Pramia Jayapal, First South Asian American Woman Elected to the U.S. House

4 years ago / by Chase Maser
Pramia Jayapal

The ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920, not only gave U.S. women the right to vote, it fortified the women’s rights movement that helped elect women to political office. Today, one of those women is U.S. Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-WAS).  She speaks in Congress not only for her constituents of the upper Northwest, she also serves as the Vice-Chair of the U.S. House of Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship as well as a Co-Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC). Recently she co-led a coalition that introduced the Housing is a Human Right Act to authorize more than $200 billion in federal spending over 10 years for crucial housing infrastructure and reduce homelessness, including immediate relief to state and community organizations providing emergency shelter and services during the COVID -19 outbreak. This work is informed by her 20-year career in global public health and development and as an award-winning advocate for women’s, immigrant, civil, and human rights. 

Indian Roots, Public Health Passion

Jayapal’s long-term interest in immigration rights began with her own experience.  Born in Chennai, India, she grew up in India, Singapore and Indonesia before immigrating to the U.S. by herself to enroll in Georgetown at the age of 16.  After earning her bachelors degree, Jayapal received her MBA from Northwestern University. 

Following brief stints in finance and marketing, Jayapal  embarked on a career that would span two decades with international and US positions in the global public health and development sector. She founded Hate Free Zone (later OneAmerica) after September 11 to advocate for immigrant groups, receiving honors at the White House for this leadership. Today, the organization is one of largest immigration advocacy organization in the U.S.

Jayapal applied her advocacy skills and transitioned into politics first in Seattle and then in the Washington State Senate. She helped negotiate a $15-minimum wage in city, along with co-sponsoring a major state bill to conduct a Department of Transportation apprenticeship program to train women and people of color. 

In 2016,  Jayapal shifted her focus to the U.S. Congress. Her successful election to what would be the first of two terms as a Washington State Representative, permitted her to practice her passions at the federal level. 

First South Asian Woman in the House

Jayapal’s election made her the first South Asian American woman elected to the U.S. House, and one of just 14 naturalized citizens serving in the U.S. Congress. Her positions include those on the Judiciary Committee and CRC, as well as the serving as the Immigration Subcommittee Chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific Asian Caucus, and as  Vice Chair of the Congressional LGBTQ Equality Caucus. 

She is the lead sponsor of  HR1384, the Medicare for All Act of 2019, designed to bring affordable healthcare and services to everyone. Jayapal authored the College for All Act, designed to ensure Americans can access  higher education; the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act; and the National Domestic Workers Bill of Right.  She also focuses on new legislation to  expand legal immigration to the U.S.  

Jayapal also is the author of books. Her first, Pilgrimage to India: A Woman Revisits Her Homeland, shares her two-year visit experiences of India’s social issues that try to balance “time-honored practices with present-day changes, … . Jayapal not only sheds light on India’s societal issues but also weaves a vibrant tapestry of the beauty and mystery of the culture.” Her second due out in June 30, 2020, Use the Power You Have: A Brown Woman’s Guide to Politics and Political Changein which she shares her journey from 16-year-old Indian immigrant “to grassroots activist, state senator, and now progressive powerhouse in Washington, DC.”