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Minnesota Congressmember Ilhan Omar was among the progressive Democrats who camped outside the U.S. Capitol to pressure the Biden administration into passing a new eviction moratorium after the previous moratorium lapsed July 31. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a new two-month moratorium earlier in the week that covers areas of the country where there is “substantial” or “high” spread of the coronavirus. “As lawmakers, we have a responsibility to protect those that sent us to legislate on their behalf,” says Omar, adding that she has personal familiarity with housing precarity. “I certainly have experienced severe aspects of that as someone who not only slept on the side of roads, on beaches … but also spent a lot of time in a refugee camp.”
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show looking at the fight over housing. Landlords in Georgia and Alabama have asked a federal judge to block the Biden administration’s new two-month moratorium on evictions. The new CDC moratorium covers areas of the United States where there’s “substantial” or “high” spread of the coronavirus — about 90% of the country. The Alabama and Georgia chapters of the National Association of Realtors filed its motion with U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich, a Trump appointee who ruled in favor of landlords in May.
A nationwide moratorium on evictions expired Saturday after Democratic lawmakers failed to pass a bill to protect millions of people who could be forced from their homes. The White House initially said the moratorium could only be extended by Congress due to a recent Supreme Court ruling, but the Biden administration reversed course following intense pressure from progressive lawmakers.
On Friday night, three members of Congress — Cori Bush of Missouri, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota — camped outside the U.S. Capitol with others to demand action.
Congressmember Ilhan Omar joins us now. She has just published the paperback version of her memoir. It’s titled This Is What America Looks Like: My Journey from Refugee to Congresswoman. It tells the story of how she became the first Somali American and one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress.
Representative Ilhan Omar, welcome back to Democracy Now! Your book is called This Is What America Looks Like, and I think of that picture of you on the steps of the Capitol sleeping out with Cori Bush and Ayanna Pressley, two other congresswomen of color, demanding that millions of people not be thrown out of their homes, demanding of your own colleagues and the Biden administration. Congratulations on the release of your paperback. Talk about why you stayed out overnight.
REP. ILHAN OMAR: Well, Amy, it’s really great to be with you this morning.
I remember seeing Cori put out a message to us to join her. And I, you know, thought it was really important for us to express just how important it was for people to realize, as lawmakers, we have a responsibility to protect those that sent us to legislate on their behalf.
And, you know, as Cori has her own personal experience with being unhoused, I certainly have experienced severe aspects of that as someone who not only slept on the side of roads, on beaches, as you have read, probably, in my book, but also spent a lot of time in a refugee camp, destitute. And so, my own experiences, her own experiences, Ayanna’s own experiences with dealing with homelessness has pushed us to take that drastic measure. And we knew that it would ultimately, you know, motivate our colleagues and the White House to take action. They could no longer ignore the kind of devastation that inaction would have caused in our country.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you’re taking on your own party, along with taking on the opposing party, the Republican Party. Just inside, your colleagues had just gone on recess. Now, while the Biden administration, responding to your pressure — enormous pressure — just not exactly reinstated the moratorium, but did a slightly modified one, where it will cover 90% of the country, and cited the CDC — you know, the CDC imposed it — but they had said — Biden had said it’s really up to Congress, because the Supreme Court struck this down already. Why — how is it possible that the House, that’s Democrat-led, could not pass an extension of the moratorium?
REP. ILHAN OMAR: This is what has been the most frustrating part of this whole conversation. You know, we obviously didn’t have a lot of time. That’s understood. We got the notification on Thursday, and we rushed to produce legislation, with the leadership of Chairwoman Waters. And we believed it was important to stay over the weekend, negotiate and have the ability to vote on the bill. We believed that people should be on the record voting on a yes or no on whether 11 million people, possibly, should be facing eviction, and then they should be forced to go to their constituents and explain why they made their decisions. And the fact that leadership decided to not do that, to not take that route, was frustrating not just for me, but even for Chairwoman Waters, who certainly thought it was really important for us to take a vote on the bill that she produced.
The thing that most people find really confusing about this whole thing is that we would choose to go on recess and prioritize our time, when the people who sent us desperately needed us to act. And, you know, I always said it’s really important for us to send people who have fluency in the day-to-day struggles of their constituents. And this was very evident on how important that is.
AMY GOODMAN: And just to understand, when you’re saying you only got notice on Thursday, explain what you mean by that, for people who can’t understand how this went down at the last minute. You got notice from the Biden administration that they weren’t going to extend it?
REP. ILHAN OMAR: Yes. We’ve been communicating since May, even earlier than that, with the administration and saying, you know, “We need you all to expand the eviction moratorium. People are going to be at risk. The money that we appropriated to help renters and landlords isn’t going out as fast as it should be. Municipalities and states need more time. And we need you all to take action.” And it wasn’t until Thursday that they affirmatively told us that it was going to be up to Congress to create that expansion; they weren’t going to do it themselves.
And then, you know, it was a rush in the House to try to figure out what we could do and how fast that legislation could be put together. I remember being pulled aside by Chairwoman Waters in the middle of one of those votes and saying, you know, “We’re going to put this bill on the floor. Talk to your colleagues.” Chairwoman Jayapal from the Progressive Caucus asked if we can pull together an emergency meeting. As you know, I serve as the whip of the Progressive Caucus to gauge where we will be at. And a lot of us, you know, dispatched and started having conversations with our colleagues, even some moderate Democrats, to say, “What do you need in order for you to be able to be with us in protecting 11 million people across this country from being evicted?”
And as those conversations were taking place throughout Friday, it was our understanding that those conversations would continue, that we would legislate and that we would protect these 11 million people. And we were shocked when we saw that leadership decided to seek unanimous consent and was not going to bring the bill to the floor for a vote and that some of our colleagues were leaving, and they were choosing to also not leave their proxy votes, because, you know, during the pandemic, we’ve been able to have the ability to vote without being physically at the Capitol. And the fact that they weren’t willing to leave their proxy votes with people so that we could actually pass legislation was alarming to us and, you know, very shameful.
AMY GOODMAN: And can you explain Democratic Congressmember Rashida Tlaib’s call on House Democrats to return recent contributions from real estate tycoon George Marcus, who recently donated $1 million to the House Majority PAC, just weeks before the Democratic lawmakers failed to extend the eviction moratorium — who he is?
REP. ILHAN OMAR: These sort of really clear conflicts of interest for legislators is something that we should be having a broader conversation. I was shocked when I saw the reporting. I think it’s really important for there not to be a doubt on behalf of the people that we are there representing them and that we’re going to do everything that is going to help them. And the fact that, you know, there was a rush to leave and not do anything on expanding the eviction moratorium, until that drastic measure was taken by us choosing to sleep on the Capitol steps, is really not sitting well with so many people. I remember getting a lot of calls from my constituents if those were linked, and I joined Rashida in that call, because we have to get rid of any semblance of conflict of interest.
AMY GOODMAN: So, also, if you can explain what you have introduced, the Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act? I mean, the fact is that even if there’s a moratorium, isn’t it true that, afterwards, people who can’t afford to pay their monthly rent will have to pay it all back?
REP. ILHAN OMAR: Well, the problem right now that we are seeing is that, you know, we allocated billions of dollars to these municipalities and to states, and that money is taking so long to get out the door. With my legislation, we would have automatically canceled rents, and landlords would have had the ability to get those resources themselves. And it would have reduced the amount of money that is being utilized for administrative costs.
The backlog and the slow process that we are seeing right now is due to the fact that there are, in some cases, pages-and-pages-long paperwork that people have to do, and there are a lot of people who still are not aware that they can access this money. And I thought, you know, oftentimes we create policy that creates more problems than addressing the actual issue, and having direct legislation that provides direct solution, like the cancel rent and mortgage act, is really important.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to switch gears and talk about something else that has been happening. The U.S. military recently conducted at least three drone strikes in your home country of Somalia, in the first attacks, they said, targeting al-Shabab fighters in Somalia since President Biden took office. Congressmember Omar, your family came to the U.S. as Somali refugees. You wrote a letter to President Biden requesting more information on these strikes. You said, quote, “It is critical that any military action must be part of a broader strategy focused on the security of the Somali people and the stability of the Somali state.” Can you talk about what you understand why the U.S. bombed Somalia again?
REP. ILHAN OMAR: So, it’s been really hard to get any concrete information that is really — you know, that really answers any of the questions I put into my letter. It was our understanding that this administration was going to take a step back. They were going to look at a holistic approach. They were going to reassess their drone program and their engagement with Somalia. And the fact that they just started up the drone program without doing any of those things and without communicating any of those things to us, as members of Congress, was really alarming.
Somalia has faced instability. You know, I fled civil war in the early ’90s. And to this day, you know, there is places in Somalia where it is still unsafe for people to live in. Al-Shabab has and terrorism in Somalia has caused lots of devastation. And it is abhorrent for them to continue to operate. And so, I do stand with the Somali government and our administration in fighting al-Shabab. What I do not appreciate is for us to not have a holistic approach to both fighting al-Shabab and creating stability and having policies that are going to create a long-term stable Somalia.
AMY GOODMAN: So, speaking of Somalia, in your book, you so eloquently talk about your growing up, your first eight years in Somalia. Talk about Somalia. Tell us — you know more than anyone, being in Congress, how little information most people understand about Africa, unless they are from there. And then, particularly Somalia, why you left, your experience as a refugee, which so informs what you do now, working on immigration rights. Talk about your family.
REP. ILHAN OMAR: Well, my story is uniquely an American story, right? We have been known as a country of immigrants. There has been the arrival of immigrants for a really long time from different parts of the world. But we are now just seeing Somali immigrants, and there’s a lot that is not understood.
And I thought it was really important for me to write this book and spend a lot of time telling people about the Somalia I grew up in, where, you know, there was a lot of warmth. I had a really happy upbringing up to the age of 8. I grew up in a very loud, loving family, where we didn’t really have any ideas of hierarchy. We were all allowed to have the freedom to express ourselves, to own our agency. And, you know, I grew up in a household and in a community where music and the arts and all of those things were very vibrant.
And, you know, the tragedy of living in that and then one day waking up and having the kids that you played with in the streets now carry guns is something that most people don’t know. And I wanted to give people an insight of what happens when a society is stable and is not really nurturing that stability, how everything can disappear in a day and how someone who had that happy upbringing finds herself in a refugee camp, missing four years of formal education, coming to the United States, getting that golden ticket and opportunity, and overcoming a lot of the challenges that continue to exist in this country for people who arrive without nothing, and what it means to now have that voice in Congress bringing attention to all of those disparities that exist here and in countries like Somalia.
AMY GOODMAN: And if you could talk about — if you could respond to what’s happening now on the African continent as it relates to COVID? Our first headline today is about the desperate plea of the World Health Organization head, saying there should not be, you know, third-shot boosters in the wealthiest countries in the world before 10% of all countries are vaccinated. We’ve talked several times to the head of the African CDC. If you can talk about the situation in Somalia, as well, and whether you support Ghebreyesus’s call, something that Jen Psaki, the White House spokesperson, said, “If FDA says we need third-shot boosters, we’ll go for them”?
REP. ILHAN OMAR: Yeah. I mean, so, you know, when COVID began, there was a call to social distance. And I remember thinking about Somalia and other countries in Africa where social distancing would be a luxury, right? These are places that are sometimes overpopulated, where there are open markets, where people don’t have a lot of space to distance in the ways that it was being recommended. And they have fragile healthcare systems. There is lots of poverty. There is a lot of insecurity in all aspects of life. Many of these governments don’t have the resources that it takes to be able to keep everyone safe. As you know, we’ve struggled here in the United States, and we are one of the countries that has the most resources in the world.
And so, I do think it is really important for us to recognize that our humanity is tied to one another. And, you know, I waited to get vaccinated because I thought it was important to have other people who are at risk be vaccinated before me. I’m finally vaccinated. My whole family is vaccinated here. But I do often think about my family in Somalia and what it means for them to have access to that vaccination. You know, we led a global call to send vaccinations to countries like Somalia and other countries in Africa and around the world that desperately need these resources. And so, I do hope that before we think about giving ourselves a boost, that we send those resources to people who are less fortunate than we are.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about the issue of refugees, certainly your experience, and immigrant justice in the United States. Groups are now suing the Biden administration over its use of Title 42, that Trump-era policy that allows for the expedited deportation of asylum seekers arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, citing so-called public health concerns during the pandemic. The Biden administration says it will continue enforcing the policy, which could bar entry to hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers. Human Rights Watch says over 600,000 have been expelled from the U.S. under Title 42 since March of 2020, you know, going back through Trump. The lawsuit was filed by the ACLU, RAICES and Oxfam, among other groups, which denounce Title 42 as cruel, illegal and a violation of due process rights. Your thoughts, Congressmember Omar?
REP. ILHAN OMAR: I think these Trump-era policies that the administration chooses to keep in place are inhumane on a deep personal level. I got emotional just thinking about this right now, because a lot of the people that come to our border are escaping desperate situations. And it’s easy for people to judge. It’s easy for people to talk about what makes somebody come to the border, until they find themselves there. And I think a lot about what would have happened if Kenya closed its borders to my family when we were fleeing, or chose to deport us back. Where would I have been today?
And so, for me, it is really important for this administration and for every single person in this country to realize that these policy choices have consequences. And, you know, we have a moral imperative in this country to get our immigration policy right and make it a more humane system. We have the Citizenship Act that we have been pushing for in Congress that would stabilize the status of 11 million people in this country. We have been working so hard to try to come up with actual solutions to our immigration crisis. And it is disheartening that instead of people working with us to find a solution, that they do the easy thing that sometimes seems might win you political favor, might stop some headlines from being written, but, you know, chip away at your soul, knowing that you are turning people away who desperately need help and are coming to this country knowing that we have been a country that welcomes people and provides opportunities for people.
AMY GOODMAN: I choked up reading your book, a part where you’re in the refugee camp and you lose your beloved aunt. Was her name pronounced Fos? Can you tell us about her? And this goes to people waiting in refugee camps, waiting and waiting, and the devastating toll it can take.
REP. ILHAN OMAR: Yeah. You know, I think a part of my story that most people don’t know, which has made me a really strong advocate for a lot of the young people who are coming and has made me speak out in regards to family separation, is that I was separated from most of my family. My aunt Fos was the one who, you know, was — who brought me and three of my siblings along with us on that journey to escape Mogadishu as war raged on. And she was my everything. You know, I owed my life to her.
And life in a refugee camp is not an easy one. In the refugee camp, Utange, that we were living in, malaria was devastating the camp and taking lives. And she ended up getting malaria and ended up losing her life. And, you know, there was no healthcare that we could provide for her. There was no way to save her life. And just to watch helplessly and know that she wasn’t going to make it, but that to not just like live with the fact that we were losing her, that she wasn’t going to live anymore, but that we were losing someone who really our survival depended on in so many ways, was very hard. And writing those chapters were very hard. Doing the audiotape for those chapters was very hard. Doing this interview is very hard.
But it’s not as hard as what people have still been experiencing. There are a lot of young people who I lived in that refugee camp with who didn’t get the opportunity to stabilize their lives. Once that camp closed, they were sent to another camp. And I went in 2011, when drought was devastating Somalia and over a million people were at risk of dying from famine, to Dadaab refugee camp, which is one of the largest refugee camps in Africa, if not in the world. And I saw some of the young people that I was in the camp with, some of the kids I played with, who were also adults and had children themselves in those camps as I’ve had opportunities to fulfill my education and now become a member of Congress. And so, I feel like I owe it to those people to speak up about the plight of refugees around the world, to seek justice for people who have experienced war, who haven’t experienced a remedy, not just for their trauma, but everything that they have lost, and for people who are in this country who just want to have their humanity seen and want to be treated with dignity.
AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Omar, speaking of the horror of losing lives unnecessarily, I wanted to pivot to your home state and to your city, Minneapolis, where police killed George Floyd, murdered him, prompting mass protests. Now local activists have gathered more than 22,000 signatures to place a measure on the ballot this November to vote on whether to abolish the city’s police department and replace it with a new Department of Public Safety. But the city attached an explanatory note to the ballot initiative that organizers say is a misleading, partial description. They filed a lawsuit to stop the note from being placed on the ballot initiative, saying the city is trying to influence voters with subjective, selective language. You are one of the leaders of this community that has experienced so much trauma. Can you talk about your views on this and what you think would lead to a more just solution, not only in Minneapolis, but it is certainly a model for the whole country?
REP. ILHAN OMAR: Yeah. Well, first of all, in regards to the ballot measure and to the tactics of those that want to keep the status quo in place, I say to them, you know, we’ve dealt with that before in Minnesota in regards to ballot measures, and I believe that this one will also be met with the same fate as the other ones, so I’m confident that we will prevail.
We’ve had a very incompetent and brutal police department for a really long time. And, you know, to the rest of the country and the world, they saw what happened with George Floyd and might have thought this is a one-off situation. I remember witnessing my first police shooting as a teenager, where they put nearly 38 bullets into the body of a mentally ill man who was just released from an institution, who didn’t speak a word of English, who couldn’t respond to their commands, who was not of any imminent threat to have had his life taken in such a brutal and a shameful way. And so many of us have experienced those kind of killings in front of civilians far too often than we would like to have seen.
So, the fact that the Minneapolis Police Department can no longer exist the way it is is one that is understood by the majority of us. And I believe in the fight that people have engaged in, in regards to trying to have a more just system for us, and we’ll continue to support their effort.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much for being with us, Congressmember Ilhan Omar, Minnesota congressmember representing the 5th Congressional District, from Mogadishu to Minneapolis. The paperback edition of her memoir has just been released. It’s titled This Is What America Looks Like: My Journey from Refugee to Congresswoman. Thanks so much, Congressmember Omar.