Politics

Kamala Harris’ Immigrant Story

Why Joe Biden’s pick is so important right now.

Sen. Kamala Harris smiles and leans down to talk to a young immigrant child.
Sen. Kamala Harris speaks with Roxanna Gozzer, whose mother is originally from El Salvador and is in the U.S. under temporary protected status, as she visits the outside of a detention center for migrant children on June 28, 2019, in Homestead, Florida. Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

Joe Biden’s choice of Kamala Harris as his running mate is historic on several fronts. Harris is the first Black or Asian American woman to run for vice president on a major party ticket. Harris is also the first sitting female senator to run for the office and the first native Californian on a Democratic Party ticket since Adlai Stevenson in 1952, a surprising fact given the growing importance of the state for the progressive movement.

And in the current historical moment, Harris’ nomination is also important because of her immediate ancestry. She’s not the first child of immigrants on a major party ticket. Michael Dukakis’ parents were from Greece. In 1984, Democratic candidate Walter Mondale chose New York congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate. Ferraro’s father, Dominick Ferraro, came from Italy. Her mother, though, was born in the United States, from immigrant parents. Barack Obama’s father was a Kenyan economist, but his mother was born in Kansas. As the child of two immigrant parents, Harris’ story is different.

Harris’ father, Donald, a retired professor of economics at Stanford, emigrated to the United States in the early ’60s. Harris’ mother, Shyamala Gopalan, a breast cancer researcher, was born in India. Gopalan was a trailblazer, applying to study abroad as a young, unmarried woman in the late ’50s in India. She went to Berkeley, where he met Donald Harris amid the protests at the height of the civil rights movement. Harris and Gopalan brought up their daughters in the Bay Area, were young Kamala rode the buses that integrated local schools. After her parents divorced when she was 7, Harris was brought up by her mother, who, along with her maternal grandfather, a forward-thinking civil servant named P.V. Gopalan, became the main influence in her early life and, later, her political career.

The story of her parents has likely given Harris a keen understanding of the immigrant experience, from the colossal effort it requires to take root in a foreign land to the nuanced dynamics of identity. Harris’ mother “knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women,” Harris has written.

Growing up, Harris also learned about the toxicity of discrimination. She witnessed her mother—an outstanding academic in her field—being discriminated against because of her gender and her accent. Gopalan was often “treated as though she were dumb because of her accent,” Harris has recalled.

By picking her as his running mate, Biden has brought Harris’ life story to the center of the country’s political stage. Both Biden and Harris should seize the opportunity. Harris has done so before. During her time as California’s attorney general, Harris put in place several measures to assist immigrants, including facilitating the process for obtaining humanitarian U visas. As a senator, she has been an staunch defender of Dreamers and immigrants, and actively denounced the administration’s immigrant detention policies.

Harris now has an even bigger stage to confront Donald Trump’s unprecedented prejudice. Trump has used the American presidency to endorse a nativist, anti-immigrant agenda that stands in direct contrast to the concrete achievements of Donald Harris, Shyamala Gopalan, and the daughter they brought up.

In the coming months, Harris will speak up for women and the Black community she proudly aims to represent. She should do the same with that other, crucial aspect of her heritage. She is a child of immigrants at a time of discrimination and persecution. What better time to claim the spotlight?