The Feministing Five: Pramila Jayapal

Pramila Jayapal at We Belong Together's civil disobedience on Thursday.

Pramila Jayapal at We Belong Together’s civil disobedience on Thursday.

Only hours after being released from jail for urging the House of Representatives to take action on immigration reform, Pramila Jayapal, feminist and immigration activist extraordinaire, graciously answered our questions for this week’s Feministing Five!

Pramila has been an established leader in immigration reform for years, having founded Washington State’s largest immigrant advocacy organization, OneAmerica, in 2001. Just recently recognized as a White House Champion of Change, she currently co-chairs We Belong Together: Women for Common-Sense Immigration Reform and her successful organizing this past week, resulting in the largest number of undocumented women who willfully submitted to arrest, further deepened our respect for her and her work.

And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five with Pramila Jayapal.


Suzanna Bobadilla: Can you describe the We Belong Together action this past week? What was a moment that was particularly powerful?

Pramila Jayapal: The action yesterday was coordinated by the “We Belong Together” campaign. It was to draw attention to the courage and contributions of immigration women every single day. They make the economy work, hold their families together, contribute to their communities, and yet they have to live in this shadow and have to live with the burden of a broken immigration system. We wanted people to understand that women and children are really the face of immigration, composing about 75% of all immigrants to the United States. A lot of times it’s not talked about that way.

We also demanded that Congress should show that same courage by bringing a fair and humane immigration bill to a vote. We’ve seen a bill passed in the Senate, we’ve worked very hard to make sure that women were included in that bill. Now it’s languishing in the hands of GOP leadership in the House because they don’t have the courage to move it forward. We were showing them what courage looks like with 105 women who willing submitted to arrest, including about 22 undocumented women.

In terms of a moment that was really powerful, it was watching that circle of women, knowing that everyone was taking a risk, but knowing that those 22 in particular were taking so much more risk. I’m just getting goose bumps thinking about it because it was just one of those moments where you see women coming together, across races, ethnicities, immigration status. It was a moment of complete power and togetherness as we claimed that intersection. And you could see that visibly in the women. You could see it as they were chanting or as they were sitting there quietly, but there was this surge of power through this circle as we showed Congress what it looks like to have courage and to act for the good of millions of people across the country.

SB: One hundred and five women, that’s a huge number. Can you tell us more about why the women choose to risk arrest?

PJ: We have been in this place for many years. We are both so close and so far. We’re always told that it’s not the right time for the issue. Right after the election, it became the right time, it rose to the top of everybody’s agenda, but it took almost seven months for a bill to pass in the Senate. Now we’re being told that it’s already too close for next year’s midterm elections and we might not have the opportunity to move immigration reform. There are still 2 million people being deported since Obama took office and the fact that those deportations are happening in an increasing rate.

We are dealing with those deportations in the field everyday as women and children see the effects play out in their lives. So yesterday’s demonstrators were moved by the urgency they feel because we know that immigration reform needs to happen this year. You build leadership, you continue action, but there are these moments when it feels like the stakes are so high and you are ready.

SB: There’s been an on-going conversation about intersections between race/ethnicity and feminism, particularly prompted by #SolidarityisforWhiteWomen. How do you envision a more inclusive movement?

PJ: This is one of the things that is the most exciting to me. I’m a feminist, a very proud feminist, and I’ve benefited from feminist mentors across the years. I’m also an immigrant rights advocate and I’ve led a major immigrants’ right organization for twelve years. I’ve noticed during that time that most of our members and leaders within the immigrants’ rights movement were women, but we hadn’t really had that opportunity to think with a particularly feminist/gender analysis. I also noticed traditional women’s organizations weren’t as diverse as I felt they should be in order to represent me as a woman and a feminist. I really feel like immigration reform is an opportunity to diversify the women’s movement and to make sure that we’re building leadership throughout all our races and ethnicities.

As women, we don’t think sectorially; we do many different things that make us strong. For example, reproductive health is an important issue but it’s not the only one. For many of our immigrant members, they can’t think about health when they daily fear deportation. I think actions, like yesterday’s, are opportunities we have to build connections.

It was such an honor and pleasure to have Terry O’Neil from NOW, Jodie Evans from Code Pink, and Rea Carey from the National Gay and Lesbian Action Fund. It was an honor to have women leaders who get it, want to make those connections, and showing, through being arrested and getting out the word, that it’s not just talk.

From the undocumented women side, there were really powerful moments when one woman talked about how she has always considered herself to be a feminist, but she didn’t know always know if she was a “real” feminist in the eyes of other mainstream feminist. Again, I think with immigration there’s this beautiful coming together.

SB: How can our readers get involved?

PJ: It would be great if they could go to WeBelongTogether.Org. There is still an oath for a House United, we would love for more women to sign our petition and our mailing list. If you’re active in a particular area of the country and want to pull together a women’s group to make a statement about why immigration reform is essential to women’s equality, we want to hear from you. Email us! We’re ready to support you; we have immigration policy documents that show the gender analysis, op-eds that women can write. This is an every women’s movement. Not just a few people driving something from some place in New York or DC. We want the energy of the grassroots and we can’t wait to work with anybody who feels this power and who wants to be a part of it.

SB: You’re going to a desert island and get to take one food, one drink, and one feminist. What do you pick?

PJ: (laughs) One food: it would have to be dal and rice. Khichdi is our Indian combination of the two who makes it one food instead of two. That is my comfort food since I am an immigrant from India and it makes me think of my family. My drink would just be water because I’m on a desert island and I want to survive. I love water and I realized how much I wanted water yesterday in jail. My feminist: Sojourner Truth, I have this incredible admiration, respect, and honor for her. I think together we would turn that desert island into a beautiful, green, luscious place because that’s what women, feminists do. Turn barren things into luscious, healthy, living environments.

Join the Conversation