to run. Indian-Americans have done so well for themselves, and I have felt their pride in having the first Indian-American woman in the House! But we cannot do it without their financial support, and since we have to run every two years, it is important for as many to step forward and help keep us in office. Since Washington state is a “toptwo” state—which means the top two vote getters advance to the general election regardless of party—it means that I will likely face a strong challenger in all of my elections. I am preparing for that and certainly appreciate the support of Indian-Americans across the country.

5. Does the “Samosa Caucus” as Rep. Krishnamoorthi has called the slew of Indian-Americans now in Congress, meet and coordinate? How? And how do you see the role played by Indian-Americans in the domestic and foreign policy front in terms of their achievements and how they could gain more traction at the policymaking table?

We do talk and we do coordinate some because, based on our experiences, I think we bring a different and valuable perspective to the way we legislate. We have all come together on a number of bills around hate crimes protections for communities, including Indian-Americans. On my bill to address South Asian heart health, because Indian-Americans have four times the incidence of heart disease as other communities, all of the Indian-Americans have signed on as co-sponsors. But a lot of our work is individual too. I tend to work most closely with Ro Khanna because we are both on the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and on the Budget Committee together. As for the role of Indian Americans in the policy space, it’s the duty of community to get politically involved so that the policy outcomes reflect the diversity in our country. Asian American and Pacific Islanders are the fastest-growing racialgroup in the United States—we are powerful and many—but our voter turnout is the lowest of any demographic. I think that we have to claim our space; own our knowledge and experiences; and truly engage in the process. That is how we will gain more traction and more influence.

6. What do you count as your contributions to ties with India over the last one year? You did go in a Congressional delegation to India and it would be great to hear your concerns and plans? 

As the first Indian American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, it’s been an honor to be able to engage with India in an official capacity. I was honored to join a bipartisan congressional delegation trip to India and Nepal with Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. We met with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Prime Minister Modi, and Nepalese leaders to discuss the ways in which the U.S., India and Nepal could work together. It was wonderful to hear about India’s booming tech industry as well as the admirable strides the country is taking on climate change. Since climate change is one of the biggest priorities for me and my district, it was wonderful to get a perspective on India’s tremendous commitment to addressing the issues as well. I also held a business roundtable when I was in Bangalore in August, and it is exciting to think of the ways in which we can continue to advance India-US relations at a local and federal level. I have also had excellent relationships with the Indian Consulate, and they have helped me resolve numerous visa issues for my constituents. As for betterment of the U.S. Indian American community, I’m proud to have introduced my South Asian Heart Health bill that focuses on making our communities healthier and funding research to ensure that we get the care we need, as well as to have taken on a number of the issues around anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim concerns and hate crimes.

7. Could you also talk about how you plan to deal with H1-B visa, or with DACA, and bills going through Congress that might impact the Indian community here and in India directly?

I serve on the prestigious Judiciary Committee which has jurisdiction over all immigration bills. I also am the Chair of the Immigration Committee for the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, and I am also Co-Chair of the Women’s Working Group on Immigration. This is the issue that I have spent 15 years of my life working on and I am deeply familiar and knowledgeable about the problems we face and the solutions we need. I’ve been saying this for a long time and I believe it fully: We need comprehensive immigration reform and we need it now. That means we need to legalize the 12 million undocumented immigrants who are here working but have no process at all to legalize their status. While many people thing these are all Mexican immigrants, the reality is that a growing number of Asians—including Indians—are undocumented. We also must fix the family immigration system to get rid of the massive backlogs that disproportionately affect Indians and Filipinos, sometimes taking more than a decade or two to bring immediate family members to the country. And then we must create a workable system for those who are here on work visas—including H1Bs and others—to do research and contribute to our economy to be able to have a path to permanent residence and citizenship and bring their families. President Trump has continued to blame immigrants for all the woes of the country, criminalizing and deporting them, but the reality is immigrants contribute a great deal to our country and we should reform the system to recognize the needs of America’s economy and families. I believe we have a real shot to pass a clean DREAM Act that provides relief and a pathway to citizenship for the 1.5 million DREAMERs who are contributing so much to our country. I have also introduced two bills to prioritize the rights of immigrants in the U.S. I introduced the Access to Counsel Act with Senator Kamala Harris to ensure that immigrants being held at our borders have access to lawyers. My second bill focused on immigrant justice is the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act that restores justice and due process to our badly broken system. When people think of immigrants, they may not often think of the Indian community, but Indian immigrants are among the groups most impacted by the immigration backlog. These policies have a direct impact on the Indian community and I’m making it a priority to uplift South Asian immigrant stories.

8. You have made significant achievements within the first year in Congress – as Vice Ranking Member of the House Budget Committee; member of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security; and as a Senior Whip of the Democratic Caucus, the First Vice Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and member of the Co-Chair of the Women’s Working Group on Immigration, from other caucuses. Could you speak to issues of major concern to you as part of the Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security; and as co-chair on the Women’s Working Group on Immigration — what are the main achievements so far and the goals in the coming year?

An achievement I’m proud of is the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act that I introduced with my Washington colleague Congressman Adam Smith. We worked really hard on this legislation to start fixing our broken immigration system. The bill phases out for-profit detention prisons; creates health and safety standards for detention; restores due process for people who are detained; and demands transparency from detention centers. Just this month, our Women’s Working Group on Immigration Reform held a forum to discuss the experiences of immigrant women in detention. Immigration is absolutely a women’s issue and we’re working hard to bring these women’s stories to the forefront of the fight. This year alone, ICE detained 68,000 women, 525 of whom were pregnant. We’re discussing in-depth solutions to address the problems that are specific to women immigrants so that we can uplift the immigrant women who are truly the backbone of our society.

Raja Krishnamoorthi

1. What do you consider your main achievement in the year since you were elected and why? 

In June, the House unanimously passed the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, also known as the Thompson- Krishnamoorthi Act. I’m the lead Democratic sponsor of the bill, and I partnered with Republican Representative ‘GT’ Thompson of Pennsylvania to get this bill through the House. This bill will help millions of Americans get the skills they need to get good-paying jobs.

2. What is your approach to dealing with the Trump admin/GOP majorities in all branches of government and how have you cooperated with the majority and what have been the results?

Despite the partisan rhetoric, I’ve been able to work with several of my Republican colleagues. For instance, my legislation with Republican Congressman ‘GT’ Thompson of Pennsylvania that would increase funding for career and technical education passed the House of Representatives unanimously this year.

Additionally, my colleague Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) and I created the Middle Class Jobs Caucus in order to find ways to ensure that families across the country are able to stay in the middle class and access good paying jobs.

3. How do you see the future of the Congressional actions in the coming year? Apart from any other issues that you identify, could you talk about hate crime, DACA and healthcare as you see it.

Hate Crimes: Early in October, I introduced the Hate Crimes Commission Act of 2017, which would establish a bipartisan 12-person commission tasked with investigating and produce a report on the increase in hate crimes, the causes of that increase, and ways that law enforcement can better combat hate crimes. While it is unclear whether Republican leadership will take up this legislation, I plan to continue gathering support from my colleagues.

DACA: When President Trump announced that he was ending the DACA program, he postponed the official end of the program by six months. Congress now has until March 5, 2018 to find a solution that will help our DREAMers attain legalstatus.

Healthcare: While Congressional Republicans have failed to pass their proposed repeal of the Affordable Care Act, the Trump administration continues to sabotage the ACA. From shortening the open enrollment period to ending the CSR payments, the Trump administration is making it more difficult for people to access affordable health care. Congress has a responsibility to ensure that our constituents are not denied the coverage that can often be the difference between life and death.

6. What do you count as your contributions to ties with India?

As one of five Indian-Americans and one of four Hindu-Americans in Congress, I have the ability and the responsibility to speak out on issues that impact members of our community, such as hate crimes, immigration, and jobs. I also work to ensure that the U.S. and India’s diplomatic, trade, and defense ties continue to grow stronger. This past summer, I had the privilege of traveling to India and meeting with Prime Minister Modi to discuss issues that matter to both our countries. I also support efforts to make India a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

7. Raja, you co-founded the Middle Class Jobs Caucus – could you give me an idea of where it’s at and what are the upcoming matters on its agenda.

I co-founded the Middle Class Jobs Caucus with my colleague, Representative Mike Gallagher (R-WI), because I believe that Congress needs to be doing more to help working families sustain good-paying jobs in our evolving economy. The Middle Class Jobs Caucus hosts monthly events, where we bring in academics and industry leaders to discuss the many challenges our nation faces in strengthening our growing workforce. Last month we hosted a leading economist from the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) to discuss ways that the federal government can better incentivize small businesses to invest in workforce productivity and innovation. At this month’s event, which was hosted on November 1st, academics participated in an informal panel discussion on regulatory reform and fiscal responsibility. I look forward to continuing to work with Congressman Gallagher to introduce bipartisan solutions to pressing issues facing middle class families.

8. You co-sponsored H.R.357: To require the President to develop and release a comprehensive national strategy to prevent United States employers from overseas outsourcing and off-shoring practices that impact the United States workforce. How does that or how will it affect Indians holding H-1B visa holders from India in particular since they are among the highest users of this category? 

The legislation simply ensures that the President develops a comprehensive strategy to ensure that American workers are able to compete fairly with workers from overseas. The legislation will not have an impact on current holders of H-1B visas.

9. You are on the Committee on Education And The Workforce. Much has been written about the debt burden on students going for higher education. What are your main solutions for this area of concern?

According to Pew Research, the average 2016 graduate owed $37,172 in student loan debt. This debt is held with high interest rates by the federal government, making it incredibly difficult for low and middle-income graduates to get ahead. That’s why I am a cosponsor of the Student Loan Refinancing and Recalculating Act, a bill that would allow both graduate and undergraduate students to refinance their student loans at lower interest rates, providing students with the flexibility and certainty to pursue their dreams.

Whether it be by decreasing their debt burden or improving existing educational programs, I am committed to ensuring that all students have access to a highquality, affordable education. My bill, the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, accomplishes this by increasing funding and flexibility for state and local governments to administer career and technical education programs that equip students with the skills to obtain good-paying jobs.

Ro Khanna

1. What do you consider your main achievement in the year since you were elected and why?

The unanimous passage of the VET TEC Act, H.R. 1989, by the House. I was the lead Democrat on this bill introduced by Republican Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy – a fellow Californian – because I viewed it as a great way to help our veterans. The bill allows the GI Bill to cover the cost of technology courses for veterans so that they can join the tech field and prepare themselves for 21st-century jobs. I came to Congress because I wanted the opportunity to make effective changes, and as a representative from Silicon Valley on the Armed Services committee, passing a bipartisan, tech-related, bill was a proud moment.

2. What is your approach to dealing with the Trump admin/GOP majorities in all branches of government and how have you cooperated with the majority and what have been the results?

I regret the choices this Administration has made in its first year. Its priorities and values do not reflect the mainstream of America. That is why I steadfastly opposed the travel ban, discrimination against brave transgender servicemembers, and numerous attempts to take health care from millions of Americans. I will not compromise on those issues. However, I have been able to work with Republicans, at times, to pass commonsense bills like the VET TEC Act. I also visited Kentucky and spent a day with Rep. Hal Rogers, a senior member and former Republican chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, to find ways both sides can work together to expand tech jobs across America in areas like his district that have not prospered as much from the technology revolution.

3. How do you see the future of the Congressional actions in the coming year? 

Apart from any other issues that you identify, could you talk about hate crime, DACA and healthcare as you see it. I think that Republicans will attempt to pass their tax cuts for the wealthiest and most profitable corporations. I hope that Americans urge their representatives to oppose legislation in which 80% of the benefits will go to the top 1%. As for DACA, I will push for Congress to work out a legislative solution that reinstates this important program.

4. How are you preparing for re-election and what is your fundraising situation and what has the Indian-American community done to help you? 

This is political in nature. We decline to answer in an official capacity.

5. Does the “Samosa Caucus” as Rep. Krishnamoorthi has called the slew of Indian-Americans now in Congress, meet and coordinate? How? And how do you see the role played by Indian-Americans in the domestic and foreign policy front in terms of their achievements and how they could gain more traction at the policymaking table?

I’m very proud to serve alongside my Indian-American colleagues and I enjoy working with them. Our collective experience and diversity bring unique perspectives to our committees and the work we do in the House. I am heartened that, in the United States, I can be born the son of immigrants and can eventually serve in Congress.

6. What do you count as your contributions to ties with India over the last one year? You did go in a Congressional delegation to India and it would be great to hear your concerns and plans?

I have been active in numerous forums and activities working with Swadesh Chatterjee to strengthen the strategic partnership between the US and India on counterterrorism and innovation.

7. Could you also talk about how you plan to deal with H1-B visa, or with DACA, and bills going through Congress that might impact the Indian community here and in India directly?

I’ve introduced bipartisan legislation that reforms the H-1B visa program by eliminating loopholes to end abuses. We shouldn’t have companies with more than 50% of their employees on H-1B visas and we should make sure than anybody working with an H-1B visa is getting paid a fair wage.

As for DACA, I will continue to push for a solution in Congress that reinstates this program. We must safeguard the livelihood of DREAMers and provide these inspiring young people and their courageous parents a pathway to citizenship.

8. You are in two very significant committees. The Armed Services Committee is of particular significance at this time of global uncertainty, including in the South Asian region. What do you think about the Trump administration’s push to expand and deepen security cooperation and defense technology relations with India? And also its Indo-Pacific policy where it has declared India as a major partner, along with Japan and possibly Australia?

I wholly support productive national security partnerships between the U.S. and its allies – including India. It is in our strategic interest to strengthen our partnership with one of the world’s fastest growing economies and a pluralistic democracy. These relationships make the world a safer place. What I oppose is U.S. involvement in foreign conflicts that compromises our national security and endangers civilians, including the strikes in Syria earlier this year and U.S. participation in the Saudi-led bombings in the civil war in Yemen.

9. As a member of the House Budget Committee, you get to have input on various sectors of the economy. What are your major concerns on the domestic policy front at this time and in the coming years?

It is my goal to ensure that the American workforce is prepared as the global economy continues to become more technology-focused. Silicon Valley has seen tremendous growth over the past couple decades, and I want to help develop those skills and success in places left behind. It is vital that Americans have the opportunity and skill set to take advantage of the 21st-century economy.