Soniya Gokhale (00:05):
Welcome back to another episode of A Desi Woman Podcast. I am your host Soniya Gokhale, and the voices I am seeking may have never been heard before, but their stories deserve to be told. What is a desi woman? She is a dynamic, fearless and strong woman. She is your mother, your grandmother, your daughter, your sister. She is every one of us who is on an endless pursuit of self-empowerment and fulfillment. I am Soniya Gokhale, and I am a Desi woman. Hello, and welcome to a very special edition of A Desi Woman Podcast. I am your host, Soniya Gokhale. And today we are so honored to be joined by U.S. Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi.
Soniya Gokhale (00:54):
Congressman Krishnamoorthi represents the 8th district of Illinois, which includes Chicago’s west and Northwest suburbs. He serves on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus, the Committee on Oversight and Reform, and as Chairman of its Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, Vice-Chair of the LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus, Co-Chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, Immigration Task Force, and as an Assistant Whip for the Democratic Caucus. In 2019, Congressman Krishnamoorthi became the first South Asian ever to be appointed as a member of a congressional committee on intelligence. The same year, he was also named as Chairman of the House Oversight Committees, Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, making him the first ever member of South Asian descent to chair a congressional committee or subcommittee.
Soniya Gokhale (02:00):
Raja previously served in Illinois state government on the board of the Illinois Housing Development Authority, as a Special Assistant Attorney General in the offices’ Anti-Corruption Unit, and as Deputy State Treasurer before becoming president of small technology businesses in the Chicago area. Raja earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Princeton University, and received his Juris Doctorate from Harvard Law School.
Soniya Gokhale (02:30):
Congressman Krishnamoorthi, welcome to the show.
Raja Krishnamoorthi (02:33):
Hey, thank you so much for having me Soniya.
Soniya Gokhale (02:35):
Well, it is such a distinct honor to have you join us today, and especially amidst your busy schedule, given the domestic and global events, including the ongoing pandemic and of course, recent event in Afghanistan which I will be getting to. But while we are so delighted to welcome you, so I want to start off by acknowledging that you really are an inspiration to so many of us from our diaspora, both in North America and globally. And as part of the Samosa Caucus, the phrase you originated, which I love by the way, I want to ask how your immigrant journey born in new Delhi, India in 1973, and then moving to Buffalo, New York so your father could attend graduate school before moving to Peoria, Illinois in 1980, whereby your father became a professor. How has all of this informed and impacted you as a politician and as a human being?
Raja Krishnamoorthi (03:26):
Well, my personal story is probably not unlike a lot of others, but in my case, it has really motivated what I ended up pursuing and doing, even today. We went through a lot of personal financial struggles and for a time I was in public housing and food stamps with my family and my early childhood after the recession of 1973. But after that things really changed for the better and I was able to get into a position where really our families live the American dream. And so now I’m just trying to pay it forward every day.
Soniya Gokhale (04:04):
Well, that is so inspiring. And we often refer to the concept of the “model minority myth” on this show with many of my guests from the south Asian diaspora, whether it pertains to education or socioeconomics and the unique pressures that places upon our community. And while you certainly seem to check all the boxes, your academic and career credentials are deeply impressive as you earned your mechanical engineering degree from Princeton and went on to earn a law degree from Harvard. And yet, as you stated, on the other hand, you’re quite candid in showing that when you were a child, food stamps helped your parents work their way out of a difficult time. And this is not a story we typically hear from our grass… So grateful you shared this as it certainly removes stigma around this, but also I would imagine it impacts you greatly. And the work you currently do and especially given the hardship many Americans are facing as a result of the pandemic. So if you could speak to that a bit more, and I think for looking at it from the perspective of criticism around public assistance, you have perfect example of somebody that used it and is now the embodiment of the American dream. So, any thoughts on that?
Raja Krishnamoorthi (05:18):
Well, I think that what that experience taught me, two things. One, everybody has a chance to fall down, so to speak. And the question is whether society is going to be there to help lift them up and get them back on their feet so that they can continue on their journey to their American dream, so to speak. And then the second is, I deeply believe in the concept of there, but for the grace of God go I. And I think that our society… basically, we want to design a society and laws and programs that could help the least of us and any of us who might get afflicted by some kind of malady or sickness or an economic problem. And if we do that, we’re all better off for it because we’re all able to kind of get up and move forward and not have something just very crippling, preventing us from doing anything.
Soniya Gokhale (06:25):
Absolutely. And I do want to move on to the news around Afghanistan and the United States’ ongoing efforts to evacuate US citizens and Afghan allies from the country. And I know you are a member of the Intelligence Committee and you have been very direct in your criticism of the chaotic nature of the US’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, the rapid fall of the country, the Taliban, and perhaps even what you’ve described in other interviews as an intelligence failure. I know you and leadership are laser focused upon getting folks out and streamlining the special visa process. Any updates you can provide? I know it’s a very fluid situation.
Raja Krishnamoorthi (07:03):
I think the one update is it looks like we are evacuating a lot more people faster from Afghanistan than we did in previous days, which is a good thing. I think the challenging factor is we said that we would be out of the country by August 31st and as a practical matter, that deadline is basically upon us. And yet, we know that there are a lot of people we still need to get out of the country, so that is a real ongoing challenge. How do we do that? How do we avoid getting dragged into another skirmish, inadvertently, even as we’re trying to evacuate people as well as our Afghan allies and partners?
Soniya Gokhale (07:50):
Well, that’s wholly understandable. Absolutely. And I do want to ask, I recently did an interview with Dr. Anuradha Chinoy, who is a professor from New Delhi, India with deep knowledge of the region. I do want to ask, has your background as an Indian American helped to inform you about the volatile nature and the many factions that play in this region? I think I was educated broadly, based on speaking to her. But India is right there, right nearby and directly being impacted by all the volatility in the region and the gain in power, again, of the Taliban. And so do want to ask, has that informed you a bit more, perhaps another colleagues that are from the global south.
Raja Krishnamoorthi (08:34):
Perhaps, it has to the extent that I just know that a lot of people of Indian origin care about what’s happening in Afghanistan, because there are factions within Afghanistan who want to do harm in India. Al Qaeda in particular, in the past, has had its designs find India. And unfortunately, the Taliban has kind of facilitated their being in Afghanistan and using that as a base of operations. So I think that as an Indian American, I’m concerned from that standpoint with regard to India, but really as an Indian American, I’m also just concerned about all the people, our Afghan allies and partners who are seeking to leave the country and who are in a desperate situation. As an immigrant myself, I want to welcome them. I want to make sure we get them out of the country. And I predict that they will be among our finest Americans and anybody who would turn them away because they are “the other”. They are… Some people paint them with all kinds of pejorative from the far right. I think that’s just completely unacceptable. So as an immigrant, as a person who’s a first-generation American, I’m deeply concerned about their plight and want to welcome them here.
Soniya Gokhale (09:57):
Well, I agree with you on that front. And what was also interesting is as it pertains to women and girls in the region, I think Dr. Chinoy offered that we really can’t use the same yardstick for how we perceive women’s rights in that region. And I do know the UN and of course yourself and all of your colleagues across party lines are concerned about the plight of women and girls in the region. Any comments in regards to that?
Raja Krishnamoorthi (10:25):
I think the Taliban has made it very clear that they view women and girls as second class citizens. That’s how they treated them, with utter brutality during the time that they ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s. I’m hoping that this time around, the Taliban, which does seek some international recognition, which does seek international aid, will change their stance somewhat, though, I have to be realistic that I don’t think that they will fundamentally change their character. And so we have to make sure that we shine a light on everything that’s happening there. There is a robust media that has developed in Afghanistan over the last 20 years. And we want to make sure that they have the ability to also be our eyes and ears in the country with regard to these issues and hold them accountable to any conventions or treaties or agreements that the government of Afghanistan in the past signed with regard to women and girls. And we have to be vigilant here.
Soniya Gokhale (11:29):
No doubt about that. And yes, they have become very media savvy, which is something that was certainly not indicative of their faction previously. And I do want to pivot a bit, I know that you’ve been a huge advocate of global vaccine equity, and particularly as it pertains to India, which of course was devastated by the second wave of the virus and its variant and hoping and praying none of your family was affected by that. But the United States has so far allocated only about seven and a half million doses of Covid vaccines to India. And you flatly stated that is simply not enough. Are you still advocating for an increase on this front with the administration? And I do know that you’ve got the support of 116 members of the Congress in this ongoing effort to expand US global vaccine aid programs, not only to India, but other nations, so want to hear your comments about that.
Raja Krishnamoorthi (12:23):
So my advocacy on this front really started back in April-May timeframe. And unfortunately my family ended up losing three of our extended relatives to the Delta variant in India. And so it became kind of clear to me that unless the United States steps up and assists countries like India and others and vaccinate their populations, not only will those people be seriously affected, but so will we. So this is the right thing to do to help others. And it’s a smart thing to do to protect ourselves from variants that could defeat our vaccines. I think that seven and a half million doses allocated India is a paltry amount. And I think that we need to step up and set up a program to vaccinate 60% of the population of the world, 92 poorest countries. This is what outside advocates and experts have told us. And that’s what’s in my legislation called the NOVID Act, which is a play on words no more COVID. And I’m trying to get it through the budget reconciliation process now, and I’m hopeful that we can make progress there.
Soniya Gokhale (13:33):
Oh, that’s so incredibly important because yes, if we don’t eradicate this and pursue global vaccination, we’re continually going to be bombarded. We will always have the variants to some degree, but as you stated, it just puts us in a no win situation. And it sort of pertains to the globalism that we referred to before we do not… Isolationism is certainly not something we can live with anymore in this day and age. And another topic that is especially close your heart pertains to the green card backlog. And it basically, as you stated, it is imperative that immigration packages include provisions to address the employment based green card backlog, which is really damaging American competitiveness and abandoning 1.2 million people to perpetual non-immigrant status. I have done interviews with various organizations that support largely those from South Asia who are here on these types of visa rather green cards. It is heartbreaking to hear the stories and the type of life that they endure. They are in this country, but wow, it is such a volatile existence. And so I would like to hear more from you about that.
Raja Krishnamoorthi (14:47):
Well, this is a very, very pressing for especially Indian nationals, but also Chinese nationals who happened to be here on H1B visas. Those are employment based visas, usually for high skilled areas, usually in the information technology space. And there is a cap right now that basically prevents any country, any country’s nationals from getting more than 7% of that year’s green card allocation allocated to that country’s nationals. And so the bottom line is that there are 1.2 million people in line right now for green cards. Again, mainly from places like India, who have been waiting for maybe 12, 13, 14, 15 years, and may have to wait for that much longer to get a green card. If a new person were to come here on an H1B visa and then apply for a green card, it’s estimated that it might take 80 years, that’s eight-zero years for them to get a green card.
Raja Krishnamoorthi (15:59):
And of course they’ll probably die before they get a green card. And that’s just, not only is it wrong in terms of how we treat people who aspire and who really have the qualifications to be excellent citizens of our country or green card holders, but it’s also hurting our economy because these people don’t start businesses, they don’t employ Americans, they don’t buy homes, they don’t buy cars, they don’t do all the things that could really power our economy forward because they’re living in limbo. So I’ve put forward, again, a proposal to deal with them, to remove the per country cap and basically address this backlog because it’s not only, again, the right thing to do, but it’s the smart thing to do from our economic standpoint as we come out of this pandemic and really try to stage an economic recovery.
Soniya Gokhale (16:51):
Well, I completely agree with you on that. And in pulling directly from your site, I think one of the things that I find so inspiring is that you consistently try to reach across the aisle in order to find comments on bipartisan solution that can end Washington gridlock. And I would comment that perhaps the new administration has certainly made that easier. It was a very contentious time in our country with the previous administration, no doubt about that. I’d like to hear your comments on that and sort of how the climate has shifted, in particular two areas that have historically been bipartisan, our infrastructure and small business. And I was so delighted to hear that you’re such a supporter of small business, and I think it’s the backbone of this country and many from our diaspora are small business owners, however many may still be feeling the effects of the 2008 financial crisis as you point out. So I would like to hear more, and you also know Chicago area small businesses, you were the former deputy Illinois treasurer. So you have a very unique perspective on how government can help small business worth and development. I would really like to hear more from you on this. There is a perception that Democrats aren’t armed with this knowledge or this acute understanding, and that couldn’t be further from the truth as it pertains to yourself.
Raja Krishnamoorthi (18:12):
That’s right. I joked that I signed the front of the check, the back of the check, I turned on the alarm, I disarmed the alarm system in the morning, when I was running a small business for about seven years in the Chicago area. And it’s really hard to be a small business person. I mean, to make a monthly payroll, especially in tough economic times is not a joke. And sometimes we pay lip service to it in Washington, and we have to take it more seriously, so that’s what I’ve tried to do, especially during the pandemic. My office was central in helping to author provisions of the PPP loans, the Payroll Protection Program loans, which I think really saved millions and millions of businesses at this point. And so I’m proud of that effort, but we need to do more and I’m committed to doing that.
Soniya Gokhale (19:01):
Well, we are already at the end of our time together. United States Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, such an inspiration, not only to myself, but so many from our diaspora and across the nation. We truly can’t thank you enough for joining us today and please keep doing the hard work. We’re all watching.
Raja Krishnamoorthi (19:21):
Thank you so much, Sonia. And keep up your efforts and thank you for doing what you’re doing. It helps a lot of people and look forward to keeping in touch.
Soniya Gokhale (19:30):
Oh, definitely. Such an honor. Thank you so much.
Raja Krishnamoorthi (19:34):
Absolutely. Thank you so much.
Soniya Gokhale (19:35):
Raja Krishnamoorthi (19:36):
Soniya Gokhale (19:36):
Bye-bye, have a great day.