Ilhan Omar on stimulus plans, rent cancellation bill, critics and more

Photo by Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call Congresswoman Ilhan Omar

An interview with MN’s 5th Congressional District Rep. Ilhan Omar

MSR: What are your thoughts about the strength and components of the initial $2.7 trillion coronavirus stimulus package?

IOmar: It gained a $1,200 cash assistance to folks. It allowed for an unprecedented extension of unemployment benefit. [And we are] talking about the extra $600 that people are able to get on top of their regular unemployment benefits and the expansion of that for another 13 weeks.

MSR: What are your thoughts on the new stimulus plan that allots $484 billion for small businesses, hospitals and virus testing? 

Omar: We were able to get some resources for testing. We were also able to get my MEALS (Maintaining Essential Access to Lunch for Students) Act that allows for 22 million young children across the country to still be able to get their meals from school, even though they are now distance learning. So many people in our district rely on those school meals. Food insecurities are quite high in the district.

We’ve also worked in expanding things like SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] benefits and others. So I would say although it’s not quite sufficient—there’s people left out of the benefits package—it does help protect lives and livelihoods across the districts.

MSR: What components of that aid would you have changed if you could?

Omar: Just for starters, there’s 120,000 Minnesotans who are in mixed-status families. That means a member of the family has a Social Security card and another member doesn’t. They filed a joint tax return and that tax was past the $1,200 cash assistance, and subsequent assistance that would go to their children it would not be benefits that they could extract. So we introduced legislation to recover those benefits for them.

Almost all the benefits that people can be eligible for had eligibility that was tied to their immigration status. So a lot of our undocumented neighbors are not able to get any of those benefits, whether it be small business benefits, or the $1,200 cash assistance, or any of the unemployment newly extended pandemic benefits. So we’ve been working with members of Congress to try to have some relief for our undocumented residents.

Another huge loophole in the last package that we noticed was for people who were claimed as dependents, whether it’s young people or people with disabilities. They would not be eligible to receive the benefits if they are now independently living from the people who claimed them as dependents. So I worked with my colleagues in advocating that they be included in the next package as well.

MSR: What are your thoughts on Governor Walz’s plan to allow some businesses that weren’t initially deemed critical industries to reopen this week?

Related Story: Gov. Walz extends stay-at-home order through May 18, with exceptions

Omar: I’ve been quite pleased in the ways in which the governor has really put together a comprehensive plan. We have daily communications with the governor, and our delegation speaks once a week collectively and are in touch with their office. There’s a comprehensive plan in place to slowly reopen the economy in Minnesota with guidance from health professionals, and so as I reviewed his plan, I am quite pleased in the way that it’s being rolled out.

One of the most critical components in trying to reopen the economy and getting people back to work is just making sure that everyone is tested and that there is a COVID-19 pandemic plan deployed by all employers. That is a huge component of his plan, so it just goes to show when you have coherent leadership what is possible.

MSR: What drove you to concentrate your specific efforts on the Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act? 

Omar: Our office noticed a huge uptick in constituent calls, and a majority of our calls are focused on the economic challenges that our constituents are having. Whether it’s folks in North Minneapolis or folks in New Hope or folks in Brooklyn Center, what folks are sharing with us is that when rents came due on April 1, many of them were not able to pay their rent.

In Minnesota we are fortunate enough to have a governor who has instituted an eviction moratorium, and as I spoke with municipal leaders we realized that once that moratorium is lifted, so many of our people are going to be at risk of losing their housing and being displaced.

So we wanted to work fast in trying to put together legislation that would cancel rent and mortgage and create a relief fund for landlords and lenders that would allow for rent and debt to not be accumulated while the pandemic is happening. [This is] so that people can hit the start button on a normal footing and not having anxiety of potentially moving from their house or apartment, so that has been a real priority for us.

We are really focused on trying to protect everyone that is vulnerable in our community. We are proactively reaching out and doing wellness check-ins and working on mutual aid for our constituents. When our federal government isn’t able to act fast enough, the community in itself is able to create the resources to make sure that they are able to protect their lives and livelihoods.

MSR: How would you respond to criticism from your opponents that you haven’t been as responsive to your District 5 constituents as you could be, particularly in communication and representation?

Omar: That shows, I would say, their lack of participation in our community. [If] you are a full participant of the community and you understand the day-to-day struggle that many of our community face, you would recognize the work that we put in every single day. 

Back in August, we brought a historic visit from the Congressional Black Caucus into the district and spent three days having a conversation about what economic opportunities look like for my constituents in North Minneapolis and in places like Brooklyn Center and Richfield. Visiting our young people who are incarcerated and looking at how to form our criminal justice system and how to make it more just for them. From that, Ayanna Pressley and I were able to introduce the Ending PUSHOUT (Punitive, Unfair, School-Based Harm that is Overt and Unresponsive to Trauma) Act so that we could stop the discrimination that young women of color in our school system face every single day. 

We were able to hold a town hall with leaders within our community to deal with the public health crisis of the maternal mortality rate in the Black community, talking with doulas and midwives to try to really figure out what the federal government can do. We were able to create a task force to focus on providing resources and giving proper attention to Minnesotans who are faced with that issue.

Minnesota rates number four in student debt, and through the many focus groups that we’ve had we were able to introduce our historic student debt cancellation and college tuition-free legislation last year.

In our town hall on Medicare For All, we talked about how critically important it is to recognize health care as a human right to provide accessible health care to every Minnesotan, and we’ve been able to push that issue to a mainstream position.

We’re leading the effort of zero waste, and we’re leading the effort in the End Polluter Welfare Act. We’re focused on economic, social and environmental justice, and we know many of those policies are going to ultimately lead to a positive gain for all of our community.

MSR: Other thoughts or advice on this pandemic and where we go from here?

Omar: We have an opportunity to use this challenge that is imposed by the public health and economic crisis that our country is facing by really proposing policy changes that are going to have a positive impact on our lives. 

When you realize that across the country 40%, 30%, 70% of people who are dying from the coronavirus are People of Color in states and cities where they are not even half of the population, you realize how important it is for us to push for policies that would allow us to live in a society where people are paid dignified wages or people are covered and have access to healthcare; where people are able to pay their rent and have adequate housing; where our schools get the resources they need to holistically provide for all of our children and a society in which we take care of one another. 

​I am just really humbled and honored to be able to represent my district during the time of Trump and this pandemic to really fight for them every single day to make sure their voices are heard and that they have an actual seat at the table and their issues are raised and that we are meeting with compassion and showing that our country does not really suffer from scarcity, but suffers from greed.

If we were to reformulate our systems to be more just we would have less people incarcerated; we would have less people suffering from childhood hunger; we would have less people dying because they couldn’t afford insulin; we would have less people sleeping by the streets; we would have less of our indigenous folks dying away in the cold streets of North Minnesota on their native land. 

Rep. Ilhan Omar is up for reelection in November this year. This interview was conducted for the MSR by Annalise Pruni. She welcomes reader responses to