First Latino senator in CA, citizenship for undocumented immigrants is personal

The Ballet Folklórico performs in Sun Valley this month. (Karla Gachet for The Washington Post)

In the neighborhood where Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) grew up, undocumented immigrants have long occupied the aging bungalows and faded campers that jam up against roaring freeways.

Ilegales,” his father, Santos Padilla, now 80 and a naturalized U.S. citizen, said with a sweep of his hand following Mass one recent Sunday when asked how he and his late wife arrived in the United States. “Like everyone.”

Alex Padilla became the first Latino senator from California in January when Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) appointed him to fill the seat left open by Vice President Harris, and he took over the immigration subcommittee. But he and others have twice failed to convince the Senate parliamentarian that citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States should be included in a budget bill that Democrats hope to pass this year as part of a massive spending package.

In an interview this month in Pacoima, his old neighborhood in Los Angeles, Padilla said he is “not giving up” on citizenship, even as he and other Democrats are planning to return to the parliamentarian with a Plan C. He said one option under this plan is to give millions of undocumented immigrants work permits instead of a path to citizenship, but that is not the only possibility. “There are still better options on the table,” Padilla said, though he would not elaborate.

But pressure is growing on Padilla to decide whether he would support Biden’s budget bill if immigration reform drops out. Some lawmakers have already said they will not vote for the spending package without some form of relief for undocumented immigrants and have urged the Senate to ignore the parliamentarian’s advice and include citizenship anyway.

The budget measure is a key vehicle for Democrats in the evenly divided Senate because they can pass it with a majority vote instead of the usual 60.

Nowhere has more at stake than California, home to 2.2 million undocumented immigrants, the largest share in the nation. The Pew Research Center estimates that fewer than 10 percent are new arrivals. Many have waited years, even decades, for permanent residency, the first step toward citizenship.

Republicans have praised the parliamentarian’s ruling, saying citizenship is a major policy issue that should have input from both parties, like President Biden’s infrastructure bill. And critics note that Democrats are not planning to increase immigration enforcement at a time when apprehensions at the southwest border are the highest in U.S. history.

Padilla, in an interview in his Senate office, said he has tried to negotiate with Republicans and is still willing to do so. He recounted one conversation with a fellow senator, whom he would not identify out of respect.

He said the senator told him, “I like immigrants. My state is pro-immigrant. We need immigrants. Meat processing. Agriculture. This industry, that industry. I get it. Immigrants come here and they work hard to provide for their families. And they have kids and their kids do very well in school and they grow up to be maybe teachers or a firefighter or even a manager at the plant where their parents work.”



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