Politics & Government

She came to the U.S. at 16 not speaking English. Now she’s on the City Council.

Dimple Ajmera, being sworn into office, is the first Indian-American to serve on the Charlotte City Council
Dimple Ajmera, being sworn into office, is the first Indian-American to serve on the Charlotte City Council City of Charlotte

Charlotte’s newest City Council member, Dimple Ajmera, came to the United States when she was 16 – arriving from India, where she and her parents didn’t speak much English.

“I would say it wasn’t enough to get by at all,” said Ajmera, 30. “It was not enough to get a job, not enough to understand other people. It was just, ‘Hello, how are you?’ 

Though many Indian immigrants come to the U.S. with strong English skills, Ajmera, 30, said she had only taken it intermittently in school.

After leaving the city of Surat, near Mumbai, her family settled in Los Angeles because an uncle lived there. But her parents couldn’t find work in California, and they quickly moved to Durham when they found housekeeping work there.

Ajmera started her senior year at Southern High School.

“She was new in school, and she did stick to herself a lot,” said Martha Belcher of Durham, who graduated from Southern in Ajmera’s class and is still friends with her. “For her it was scary being in a new school.”

Said Ajmera: “It’s either you survive or you don’t. I had no other choice but to come out … fluent in English and doing better economically. That shaped who I am.”

Fourteen years later, Ajmera is now helping shape Charlotte.

Ajmera was appointed in January to the District 5 seat to replace John Autry, who is now a member of the N.C. House. She told council members she wouldn’t run for the seat this fall, a pledge that helped her be appointed.

Her terms ends in December. Ajmera could run for office in the future, but there is no guarantee she’ll win in 2019 or beyond.

After graduating from high school in Durham, she returned to Los Angeles, where she went to community college. She then transferred to the University of Southern California, where she graduated in 2008 with a degree in accounting.

Six years ago, she returned to Charlotte after being recruited by the financial services firm TIAA.

She said she wanted to get active in the community and so became a member of the Charlotte Housing Authority board two years ago. She stepped down when she became a council member.

“She was always one who kept the residents on the forefront in terms of making decisions,” said CHA board member William Scurry. “She was a great relationship type person. She is passionate about the residents and their well being.”

Her district in east Charlotte is one of the city’s most diverse, with 50 percent of registered voters African-American, 36 percent white and the rest Hispanic, Asian or undesignated. Ajmera will represent some of Central Avenue, which has been called the city’s immigrant Main Street.

And, symbolically at least, she represents the city’s fast-growing Indian-American population, which has increased 63 percent to about 16,000 people in the past decade, according to Census estimates.

Ajmera said she also wants to focus on affordable housing and bringing economic development to east Charlotte. She will become the latest District 5 council member – after Nancy Carter and John Autry – to try to redevelop the former Eastland Mall site.

The first weeks of Ajmera’s term have been marked by the Trump administration’s two executive orders on immigration. One was a ban on noncitizens entering the country from seven mostly Muslim countries. The other was an order that targeted so-called “sanctuary cities” that don’t help the federal government enforce immigration law.

Both orders upset her.

“My friends and family are concerned,” Ajmera said about the order affecting the seven countries. “Everywhere I go, we have people living in fear.”

Two years ago, council members passed a civil resolution that said Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police would not enforce federal immigration law, and, with few exceptions, would ignore information about someone being here illegally.

In response, the General Assembly prohibited cities and towns from having such policies, and Charlotte removed most references to immigration from CMPD’s policies.

Ajmera, like other Democratic council members, said she wants to reassure the city’s immigrants that CMPD wants to solve violent crime and property crime – and that it isn’t focusing on people in Charlotte illegally.

The problem is that the city can’t say that clearly, because of the legislature’s prohibition.

She added: “The ban obviously doesn’t impact India, but what would it take to put us next? We could all be next. We are all a nation of immigrants.”

Database editor Gavin Off contributed.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs