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Quiet No More: Sen. Hirono's Immigrant Journey Fuels Her Fire In Congress

Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), says her immigrant journey, detailed in a new memoir, has driven her to "stand up to bullies."
Samuel Corum
AFP via Getty Images
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), says her immigrant journey, detailed in a new memoir, has driven her to "stand up to bullies."

For a long time, Mazie Hirono thought of herself as one of the quiet ones — hardworking and well-prepared, caring but stoic — formed in the image of the Japanese American women who raised her.

But in recent years, Sen. Hirono, D-Hawaii — the only immigrant serving in the U.S. Senate — has turned heads for her increasingly tough, no-B.S. style and a willingness to challenge not just Republicans but her own Democratic party.

The turning point, she said in an interview with NPR, was catalyzed by the Trump administration and the conduct of the former president himself.

"He opened the floodgates to the vocal side of me and the recognition that I had that I better speak up, because this guy is a bully and we need to stand up to bullies," she said. "And I began to do that more."

This year, she's taken the lead on organizing a congressional response to the spasm of anti-Asian violence that's rocked the country. The senator joined Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., in introducing legislation that aims to combat coronavirus-related hate crimes by stepping up federal review of such crimes and facilitating public reporting of hate crimes at the state and local level.

/ Penguin Random House
Penguin Random House

In a new memoir, titled Heart of Fire: An Immigrant Daughter's Story, Sen. Hirono — now one of the most outspoken Democrats in Congress — describes the journey that's brought her to this moment. She reflects on the difficult decision her mother had to make to remove herself from an abusive relationship by fleeing to Hawaii from Japan, leaving her youngest son — Hirono's little brother — behind.

"That parting had been so hard on him and it literally broke our hearts when my grandmother said that every day my younger brother would say, looking at a picture of us, 'When are they coming home?' " said the senator.

That experience, in part, informed her fury at the Trump administration's policy of separating migrant children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border.

"I don't think he cared that this is going to have a lasting, horrible impact on them," she said. "That is why I spoke on the floor of the Senate and talked about how separation can be such a traumatic event for a child that we should do everything we can to bring the children back to their parents."

Now, her scrutiny is aimed at the current administration.

During the presidential campaign, Joe Biden pledged to set the yearly cap on refugee admissions at 125,000. But on Friday, President Biden announced plans to keep the refugee cap at 15,000, a historically low level set by the Trump administration — an order the White House quickly walked back after drawing wide criticism from Democratic lawmakers. Biden now plans to set a "final, increased refugee cap" for the rest of the fiscal year by May 15.

In the following excerpts, Sen. Hirono responds to Biden's decision to keep that refugee ceiling, criticism of her new legislation and more.

Interview Highlights

On why she withdrew her vow to not vote for any more white nominees until President Biden made more of a diligent effort to diversify his cabinet

I like the way that this is framed as withdrawing. I describe it as, we came to a meeting of the minds. And the fact that he appointed Erika Moritsugu as a deputy assistant to the president is the kind of position and the kind of person I would have wanted for that position. And that was one of the things that we called for, that there would be a senior person in the White House who would be an advocate for the [Asian American Pacific Islander] community, which is the fastest growing racial group in our country, by the way.

Often a lot of my API friends use words like, they felt invisible, until now, of course, with the kind of unprovoked attacks against AAPIs all across the country.

On the importance of her and Rep. Meng's COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act and what it will do

I have described it as a noncontroversial bill that would require the attorney general to appoint a person to expedite review of hate crimes and to work with state and local law enforcement to help them set up online reporting of these kinds of crimes and to work with advocacy groups to really reach out to this very diverse AAPI community to let them know that when they experience these kinds of crimes and incidents, they should be reported so that we have data — so we understand the depth of the problem and make informed decisions about what else we can do to prevent these kinds of crimes.

On her response to critics who say that the bill encourages law enforcement to continue to overpolice people who've already been overpoliced

We are not telling law enforcement to do anything more than to use the tools that they already have. So this bill does not change any of the laws that are already on the books. What it does do is it focuses on the victims and to collect data on the victims. The other thing that this bill does ... It is a statement of position on the part of Congress to say we stand with the AAPI community, that we condemn these kind of unprovoked attacks. And truly to say that an attack on a community like this is an attack on all minority communities.

On her reaction to Biden's previous order to keep the yearly refugee cap at 15,000 due to a "decimated" refugee admissions program that the White House says it inherited.

That is way too low. Refugees have already gone through a vetting process. These are different from asylum-seekers. That's a totally different category of people. So refugees have already gone through the vetting process and we need to raise that number so more of them can come to our country. ...

The president will be hearing from me on this and from others who are also very distressed. ...I will say you need to raise this number. You said that you were going to go with [62,500] — that I very much applaud. Please reconsider.

Ariana Aspuru and Tinbete Ermyas produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.