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Sen. Mazie Hirono Talks New Memoir

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For years, she thought of herself as one of the quiet ones, hardworking and well-prepared, caring but stoic and self-contained, formed in the image of the Japanese American women who raised her. But Mazie Hirono will no longer be quiet.

The junior senator from Hawaii, the only immigrant currently serving in the Senate, has attracted notice in recent years for her increasingly tough, no-BS style and a willingness to challenge her own Democratic Party as well as Republicans. Recently, she's taken the lead on organizing a congressional response to the spasm of anti-Asian abuse that's rocked the country. Now she describes the journey that brought her to this moment in a new memoir, "Heart of Fire: An Immigrant Daughter's Story."

We spoke to the senator yesterday, just as President Biden announced plans to cap the number of refugees admitted to the U.S. at the level set by the previous administration, 15,000 for the upcoming fiscal year. Later that day, he walked that announcement back, saying he will, in fact, raise the cap as he'd promised during his campaign by May 15.

Immigration was a major theme in my conversation with Senator Hirono. We began by talking about the difficult decision her mother made to leave an abusive relationship by fleeing to Hawaii from Japan, leaving her youngest son, Senator Hirono's little brother, behind.

MAZIE HIRONO: We realized, though, 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?

MARTIN: And you talked about how part of that experience really informs your just fury at the former administration's...

HIRONO: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Policy at separating children at the border. Do you want to talk more about that?

HIRONO: When Trump decided that he was going to rip - literally rip - babies and young children out of the hands of the mothers and parents, I don't think he cared that this was going to have a lasting horrible impact on them. He didn't care. But the way he did it - you know, it's what I call mindless cruelty. This is just one example, but a horrible example.

And that is why I spoke on the floor and - 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. And astoundingly, the Trump administration didn't even keep records of where their parents went. It's just too cruel to contemplate.

MARTIN: You remind us of an event that happened that I think some of your constituents certainly know about - I'm not sure nationally as many people know about. Your colleagues know about this - is a lot of - there's been a lot of attention about how, you know, former - the late Senator John McCain from Arizona, Republican, was in the middle of cancer treatment, went to the floor to vote to defend the Affordable Care Act. What I'm not sure a lot of people remember is that you were literally days from cancer surgery - surgery to remove a kidney...

HIRONO: Yes.

MARTIN: ...When you did the same thing. And I just think the physical pain that you had to have been in to kind of get yourself there is - I know it's amazing to contemplate. But what I think a lot of people have seen is that you've become a lot more blunt in recent years...

HIRONO: (Laughter) Yes.

MARTIN: ...And sort of calling people out. Has something shifted for you?

HIRONO: It's the Trump administration that really brought it to the fore. He opened the floodgates to the vocal side of me and the recognition that I had that I'd better speak up because this guy is a bully, and we need to stand up to bullies. And I began to do that more. And I also spoke very bluntly and simply - very simply.

MARTIN: You were also willing to criticize Democrats, including the current administration. You said at one point, along with Senator Duckworth from Illinois, that you would not vote for any more white nominees until the president made more of a diligent effort to diversify his cabinet. So - but you withdrew that kind of threat within a couple of days. I mean, tell me - how did that land?

HIRONO: I like the way that that 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 AAPI community, which is the fastest-growing racial group in our country, by the way.

And it consists of people from some 48 different national backgrounds and some 300 languages. The AAPI community is vast in terms of all of the people and the languages that are spoken. But often, a lot of the - my AAPI friends use words like they felt invisible - until now, of course, with the kind of unprovoked attacks against AAPIs all across the country.

MARTIN: And to that end, you and Grace Meng of New York, a congresswoman, have advanced a bill which has gotten a significant degree of bipartisan support, which is...

HIRONO: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Interesting in this environment when that doesn't happen very often. What would this bill do? What's the importance of it?

HIRONO: This bill - I have described it as a non-controversial 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.

MARTIN: To that end, though, the bill - on the one hand, there are those who say one of the most important things about this bill is it addresses the invisibility that you just spoke about.

HIRONO: Yes.

MARTIN: It requires a sort of a thorough look. On the other hand, there are some who say, this is a problem. This is just too law enforcement-forward. This is exactly the problem. In some of these areas now, we need to rethink policing entirely and that this just basically encourages law enforcement to continue to overpolice people who've been - already been overpoliced. How would you respond to that?

HIRONO: We're not telling them that law enforcement - to do anything more than what - 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, Michel, that's so important to our community is that it is a statement by the Congress, by the Senate - one hopes that we will pass this bill. It is a statement of position on the part of Congress to say we stand with the AAPI community, that we condemn this kind of unprovoked attacks, and truly to say that an attack on a community like this is an attack on all minority communities.

I think it is a very important statement to make. And the AAPI community does see this bill, which is not a be all and end all - of course not. But it is a positional statement that is really important to the AAPI community that often feels invisible.

MARTIN: As many people may know, you are the only immigrant currently serving in the United States Senate. And as we've been speaking, President Biden just issued an emergency presidential declaration which keeps the number of refugee admissions for fiscal year 2021 at 15,000, which is the level set by the Trump administration last fall, which is an historically - a very low number historically. And as I think you may remember that, you know, during the campaign, President Biden pledged to raise that number to 125,000.

Now, the White House is saying that this is because the system of sort of processing refugee admissions has been so decimated under the Trump administration. But I have to ask you, what's your reaction to this news?

HIRONO: I think keeping it at the same number as Trump is way too low. He has also said - I think said - he meaning Joe Biden has said that he wanted to raise the number to 62,500 for the rest of this fiscal year. And now he's saying that he's going to keep it at 15,000. That is way too low.

The 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.

MARTIN: Did you have any word of this? Did you have any sense that this was coming?

HIRONO: No, because I thought he was going to raise it to 62,500 and then 125,000 for next fiscal year so we were moving in the right direction in terms of allowing refugees to come to our country. So the president will be hearing from me on this and from others who are also very distressed.

MARTIN: You said he will hear from you on this. What - can you give us a preview? What do you think you'll say?

HIRONO: Oh, I will say, you need to raise this number. These are people who have already been vetted. You said that you were going to go with 62,500. That I very much applaud. Please reconsider.

MARTIN: That's U.S. Senator Mazie Hirono, Democrat from Hawaii. Her book, "Heart Of Fire: An Immigrant Daughter Story," is out Tuesday.

Senator Hirono, thank you for talking with us.

HIRONO: Thank you so much, Michel. Aloha.

(SOUNDBITE OF ODDISEE'S "BEACH DR.") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.