Ro Khanna discusses ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, H-1B visas at town hall meeting
About 150 people turned out Wednesday evening at a town hall hosted by U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna at Ohlone College’s Jackson Theatre in Fremont. Audience members lobbed questions at the District 17 congressman about local and international issues alike.
A topic that garnered a lot of attention was the killings and conflict taking place in Myanmar, which has led to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh. The issue has been called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” by the United Nations top human rights official, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, earlier this month.
The first-term Democratic congressman said the ethnic cleansing needs to stop, and he has signed onto a letter by U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Maryland, calling for Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi to help put an end to the conflict.
Several members of the audience asked Khanna questions about the issue, and what else could be done to protect the refugees there. Khanna said he hopes the calls from U.S. leaders for peace will get through, but if not, other “pressure” points will need to be examined.
Another issue of national interest with Silicon Valley implications that several people raised was about the country’s H-1B visa program, which allows skilled workers to enter the country to find employment.
One man in the audience lamented the program has been rampantly abused by local companies.
Khanna agreed the H-1B program needs reform, and took the opportunity to discuss his signing on to a bipartisan bill led by U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-New Jersey, that would close some loopholes in the process, and demand more transparency in hiring practices.
Skilled immigrants need to be a part of the American fabric, Khanna said, but added that those jobs cannot come at the cost of exploiting immigrants by paying wages far below the prevailing rates. He said he refuses to endorse a “race to the bottom” approach which results in the replacement of American workers with underpaid foreign workers.
Khanna also recited his views on how to connect with the tens of millions of Americans who voted for President Donald Trump, after an audience member asked how to address their grievances of lost opportunity.
The congressman brought out a line he has used repeatedly, saying that Democrats need to provide a plan for people that includes offering “ladders” of economic opportunity.
To that end, he recently introduced an initiative with Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, that would dramatically expand the Earned Income Tax Credit for working families and childless workers.
And for the “children of coal miners,” he said leaders need to be honest with them about the difficulty in having to learn new skills in a changing market.
“We’re not going to promise to bring back jobs that may not come back, we’re going to invest in the future, we’re going to help young folks have the opportunities for the jobs that are going to exist,” he said.
“If we are honest about the transition, and if we have a vision for how their kids can participate in it, and we provide those ladders, that they will believe in,” he said, adding that the tech industry needs have more to offer those who don’t feel a part of the new economy.
He said this is one of the central issues Congress needs to answer if it wants to unite the country in the long term.
“Because long after Trump is gone, that doesn’t mean income inequality will be gone, that doesn’t mean that unequal access to opportunity will be gone.” He took a jab at Republicans, saying they should focus on real issues like opportunity, “instead of voting every two weeks about repealing Obamacare.”
The crowd was engaged with the nine-month congressman, but it was significantly smaller than his first town hall as an elected official in February when about 500 people attended, though Khanna said he thought 1,000 people were on hand.
His next town hall will be in Cupertino in October.