Seventeen years after becoming a citizen of this country Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington, became the first Indian-American woman to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. In an Oped in the New York Times entitled, “The Country I love” published July 4th, Jayapal recounts her experience after she landed on these shores at the age of 16.
Today, she is one of only six members of Congress who are naturalized citizens.
But her road to citizenship was a rocky one. Not only did she go through the gamut of visas, F1, H-1B, etc., but she lost her Green Card when her child was born prematurely during a visit to India with her American husband, and could not come back to the U.S. on time to keep the permanent residence visa valid.
“I became determined to get my citizenship as soon as I was eligible so that I would never again face the prospect of being separated from my son, who was a United States citizen by virtue of being the child of a United States citizen father,” Jayapal recounts. It took her another 3 years to become a citizen after that. She did not ever want to be in a situation where she could not be with her son, she says.
Extremely moved by the citizenship ceremony with hundreds of others from around the world, the sounds of many languages, grandparents, moms and dads, holding small American flags, and the solemn ceremony, brought her to tears.
“Tears welled up and rolled down my cheeks as I took in the mixed emotions of renouncing any allegiance to my birth country of India where I had been a citizen for 35 years and embracing my new country,” Jayapal recalls. As she took the oath however, she realized her good fortune, she says; that her future “had opened up” and that she could take part in the democracy, but also shoulder the “enormous responsibility” that came with the freedoms, Jayapal says, “to do everything I could to preserve and build our democracy, to vote, and to use my life to pay it forward and ensure opportunity for others.”
An ardent civil rights activist, Jayapal founded advocacy organizations that worked to protect immigrant and women’s rights over the years. That led to her being elected the first South Asian to the Washington State Legislature and the only woman of color in the Washington State Senate, and then being elected in 2016 to the United States Congress.
“These are difficult times for immigrants and for Americans across our country,” says Jayapal, and urges President Trump to “remember our history.”
“What makes America great is our commitment to our values of inclusivity and opportunity for all,” Jayapal contends, and it is more than about who comes into the country. Rather, “It is about who we are as a country and what we are willing to stand up for.”