Jayapal is a strong voice in the national immigration debate — a long way from her days as a Wall Street investment banker.
INSIDE THE lobby of a Seattle skyscraper that houses federal immigration courts, Pramila Jayapal is pacing.
Glancing furtively at a security guard, she puts one foot ahead of another, heel-to-toe, in her size-8 scuffed boots — trying to figure out how many protesters it will take, with locked arms, to block access to two banks of elevators. She counts off the distance between them: “Fifty-six feet.”
It’s a long way from her high-flying days on Wall Street. But now Jayapal is firmly on the ground, leading the state’s largest immigrant-advocacy group, OneAmerica, which she built from scratch. She’s a big player.
Most Read Stories
- Washington state primary election: How the day unfolded, plus results of key races VIEW
- Coronavirus daily news updates, August 4: What to know today about COVID-19 in the Seattle area, Washington state and the world
- After protests near her home, Seattle police chief asks City Council to intervene; activists say neighbors pointed guns at them
- COVID-19 positivity rates drop in King County, but hot spots to south still burn brightly
- Instacart shoppers besieged by bots that snatch lucrative orders
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray calls her a “strong voice” on the national stage. “She’s a rock star,” says Deepak Bhargava, leader of the nation’s largest immigrant-rights coalition.
Jayapal’s standing is all the more notable because she’s a south Asian woman leading a largely Latino movement in a state not particularly relevant to the national argument.
But she’s more clear-eyed, several people say, than most activists, mixing soaring ideals with business-school pragmatism.
“She would love to embrace everyone from every culture and status into the U.S. pretty much unfettered,” says Yakima County Sheriff Ken Irwin, a Republican. “However, it’s not realistic, and she recognizes there has to be some give-and-take.”
Her mission lately is calling out President Obama for breaking his promise to overhaul immigration laws. Instead, Obama is deporting about 1,000 people a day, more than his predecessor ever did.
“We can’t just blame Republicans,” she says.
Concerned that Obama hadn’t “put any skin in the game,” she’s pushing Bhargava’s coalition to escalate its protests to civil disobedience. That’s why she’s measuring the lobby at the corner of Second Avenue and Madison Street. Jayapal wants to be arrested. It’s time, she says, for people to choose “which side of history they will be on.”
We face a moral crisis, she argues, akin to the African-American struggle for civil rights. “An unjust law is no law,” she says, invoking Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous words from a Birmingham, Ala., jail.
Time and again she’s been told this isn’t the year to push Democrats on immigration. The political mood isn’t right; voters are too anxious and angry.
But she is resolute.
“I’ve been threatened with lynching, called disgusting and told to go back to the country I came from,” Jayapal says in a sermon at Seattle’s Bethany United Church of Christ.
“If somebody says I can’t do it, I say, ‘Oh yeah, watch me.’ “
CONSERVATIVE TALK-SHOW host Dori Monson is sparring with Jayapal on the air.
Most Americans approve of Arizona’s new law, Monson says, allowing local police to detain Latinos they have “reasonable suspicion” are not U.S. residents.
“A terrible law,” Jayapal says. It promotes racial profiling, takes cops away from fighting street crime and makes them de facto immigration agents.
Instead, she says, the feds should fix our “broken” immigration system and create a pathway to citizenship for the 12 million immigrants now in the U.S. illegally. That path would require them to pay back taxes, learn English, undergo criminal background checks.
Most Americans favor such changes, she says.
“I do not believe a majority support illegals,” Monson insists.
A recent poll by University of Washington political scientists reflects the nation’s contradictory views about immigration. A majority of Washingtonians (52 percent) approve of the Arizona law. At the same time an overwhelming 82 percent say they’re against police stops based on race or ethnicity. Just 12 percent want to deport all who are here illegally, while 51 percent support a path to citizenship with requirements like paying back taxes.
Illegal-is-illegal, Monson argues. “We need to uphold laws. We have a long history of legal immigration.”
Actually, it’s a history of exploiting cheap workers and periodically pushing them out, particularly during bad times, Jayapal says. Look at the record: the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese internment, 1 million people of Mexican descent deported after the Great Depression, an estimated 500,000 deported by the Eisenhower administration in 1954’s “Operation Wetback.”
We need workers to pick fruit and wash dishes, but we have a system, Jayapal says, that allows just 5,000 visas per year for low-skilled laborers. Americans are fair, she says, and want to bring illegal immigrants out of a shadowy underclass where they’re afraid to report abusive bosses and crimes.
Monson sounds incredulous. “They break in. They can leave when they want. How can you make that the moral equivalent of slavery?”
Back and forth they volley. “As always, I couldn’t disagree with you more,” Monson says at the end of the segment. “And as always, I love having you on.”
“I respect her passion,” Monson explains off-air. “She doesn’t back down from somebody who challenges her.”
Even if it’s the chairman of the Senate subcommittee on immigration.
Bhargava, who heads the Fair Immigration Reform Movement, recalls a showdown with New York Sen. Chuck Schumer. Trying to win Republican votes for reform, Democrat Schumer had proposed that illegal immigrants plead guilty to the crime of being undocumented. The charge would be a low-level offense and eventually wiped away for good behavior.
Jayapal wouldn’t stand for it.
“On one hand, we saw the benefit. Republicans feel (immigrants) really need to pay penance. On the other hand,” she explains, “such a proposal plays into the narrative of immigrants as criminals, which I don’t think is a good idea.”
Meeting Schumer face-to-face, “she let him have it,” Bhargava says. “She dispensed with pleasantries, got down to business, and he dropped that provision.”
JAYAPAL KNOWS firsthand some of the kinks in our immigration pipeline.
Born in India, she left when she was 4 for Indonesia, where her father worked for an oil company.
When it came time for Jayapal to consider college she prayed five times a day to her family’s Hindu goddess, Ambika Devi, to go to America, the land of creativity, progress and Disneyland.
Devi always listens, Jayapal’s grandmother would tell her. And at 16, in September 1982, she got her passport stamped and moved into a Georgetown University dorm in Washington, D.C.
She wasn’t the least bit political and promised her father she’d pursue a worthy career, which to him meant medicine, law or business.
Right out of college she went into investment banking at Paine Webber in New York. She specialized in leveraged buyouts, which became a symbol of the suspendered, slick-haired greed of “corporate raiders.”
She was making more money 24 years ago than she does now ($92,000) and spending hundreds on “ridiculous” meals. “But I felt empty,” she recalls, “and looking at people around me, how they were empty.” Off she went to get a master’s degree in business at Northwestern University in Chicago. That led to a job managing loans to women’s health programs in developing countries, including India.
She spent two years in the homeland she never really knew, living simply, sometimes without running water. “If you allow yourself to fully feel India, you cannot help become an activist,” she says.
Six months pregnant, she was about to return to the States when she was diagnosed with a dangerous leak in her amniotic sac. After a harrowing trek through street riots and rush-hour traffic, she gave birth to her son, Janak, in a Mumbai hospital. He weighed just 1 pound 14 ounces.
While Janak was nourished with droplets of milk, Jayapal was fighting immigration rules. The baby couldn’t leave India until he got out of intensive care. But U.S. authorities required “permanent residents” like Jayapal to come home once a year or lose their green cards. Facing the deadline, she refused to abandon Janak.
Eventually, after the New Hampshire-based Institute for Current World Affairs appealed to the U.S. ambassador, the government allowed her back. But it took away the years of residency she had accumulated, which would have qualified her for citizenship. She had to start all over. Finally, in 2000, she became a citizen, vowing never again to be separated from her son. (Janak is her “miracle,” she says now — a baseball-loving, jazz-drumming 13-year-old who critiques her speeches.)
Out of her time in India came a book of self-discovery, “Pilgrimage.” Jayapal, who used to fake sick to avoid public speaking, went on a publicity tour and read to 300 people at Elliott Bay Books.
Mary Jean Ryan, a friend, brought her young daughter to the reading. “I said, ‘Honey, this might seem boring,’ ” Ryan recalls, ” ‘but I want you to soak it up because Pramila is just a powerful person.’ “
ON THE MORNING of Sept. 11, 2001, Jayapal felt “kind of pissed.” She had separated from her husband and was alone, unpacking boxes in a South Seattle house she moved into the day before. The man she was dating, ecologist Paul Hawken, had hurried back to California with a funny feeling he needed to be home.
A friend called and told Jayapal to turn on the TV.
Within days, reports surfaced of hate crimes against Sikhs and other immigrants. “The victims looked like me with their brown skin,” she says.
Frightened to let Janak out of the house, Jayapal decided to speak up. She created a group called Hate Free Zone. From a one-room office on Rainier Avenue, Jayapal’s group blossomed into a nonprofit with a new name (OneAmerica), a $2.1 million budget (mostly from foundations), 17 full-time employees and a political action committee. It has helped register 25,000 new voters, organized nine branches around the state and drawn hundreds — including influential politicians — to its annual banquet, which raised just less than $100,000 this year.
“What stands out most about her,” says City Councilman Nick Licata, “is the phenomenal growth of OneAmerica. It’s gone from a small mustard seed to a huge tree.”
Along the way, Jayapal has trod on the turf of other ethnic groups and bruised egos with her take-charge style. Turnover has been high at OneAmerica, where she’s a hard-driving boss who gets most of the spotlight. Some see her as politically ambitious.
“We’ve made mistakes. We’ve stepped on toes,” Jayapal admits. “We try to reach out as much as we can, but sometimes we’re late.”
OneAmerica should be judged by the coalitions it builds, she says, such as the Washington Immigration Reform Committee, which includes 90 groups.
Jayapal concedes she’s demanding, but the work is “emotionally challenging and draining,” and her organization’s mission has changed, shifting from social work and education to organizing and advocacy.
She has thought about running for Congress, but believes she’s “making a huge difference” where she is.
Jayapal’s closest confidant may be her husband, Steve Williamson, former head of the King County Labor Council and now assistant to the president of the local United Food and Commercial Workers union.
The pair work closely on immigration issues. “She makes me bigger than what I am,” Williamson says. “She makes us feel bigger than who we are.”
THE LIFE OF an immigration advocate, Bhargava says, “is an endless series of conference calls punctuated by marches with millions of people.”
It’s a little more for Jayapal: red-eye flights to D.C., meetings with Cabinet members, sleeping on church floors in Phoenix, dropping hundreds of rubber flip-flops in Sen. John McCain’s office, writing opinion columns with Gloria Steinem, fund-raising at Wild Ginger in Seattle.
The plan by 40 activists to block elevators at 1000 Second Ave. went off like clockwork, except for one problem. Seattle police refused to arrest them, even though they blocked access to federal offices and courts, then sat in city streets.
“Arrest us, dammit,” Jayapal jokes afterward with her lawyer. “This is reverse racial-profiling.”
Cheering and chanting, the group climbs on a bus and heads back to a Beacon Hill church. Sitting on the sanctuary floor scarfing down pizza, they brainstorm ways to make sure they get jailed. Should they block a freeway? Steal Arizona products from Safeway shelves? Maybe stage a sit-in at the federal detention center in Tacoma? The last idea starts to gain momentum before Jayapal interjects that Seattle media won’t travel to Tacoma.
The group settles for another protest in the street outside the Jackson Federal Building in Seattle.
This time they succeed. Jayapal and 21 others are hauled off to jail. She spends the night in a holding cell with steel benches too narrow to lie on and a toilet in the middle of the room. Some women brought in are drunk and high. One vomits. “There was quite a bit of drama,” Jayapal says. But she thinks the civil disobedience worked. Obama had challenged advocates to push him. And she had helped orchestrate a chain of protests across the country the led to almost 200 arrests.
Stung that the protests targeted him, Obama held a tense meeting with the advocates a few days later. He followed up with a national speech in which he called for fixing a “broken” immigration system and creating a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
But the president didn’t offer any timelines. And Jayapal believes Congress won’t act until after the November elections. Still, she’s encouraged. Obama used his pulpit to elevate the issue. He extolled immigrants’ contributions to the nation. His Justice Department then sued to overturn Arizona’s new law.
“We’ve not had a president give a major speech on the need for immigration reform in 20 years,” she says. “Now we have to organize to keep the pressure on him and Republicans.”
She gives hope, says Celeste Addai, a social worker whose husband faces deportation to Ghana because his visa expired while a lawyer bungled a deadline. Addai’s husband is living underground, wishing Jayapal and others could change the laws.
“I’m part of a movement now,” Addai says. “It makes me feel empowered. I’m educated on the laws. I go to churches and tell my story. I call it my therapy. OneAmerica has changed my life.”
Bob Young is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer.