Miss USA winner Asya Branch received backlash this week when she denounced the banning of firearms prior to receiving her crown. The backlash further escalated when it was revealed that she visited the Trump White House in 2018 to collaborate on the First Step Act and also sang the National Anthem at a Trump rally in Mississippi.
Speaking with PEOPLE, Branch said that criminal justice reform has always been an important issue for her due to the pain her family suffered while her father was incarcerated for 10 years.
“So often what people miss when they see someone on the news who’s been arrested [is] the family that they leave behind,” Branch said. “That’s where my impetus began, on the children and families at home … And then it’s stretched into working with inmates and helping them see their purpose and speaking with them, hearing their stories and making them feel heard and feel like the humans that they are.”
“If you can’t get a seat at the table, you can’t make a difference,” Branch said of her meeting at the White House. “I found that to be an inspiring and moving moment for me because it shows that I can accomplish things and I can accomplish my goals and really make a difference in the world. So yes, I caught backlash for it, but I feel like it was a meeting that gave me an opportunity to speak up on a cause that was very important to me.”
As to why she sang the National Anthem at the Trump rally, Branch said she was under contractural obligations from the Miss Mississippi Corp. Though she does not like to reveal her political beliefs, the event is still something she takes pride in.
“Regardless of political beliefs, I find it an honor to be able to sing the national anthem anywhere and it just so happened to be at a Trump rally,” she said. “And I know I caught a lot of backlash for that. But no one knows if that has anything to do with my political beliefs or not. I did have a duty as an employee of the Miss Mississippi Corp. as well as a representative of the state of Mississippi.”
During the Miss USA competition, Branch made headlines when she denounced the banning of firearms, citing her own childhood experiences with guns.
“As someone who grew up in a home with guns, I learned at an early age how to load, how to fire, and gun safety,” she said during the event. “I think that education should be available to everyone. I believe that we should require people to pass training and safety courses before they’re allowed to purchase a gun and before receiving a permit. I think it’s important that we not ban guns … I think it’s our Second Amendment right and we just need more safety surrounding that.”
Asya told PEOPLE that although she understands her statement can be polarizing, she nevertheless spoke from her heart.
“I knew that I was speaking from my heart, I was speaking truthfully and honestly, and that’s truly how I feel,” she said. “And in this country we’re entitled to our opinions.”