Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota has only been in Congress for fewer than six months, but already, she’s made one of the biggest splashes in a high-profile freshman class.
Months removed from the backlash over her criticism of the pro-Israel lobby, which led to (false) accusations by Republicans and some Democrats that her comments were anti-Semitic, Omar is helping to spearhead the progressive agenda in Congress, with a focus on the most comprehensive plan thus far to absolve 45 million borrowers—including, full disclosure, myself—of the burden of student debt.
And this week, Omar was one of just four Democratic members, along with Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib, who objected to the Department of Homeland Security funding bill on the basis that it included more money for border enforcement. The compromise other House progressives had worked out with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, however, eventually fell apart, and the House passed the Senate version of the bill yesterday which attached little to no restrictions on how the administration can use the $4.6 billion in border funding.
Splinter spoke with Omar this morning via phone about her student debt plan, the DHS funding bill, and what she thought about the first round of Democratic presidential debates.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You were one of four members of Congress who voted against the original DHS funding bill; it was passed last night even without the restrictions other House progressives worked to include in the bill. I was wondering what your thoughts are on that, with regards to the bill passing with a lot of Democratic support from moderates and centrists in the party.
I think people convinced themselves that they were solving a problem that they really could have looked at in another way to solve. The reason we didn’t support the original bill was that it didn’t have enough focus on dealing with the humanitarian crisis that’s happening at the border. And this bill didn’t really do anything to deal with the situation with the kids, it didn’t deal with making sure kids would not be kept in cages, it didn’t deal with any sort of transparency or accountability for ICE, and I felt like we were writing a blank check for them to do whatever they wanted to do with the money we were providing. And it felt as if we were co-signing the cynical and horrendous policies that the administration has been putting forward. The metering policy, the child separation policy, and the “Remain in Mexico” policy.
We heard so many people make passionate statements about not wanting to see any more pictures of the father and his daughter drowning or deal with any pictures of children in horrendous situations. And to me it sounds like, “Great, none of us want to see anything of those things, now let’s get to work and make sure none of that is happening.” But so many of them were focused on the political reality that said that we could just do something without really doing anything.
It was reported that Speaker Pelosi got a “private assurance” from Vice President Pence that the administration would voluntarily follow some of those restrictions, including informing lawmakers within 24 hours of a child’s death in U.S. custody. Do you believe the administration will keep its word?
I don’t believe the administration on anything, to be quite honest. It’s really sad that anybody who has been saying that this administration is out of step with the values of the American people would turn around and say they believed or received assurance from this administration.
I want to switch topics to the student debt plan you came out with last week. What impact has student debt had on you and your family and people you’ve talked to in your district and elsewhere?
I’m of the student debt generation. When I ran for the Minnesota House I represented a district that had nearly 50 percent [of the population] under the age of 24, so the conversations about student debt were in the extreme forefront of the debate for us. And it remained when I ran for Congress because I represent, I think, one of the youngest districts in the country. So college debt, I think we’re no. 4 in the country for student debt in Minnesota. It’s a top issue for us. We are part of that 45 million Americans who have dreams of purchasing a home, starting a family, coming up with innovative ideas to start small businesses. And the burden that student debt has on many of the people that I represent, and folks around the country, is a huge one.
It’s been talked about a lot in recent years—even Donald Trump mentioned it and said he has a plan—but there’s been next to no movement on it. Why do you think that there hasn’t been really any movement in the federal government to alleviate some of these debt concerns?
I’m not quite sure, but I do know why we are now taking action. It’s because so many people over the years have been advocating for this relief. We’ve been working on this policy and trying to come up with one that would be simple and fair to everyone since I’ve gotten sworn in. And we were really delighted to see Sen. Bernie Sanders’ office join us in a complete cancellation bill and add us to his comprehensive plan on dealing with college and education.
There have been other candidates who have proposed debt forgiveness for people who make up to a certain amount of money. One of the big criticisms of this has been, “There shouldn’t be debt forgiveness for people who are already pretty well-off.” Why do you think it’s necessary to forgive student debt even for those people who are relatively well-off?
This is quite simple for me. I think about this country and the progress we’ve made in regards to education. There used to be a time where an 8th grade education could get you by. There was a time when a 12th grade education was enough. Then we made a decision that we needed pre-K education added onto that to make sure young people were prepared for the world. And now, we’re at a point where we know you can not have access to prosperity unless you have a college education. And so in the same way we don’t say, “We’re not going to pay for the public school education for rich kids, their parents should pay for them to go through K-12,” it’s the same way we’re saying, “It doesn’t matter what your income is, you have a right to this education and we’re going to make sure that promise isn’t negated because you went through with it.”
And I think the other point too, really, that is missed between the bill we’re proposing and the bills that are being proposed by others, is that ours is a simple, complete cancellation of both private and public student debt. And we are paying for that and for free college through taxing Wall Street. So there is no burden on taxpayers in regards to our bill.
10 years ago, we bailed out Wall Street. Now it’s time for Wall Street to bail out the American people. Fiscally, we’re spending 1/10th of what we spent bailing out Wall Street. And that was money that was taken from taxpayers, and we’re not doing that as well. I think our plan is great because we are freeing 45 million from debt, we’re levying a small taxation on Wall Street, and we are going to stimulate and grow the economy by allowing people to purchase homes, buy a car, do all of the normal things that allow for our economy to flourish.
If nothing is done about this at all, none of the proposals put forward [are passed], what do you see happening to all of these borrowers, of which I’m one, in the next 10 or 20 years? What do you see happening to the student debt problem?
What happens is we continue to exacerbate the income inequality that really exists in this country, and the wealth inequality. If we are serious about growing the middle class, if we’re serious about creating a pathway to prosperity, if we’re serious about having millennials be full participants of society, then we have to come up with solutions to try to make sure that we are assisting them in that. No solution isn’t an option for me and my generation.
So, just one last question: I don’t know if you’ve been following the Democratic presidential debates, but I wanted to know if there’s anyone who particularly stood out to you in the first round of debates as someone who was saying the right things.
There’s a lot of them who are very much close to speaking about the progressive policies that I deeply care about. And I think that depending on which debate you were watching and what policy you were contemplating at that moment, a different person stood out to you.
The first night I remember, as we were having a conversation about what the Senate was proposing in regards to the border crisis, I remember watching [Julían] Castro and saying, “This is why we need people who are fluent in the issue that we’re dealing with, so that they can have policies that are going to be implemented that directly deal with the issue at hand.” And so I gravitated towards his very candid, straightforward humanitarian approach to the crisis that we were having.
And I think—as a person of color, and someone who deeply understands the sort of policies that have been on the books for years, and the minimal progress that we’ve made in dismantling them—watching the exchange between Senator [Kamala] Harris and [Joe] Biden last night truly stood out, because we need to have this conversation on how some of these policies have had personal and communal impacts, and how policymakers need to make amends with the decisions they’ve made. Either because of political realities or because they just did not have the foresight on how harmful these policies would be a decade, two decades later after its implementation.
And so seeing her was an example of the conversations we have on the campaign trail when we’re talking about what true representative democracies actually look like, and the idea the founders had behind that. How we’re supposed to have people who truly are paying attention and are walking in the shoes of the people they’re representing, so they are able to take a proper vote on behalf of the people they represent, and really take their oath to do no harm seriously. So I look forward to more of those conversations happening as we try to undo some harmful policies and push forth for true progress that gets us the America we all deserve.