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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, July 7, 2017 - Volume 45 Issue 27
The country I love
Section One
ALL STORIES
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The country I love

by Pramila Jayapal
U.S. Representative
Washington's 7th Congressional District

I wrote a piece [on Tuesday, July 4] in the New York Times sharing my story and talking about what it means to be an immigrant in America today. With Donald Trump terrorizing immigrant communities and demagoguing millions of good, hardworking people, it's never been more important to speak out and tell our stories as immigrants and as Americans.

Seventeen years ago, I celebrated my first Independence Day as a United States citizen. I couldn't have predicted then that I would one day have the enormous privilege of being the first Indian-American woman to serve in the United States House of Representatives, and one of only six members of Congress who are naturalized citizens.

After arriving here from India at age 16, I spent more than a dozen years on an alphabet soup of visas - F1, H1B and more - before I finally got my green card through marriage to an American. Some years later, I was awarded a fellowship from the Institute of Current World Affairs, which allowed me to spend two years living in my birth country. I just had to come back to the United States once a year to keep my permanent resident status current. When I became pregnant during the second year of the program, my husband and I planned to return to the United States in time for my last trimester, so I could deliver the baby at home, and then return to India.

That plan did not work out. Just two weeks before we were scheduled to board our flight back to the United States, I developed a leak in my amniotic sac. My son was born prematurely at 26.5 weeks, weighing less than two pounds. I was now faced with a choice. In order to preserve my permanent resident status, I needed to return to the United States within weeks of his birth. But he was so tiny and in such critical condition that he could not fly, and I refused to leave his bedside knowing he might die.

So I stayed in India. I lost my green card status and only through the help and hard work of the institute was I able to regain my permanent residence status and return to the United States three months later when my son was finally able to fly.

I became determined to get my citizenship as soon as I was eligible so that I would never again face the prospect of being separated from my son, who was a United States citizen by virtue of being the child of a United States citizen father. Part of the agreement that had allowed me to return to the United States again and regain my permanent residence status was that I would have to start from zero to qualify for citizenship again. That process took three years.

When I finally walked into the cavernous hall at the old location of Immigration and Naturalization Services (now called United States Citizenship and Immigration Services) south of downtown Seattle, I was prepared for a simple transaction that would finally grant me citizenship and ensure that I would always be with my son. I did not anticipate the emotion that would come with the moment, or the way it would shape my future, and my understanding of this country.

There were hundreds of others at the ceremony from all over the world, and I could hear languages from every continent spoken. We all carried small American flags. Grandparents held children; moms and dads held hands. As we took the oath of citizenship, the solemnity of the moment spiked through me. Tears welled up and rolled down my cheeks as I took in the mixed emotions of renouncing any allegiance to my birth country of India where I had been a citizen for 35 years and embracing my new country.

America, a country that had embraced me as a 16-year-old who had come here by myself to study and build a life of better opportunity.

America, a country built on the idea of being a refuge for those in need, 'the tired masses, yearning to breathe free.'

America, a country that has always celebrated itself as a nation of immigrants.

In that moment, as I took my oath, I realized how lucky I was. I knew that my future had opened up, and that citizenship would offer me the chance to seek opportunity and to take part in our democracy. I knew, too, that with those freedoms and opportunity came enormous responsibility: to do everything I could to preserve and build our democracy, to vote, and to use my life to pay it forward and ensure opportunity for others.

I became an immigrant, civil and human rights advocate, then the first South Asian elected to the Washington State Legislature and the only woman of color in the Washington State Senate, and then was elected in 2016 to the United States Congress.

These are difficult times for immigrants and for Americans across our country. President Trump has harnessed the fear and prejudice that have accompanied every wave of immigrants in United States history, and stoked those fears to further his own agenda.

Restricting immigration from Muslim-majority countries, and cracking down on unauthorized immigration in a way that tears families apart and creates an atmosphere of fear, cuts at the very fabric of what really does make America great: the diversity that is our greatest strength.

This Fourth of July, as I remember my own naturalization ceremony and give thanks for the honor of being a United States citizen and a member of Congress, I call on the president and my fellow Americans to remember our history. What makes America great is our commitment to our values of inclusivity and opportunity for all. Immigration is about more than just who comes here and who is allowed to stay. It is about who we are as a country and what we are willing to stand up for.

Courtesy of U.S. Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal

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