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Sen. Kamala Harris’ Immigrant Heritage Has Shaped Her Political Career

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Earlier this month, Democratic Presidential candidate, Joe Biden, announced that he had chosen Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate. Harris’ nomination means a lot of things to a lot of people: she is, after all, the first Black woman and the first of Indian descent on a major party’s presidential ticket. 

However, her nomination also brings a special victory for the immigrant community, as Miss Harris’ immigrant background has been one of the main driving forces in her political career. Here is how Harris’ heritage has affected her career:

Her Immigrant Parents

Back in 1958, Harris’ mother, Shyamala, left her home country, India, to pursue a doctorate in nutrition and endocrinology at University of California, Berkeley. There, she became engaged in civil rights groups and attended various protests. It was in one of those protests that she would meet Harris’ father, Donald, a graduate student who had immigrated from Jamaica.  

“My mother, who raised me and my sister, was a proud woman. She was a brown woman. She was a woman with a heavy accent,” Harris said. “She was a woman who, many times, people would overlook her or not take her seriously. Or because of her accent, assume things about her intelligence. Now, every time my mother proved them wrong.”

Harris’ mothers’ list of achievements is as impressive as her daughter’s. After completing her doctorate at age 25, Shyamala went on to work as breast cancer researcher, where her findings are in part recognized to have led to a better understanding of progesterone and hormone-responsiveness in breast tissue. That same disease would take her life in 2009.

“My mother used to say, don’t sit around and complain about things, do something,” Harris told 20,000 supporters at her kick-off rally in her native city, Oakland. The Senator also said her mother used to tell her when she was a girl that “you may be the first to do many things, but make sure you’re not the last.”

As for her dad, after graduating with a PhD from University of California, Berkeley in 1966, he became a renowned economics professor and taught at Northwestern University and Stanford University, where he received a professor emeritus title after his retirement. Donald J. Harris often took his daughters to Jamaica because he wanted them to be proud of their heritage. His fight for the civil rights movement were an inspiration to Harris to speak out against the racial injustices of her time, including supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. 

“Black lives have not been taken seriously as being fully human and deserving of dignity,” Harris said. “And it should not require a maiming or torture in order for us to recognize a lynching when we see it and recognize it by federal law.”

Her Career

Harris’ “firsts” didn’t start with her VP nomination. Back in 2003, she became the first woman of color to be elected as District Attorney of the City and County of San Francisco, a role in which she served for two terms.

While in the position, she started new programs focussed on the reformation of criminals, instead of just jail time. Part of this initiative included a program that gives first-time drug offenders the chance to earn a high school diploma and find employment while incarcerated.

Six years later, she achieved another “first” by becoming the first woman of color to be elected as California’s Attorney General in 2010. During her two turns Harris became known for her commitment to “hold corporations accountable.” Among her achievements as Attorney General, was a lawsuit victory in which Harris reached a $25 billion settlement for California’s homeowners who were hit by the foreclosure crisis. 

Finally, in 2016, Harris got elected as a California Senator, a role where she currently serves. In this position, Harris became popular for her sharp interrogations and pointed questions, as well as her liberal views. As a senator, Harris has proposed a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, supported healthcare reform and the DREAM Act, pushed for a ban on assault weapons, and defended progressive tax reform.

“We know she’s not afraid of conflict and that she’s direct and known for her follow-ups like we saw in primary debates where she was criticizing her running mate, Joe Biden,” NPR’s congressional correspondent, Kelsey Snel, said in an interview. “And she’s got a quick and ready response.”

Her Views on Immigration

Harris has had a steady track record of championing immigration, for which she credits her parent’s history. She has come to the defense of undocumemneted immigrants multiple times arguing that the system should stop treating people without a legal status like criminals and has suggested actively welcoming refugees and immigrants instead of building a border wall. 

“Nobody is living their life through the lens of one issue. I think what people want is, they want leadership that sees them through the complexity of each of our lives and pays equal attention to their needs,” Harris said. “Let’s not put people in a box. And as they make their decisions, let’s make sure we give them credit for being smarter than that.”

She is also against child separation, wants to reinstate DACA fully, and has sponsored bills that provide lawyers to undocumented immigrants and their children for free.

Finally, when accepting her new role as the senator of California, Harris vowed to defy Donald Trump on his immigration policies and deemed his demands for mass deportations and a giant border wall as “absolutely unrealistic.” 

“This issue of how we are treating our immigrants, and in particular our undocumented immigrants, is one of the most critical issues facing our country,” Harris said. “We are not going to be achieving who we say we are as a country if we attack our community members, our neighbors, our friends and our colleagues.”

Alexandra Tirado Oropeza is a Venezuelan journalist covering politics, immigration, entertainment and social justice. She moved to the U.S. in 2014 to pursue a Writing degree at The University of Tampa, and after graduating, she moved to Los Angeles where she works in broadcast and as a freelance writer. She’s passionate about equality, freedom of speech, art and dogs.