Following Republicans taking slim control of the U.S. House of Representatives this past November, Democrats will no longer control the Judiciary Committee’s immigration subcommittee following back-to-back congressional sessions that saw the passage a slew of pro-immigrant legislation.
However, they will have a powerful leader on their side. Washington state’s Pramila Jayapal was this week named the subcommittee’s ranking member. Her appointment is significant: “Jayapal is the first immigrant in recorded committee history to serve as either Ranking Member or Chair of this Subcommittee,” a statement said. The former director of the pro-immigrant OneAmerica group, Jayapal comes to the position with expert knowledge, much like the subcommittee’s outgoing chair Zoe Lofgren.
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“I came to this country when I was 16, alone, and with nothing in my pockets,” said Jayapal, who was born in India. “After 17 years on an alphabet soup of visas to become a U.S. citizen, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to live the American Dream, a dream that is out of reach for too many immigrants today. It is extremely meaningful to me that I will now be in this position to better move the needle and recenter our broken immigration system around dignity, humanity, and justice.”
Elected to Congress in 2016 following advocacy work that included suing the Bush administration to stop the deportation of thousands of Somali immigrants, Jayapal’s work has included oversight over abusive immigration enforcement agencies, passing legislation protecting the rights of Americans targeted by border agents, and introducing legislation strengthening the rights of domestic workers (that bill was written with then-Senator Kamala Harris).
While Republicans like to conduct theatrics at the U.S./Mexico border, Jayapal’s work there has included intervening to aid asylum-seekers, including unaccompanied minors, unfairly blocked by border agents. “Initially they were denied, in violation of U.S. and international law, but I was able to intervene and ensure that they could simply present themselves for asylum in the United States,” she tweeted in 2018.
Jayapal in her statement this week thanked Lofgren “for her years of dedicated leadership on the Subcommittee,” and said she looked forward to continued collaboration. Jayapal also noted that she’s well aware that Republicans have “no intention of engaging in good faith solutions to reform our immigration laws,” and said that “Democrats will have to be an opposition party that stands up to the most extreme ideas of the GOP and protects our values.” House Republicans’ first immigration-related bill is so extreme, that their caucus scrapped a plan to fast track the bill to a floor vote.
Texas Republican Tony Gonzales, for example, called the bill “not Christian” and “anti-American,” putting lead sponsor Chip Roy on the defensive. His anti-asylum bill now goes back to committee.
Republicans’ slim majority in the House means that Speaker-For-Now Kevin McCarthy can only lose a handful of votes. Already, enough were disturbed by Roy’s bill that it tanked its chances of passage (for now). Jayapal noted that she sees “promise for bipartisan work with a number of more moderate Republicans who themselves understand the need to restore our country as a beacon of hope.” But we’ll see.
Numerous leading voices celebrated news of Jayapal’s rise to ranking member. “You are the right person for this time to lead on immigration,” tweeted Allen Orr Jr., past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. United Farm Workers tweeted that it was “thrilled” with the news. “A proud immigrant herself, she has been a relentless advocate for immigrant workers, including farm workers in Washington state.We look forward to her leadership.”
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