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Coming Together to Build One America

Pramila Jayapal describes how her immigrant past has inspired her to help others

Pramila JayapalPramila Jayapal is being honored as a Champion of Change for her efforts as an AAPI Women leader.

I’m a proud immigrant from India. My parents used their last savings to send me here for college when I was 16 because they wanted me to have the best education possible. Now, a mother myself, I know what an enormous sacrifice it was to send a child so far away, knowing they would probably never return back. Through my years of work with immigrants from all over the world, I’ve witnessed even greater sacrifices from so many who came to America seeking safety, stability and economic opportunity.

For the past 23 years, I’ve been inspired by countless people on the ground who demonstrated tremendous resilience and courage as they struggled to make ends meet. I began my social justice career in international public health, running a $6 million loan fund for critical health projects. I had the opportunity, too, to spend two years living in villages and small towns across India understanding problems and solutions that came from the ground. Then, September 11, 2001 happened. I started OneAmerica—originally called Hate Free Zone Campaign of Washington—as a response to the hate crimes and backlash against Arabs, Muslims and South Asians immediately after 9/11. What started as simply protecting people against hate crimes turned quickly into much more—working to defend our civil liberties and rights for all immigrant communities.

We realized quickly how critical federal immigration policy reform was to our democracy and our members. In 2003, through the Immigrant Worker Freedom Ride, we began working on immigration reform and never stopped. We built political power for immigrants in our state, registering and mobilizing to the polls tens of thousands of New Americans. We organized in different ethnic communities and advocated for better policies. We worked with media to improve the narrative around immigrants and immigration. Together, with partners, allies and members, we built OneAmerica from a fledgling effort into the largest immigrant advocacy organization in Washington and a strong national force for justice.

Today, as a Distinguished Taconic Fellow at the Center for Community Change, I have a remarkable opportunity to work at the national level on the most important questions of our time: passing immigration reform but also how to navigate our rapidly changing demographics with grace, and how to build an economy that works for everyone, including people of color, women and the most vulnerable. As Co-Chair of the We Belong Together, we’ve also focused on engaging ordinary women and Congress members in advocating for immigration reform that treats women fairly. 75% of immigrants to America are women and children, but past proposals for reform have failed to recognize the contributions and the priorities of women. We’re making sure that won’t happen this time, galvanizing a vibrant effort to bring women’s voices forward in the current legislative process.

It’s been an honor to spend my life working with remarkable immigrants who gave everything to come here. These men and women work every day to pick the fruit and vegetables that we eat, take care of our children and our aging relatives, staff our emergency rooms, start small businesses, contribute vibrancy to our culture, and carry out the many tasks that our economy needs.

Our country is strongest when our movement for justice is strongest. I’ll continue to dedicate my life to reaching for our nation’s beautiful founding ideals: that America is born of hope, possibility and justice, where each one of us has the choice, the opportunity and the responsibility to contribute our full selves to this beautiful place we call home. Together—as One America.

Pramila Jayapal is the founder of OneAmerica and currently a Distinguished Taconic Fellow at Center for Community Change and Distinguished Fellow at the University of Washington Law School.