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Op-Ed:  Kamala Harris’ immigrant family story is an inspiring reminder of why we need to vote out Trump

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.)
Sen. Kamala Harris, Joe Biden’s choice for vice president, is the first Black woman and the first South Asian American woman to be on a major party’s presidential ticket.
(Cliff Hawkins / Getty Images)

I was born into a matrilineal family of strong women in South India. My grandmother would hitch up her sari, play tennis and swim when not many women were doing the same. She even nearly finished college before getting married.

Her sister — my great-aunt, P.K. Devi — was one of the first female obstetrician-gynecologists in the country, beloved for the work she did before later becoming the acting dean of the Chandigarh Institute of Medicine. My mother earned a master’s degree and wrote her first book at 50.

As it is with many immigrant families, my parents believed deeply in the promise of America. They spent their life savings to send me to the United States alone at the age of 16 for an education, making the sacrifice of putting an ocean between us.

Years later, I would work in international development around the world and returned to live in villages throughout India in the mid-1990s. That time allowed me to connect more deeply with my roots. I heard more stories about my great-aunt from rural villagers who recounted how profoundly she had changed their lives. Returning to America, I went on to start an immigrant rights organization and spend two decades organizing for racial, economic and gender justice.

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This week, when Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) became the first Black woman and the first South Asian American woman to be on a major party‘s presidential ticket, joy erupted — in my family, in Asian American, Pacific Islander and Black families across this country, and in millions of homes across Asia and Africa. I am proud of her Indian immigrant roots and her Blackness.

We Asian immigrants to America have learned so much from the struggles of Black women who have paved the road to justice with their steps. Sen. Harris’ multiple identities and experiences not only bring important perspectives to the table, but also allow so many others to see new possibilities for their own futures.

On the night in 2016 that I became the first South Asian woman to be elected to the House of Representatives, Kamala Harris became the first South Asian American woman — and only the second Black woman — to be elected to the Senate. We are two of only 79 women of color to have ever served in Congress.

Our common aim for equality and justice forms a strong bond between us. Together, for instance, we introduced the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act, the first ever national set of laws ensuring labor rights and protections for millions of domestic workers in this country.

But we also have a connection through the strong women from whom we are descended. My great-aunt, who had long inspired me, had also been a professor to Sen. Harris’ aunt, Sarala Gopalan. In fact, Dr. Gopalan is also an obstetrician-gynecologist and became the dean of the same medical institute that Devi Aunty led. In one of Dr. Gopalan’s medical textbooks, she wrote this acknowledgment: “If we have been able to contribute to this book, it is due to the constant encouragement I (Sarala Gopalan) have received from my beloved teacher, Professor P.K. Devi.”

Donald Trump was also elected the night Sen. Harris and I were elected to Congress. I felt then an even greater responsibility to remind America of who we really are as a country: diverse, powerful in core values of family and hard work, compassionate and welcoming to immigrants.

This election will shape our future on every level, as we fight a racist president who calls COVID-19 “kung flu” and the “Chinese virus,” while refusing to take control of a pandemic that has killed more than 166,000 Americans and wrecked our economy. A Biden-Harris ticket would immediately take on the pandemic with complete attention and investment in testing and relief.

Sen. Harris’ nomination offers a clear contrast to a xenophobic president who has attacked immigrants and asylum seekers and the very idea of immigration at every turn, issuing a Muslim ban, separating families, caging children and even threatening student visa programs that allowed Sen. Harris’ mother and me to come to America in the first place.

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Sen. Harris, the daughter of immigrants, understands the urgency of passing humane and comprehensive immigration reform that fixes our broken system and celebrates the dignity and contributions of immigrants. Having worked with her on immigration policy such as our Access to Counsel Act to expand the rights of people detained at the border, I know she will deliver.

Immigrants and the children of immigrants are resilient. We push boulders up mountains and succeed because we have to. And that’s the kind of leadership we need.

Pramila Jayapal is the U.S. representative for Washington’s 7th Congressional District and the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. She is the author of “Use the Power You Have: A Brown Woman’s Guide to Politics and Political Change.”


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