Latino voters have a voice at the bargaining table as never before in Congress.
Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard was tapped Wednesday to manage for House Democrats the annual Homeland Security budget bill — a decision that gives Latino voters a human face and voice at the bargaining table as never before in Congress.
Roybal-Allard’s selection, approved by her fellow Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee, must still be ratified by the party’s leadership and full caucus. But as the first Latino to hold this post, her approval is certain and she represents a powerful historic symbol at a time when the same bill is caught in a bitter fight over immigration policy between Republicans and President Barack Obama.
A veteran lawmaker in her own right, Roybal-Allard is the daughter of the late Rep. Edward Roybal, who preceded her in the House and was one of the founders of the Hispanic Caucus. More important perhaps, she brings to the table the credentials of a Mexican-American mother and grandmother whose focus is on the children left behind when their parents are deported.
“That’s a huge part for me because … a large percentage of these children are American citizens who end up in foster care and lose their parents,” Roybal-Allard said in a brief hallway interview. “And so that is going to definitely be a focus of mine, not just in terms of children but as much as possible, holding families together.”
These same tensions are very much part of the partisan fight now over Obama’s executive order in November that temporarily lifted the threat of deportation from millions of undocumented workers and promised them permits this summer to gain legal employment.
The president would argue that this is within his discretion and a humane way to deal with the families, many of whom have been in the U.S. for years. Republicans counter that it is a gross overreach under the Constitution and have seized the Homeland bill as a vehicle with which to deny funding to implement Obama’s order.
A debate in the House Appropriations Committee last June was very much a prelude to this battle — only then Democrats wanted to deny funding for the deportations. But Roybal-Allard’s comments in that meeting are telling as she repeatedly hit home on this point: children caught in the middle.
“These children cannot wait until we get around to doing that,” she said of long-promised immigration reforms. “Their families and their lives are being impacted right now. Because their parents are being deported, right now we have approximately 5,000 American children who are currently in the child welfare system because of the deportation of a parent. The fear of losing a parent to deportation has a number of negative consequences for the mental health of American children including severe anxiety and withdrawal.”
“She very much reflects the human side of immigration,” said one person who has worked with her closely on Appropriations.
But this human side includes a natural shyness that Roybal-Allard will have to shed if she is to play the leadership role now demanded of her.
Elected to the House in 1992, the congresswoman went on to lead the Hispanic Caucus herself in the late 1990s but like her father before her, secured a seat on Appropriations that suited her style to work more in the background.
“Attentive, conscientious — she’s low key,” said Rep. David Price (D-N.C.). “You’re not going to see her breaking headlines, but she has been a very faithful subcommittee member. She’s quite outspoken in particular about detention practices, a great champion of alternatives to detention when that is possible.”
Roybal-Allard’s district in Southern California is among the most Hispanic in the nation and a stark contrast with the much whiter, home turf of Rep. John Carter (R-Texas), who will continue to chair the Homeland panel on Appropriations. But the two have worked together respectfully in the past, and despite the confrontation now with the White House, she credits the Republican — popularly known as “Judge” — for being “sensitive to the plight of the immigrant.”
“He doesn’t, like others, demonize them,” Roybal-Allard said. “We think differently, but I think we approach it from the standpoint of respecting the individual. He’s been very good in terms of trying to find some balance.”
Her own family history can only be described as old stock. Her father was born in New Mexico where “the Roybals came like in the 16th century,” she said. On her mother’s side, the roots are more in the border area between Mexico and San Diego.
“I grew up in a time where in Los Angeles you actually got punished in school if you spoke Spanish,” she said. “The thinking back in those days — because my parents were fluent in both English and Spanish — was to speak English at home so your children can compete at school. But the minute my grandmother, who understood and could speak English, walked into the house, we spoke Spanish.”
These roots give her a perspective on the fact that for much of its history the United States did not set formal limits on immigrants from the Americas — and this only changed in the 1960s as part of a deal to win passage of what was billed then as immigration reforms.
“I have young Dreamers who because of the president’s policy have been able to go to college and get education and they come back to the community as teachers and attorneys. There’s tremendous value,” Roybal-Allard said. “That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t protect our borders, but I think everything depends on the premise, where we start.”
“Too often,” she said, “the premise is that immigrants come to our country, we need to ship everyone back. And we end up with punitive unrealistic policies. But if you start with the premise that recognizes the value of immigrants and how they add to the value of our country … then we come out with a different kind of policy that tries when it makes sense to keep families together and respect the value that they give to this country.”
“You hear this silly premise that they are trying to make the United States another Mexico, for example. The reality is we have long waiting lists for people trying to learn English.”