Column: Alex Padilla isn’t scared to push through a pro-immigrant agenda
Alex Padilla believes in the power of his story: a son of two Mexican immigrants — a short-order cook and a house cleaner — who became California’s first Latino U.S. senator.
He believes in the power of his story not only to inspire other Latinos but also to convince some Republicans that “Latinos are just as American.” He goes at politics with the laidback confidence that’s on display in a viral L.A. Taco video of him rolling a tortilla. (Admirers gushed: “This is honestly the greatest tortilla roll of all time. And he didn’t think about it.” “He’s like the Snoop Dogg of tortilla rolling.” And “mexican blood indeed.”)
Reflecting on his first year in the Senate, Padilla recalled one of his first interactions with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). Graham said he knew Padilla was the son of immigrants, but was surprised to learn that Padilla had attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Padilla recalls Graham asking: “You have an engineering degree from MIT? How does that happen?”
Padilla answered: “I applied. I got accepted.”
Jean Guerrero is the author, most recently, of “Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump and the White Nationalist Agenda.”
Graham is among the few Republicans in recent years to express openness to protecting some immigrants from deportation. Most Republicans today are vocally anti-immigrant.
Padilla is no stranger to anti-Latino hate. Growing up in Pacoima, he played Little League baseball playoffs in affluent communities where rivals’ parents directed racist slurs at his team. “Coming into the Senate and dealing with members who have less appreciation for diversity, it’s not my first experience,” he told me.
As chair of the immigration subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Padilla says he strives to “level set” the discussion. At a committee hearing about citizenship for farmworkers, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) bizarrely conjured up human traffickers sexually assaulting “little boys and little girls” at the border.
Padilla called it out. “I think some of my colleagues, through their questioning, through their statements, have caused a little confusion. Not sure whether it’s intentional or unintentional,” he said, clarifying that the hearing was not about the border.
As a new senator, Padilla doesn’t have a lot of political capital to spend. But “he’s spending it on immigration,” said Ali Noorani, president of the National Immigration Forum. Padilla has also been an important voice for protecting voting rights, having fought publicly with the Trump administration over baseless voter fraud claims as early as 2017, when he was California’s secretary of state.
Pushing hard for immigration reform is both the right thing and the politically strategic thing to do.
But on both voting rights and immigration, the Democrats’ agenda has stalled so far. Padilla supports eliminating the filibuster. He also rejects the Senate parliamentarian’s opinion that immigration reforms cannot be done through a budget reconciliation process. “We’re stuck on this rules debate, and that is absolutely disappointing,” he told me.
Last spring, Padilla introduced the Citizenship for Essential Workers Act, which would expandpotential green card beneficiaries beyond the proposed population of Dreamers, farmworkers and people who’ve received temporary protected status.
When House moderates cut social safety benefits for immigrants in the Build Back Better plan, Padilla led a successful late-night push to restore them. Barring immigrant children from health services, among other things, he said was “absolutely unacceptable” and contrary to the nation’s interest.
Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García (D-Ill.) says Padilla has made a difference. “It was really good to have someone from the affected community … working the back channels with the speaker and House leadership.”
Padilla’s critics, however, argue he should be doing much more. Pablo Alvarado, co-executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, for one, thinks Padilla should have organized the Latino Democrats in Congress to demand green cards for essential workers and other immigrants by threatening to vote down Build Back Better. Instead, Alvarado said: “He chose to be soft.”
Alvarado suspects that Democrats fear pushing a strong immigration reform agenda will hurt the party in the midterm elections. This carries over to his assessment of Padilla: “In my view, he’s chosen the interests of his party over the interests of his people.”
But Gonzalo Santos, a sociology professor at Cal State Bakersfield, notes that Padilla “was too new and junior a protagonist in the drama of 2021 to lead the charge for Latinos.”
Given his very recent arrival to the Senate, Padilla defends his achievements, such as the Clean Commute for Kids Act, which funds electric school buses to fight climate change and decrease children’s asthma rates. It was incorporated into the bipartisan infrastructure bill that President Biden signed into law. He also partnered with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) to protect the nation’s electrical grids against extreme weather events. That bill’s language ended up in the bipartisan bill, too.
Padilla fought for improved vaccine access for Latinos and direct payments of COVID relief for mixed-status families. He regularly engaged with Spanish-language and Latino-focused media. And he founded the Senate Hispanic-Serving Institutions Caucus with Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who told me Padilla is “focused on expanding opportunities” for other Latinos.
It’s why Padilla got into politics. His political history began in the ’90s, the era of Proposition 187 and anti-immigrant hysteria led by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson. Padilla was sick of the attacks. Yet, he chose to work as an aide to Dianne Feinstein, who had been fueling the hysteria with her own ads and rhetoric. When asked whether her aggressive stance concerned him, he said: “It absolutely concerned me.” But he argues it was a calculation: “I chose to try to be an influential voice from the inside.”
He didn’t stay with Feinstein for long. By 1999, at age 26, he was elected to the Los Angeles City Council and then went on to serve two terms in the state Senate before becoming secretary of state.
Years after working for Feinstein, he connected her with farmworkers to discuss their proposed federal agricultural jobs bill. Arturo Rodriguez, the United Farmworkers’ president emeritus, credits Padilla as “instrumental in bringing us together.” Although the bill failed, Feinstein became a chief advocate for immigrant farmworkers.
Padilla claims he isn’t daunted by the odds against him in pushing through a pro-immigrant agenda. He won’t talk smack about Republicans, at least not to me. “I’m not going to sink to their level,” he said.
His chill style may be a mistake in the current battle for democracy. Or maybe, as a fan of his tortilla-rolling skills commented, “that’s chingon status right there.”
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