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California Sen. Alex Padilla On Essential Worker Immigration Bill

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

More than 100 days into Joe Biden's presidency, immigration remains a pressing issue for his administration and for the country as the number of migrants apprehended at the southern border exceeded 170,000 in April for the second consecutive month. Biden has promised a number of changes to the nation's immigration system, and key to that effort is California Senator Alex Padilla. He made history this week as the first Latino to chair the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship and Border Safety. His first hearing, which took place on Wednesday, focused on the role that approximately 5 million essential immigrant workers have played during the pandemic and discussed legislation that would offer them a path to citizenship. The bill, known as the Citizenship for Essential Workers Act, was introduced by Senator Padilla in February.

And Senator Padilla is with us now to talk about all of that. Welcome, Senator. Thank you so much for joining us.

ALEX PADILLA: Oh, thank you, Michel, for having me.

MARTIN: So before we get into the policy details, I just want to ask you about a change you made when you announced your new role as chairman. The new name of your subcommittee is Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship and Border Safety. So the kind of policy wonks among us may remember that the old name was Subcommittee on Border Security and Immigration. And you said that this change reflected your priority to restore humanity, dignity and respect to the immigration process. So could you just tell us a little bit - tell us a little bit about what you gave - what gave you this idea, why you think that matters.

PADILLA: Sure. Well, you know, the words - words matter. We've been talking about that a lot, not just lately, but for several years. And so I thought the - updating the name of the committee would also help set a tone for our approach to the work, the policy priorities of the subcommittee and what we hope to accomplish. You know, it's also a very tangible signal of how we're trying to turn the page from, frankly, the cruelty of the prior administration. It's a new day, not just in the Senate, but hopefully for the prospects of a long-overdue immigration reform.

MARTIN: So for your first hearing, as we mentioned earlier, your first hearing as chair, you chose to focus on essential workers and the Citizenship for Essential Workers Act, which would, as we said, offer a path to citizenship for essential workers. This legislation was also your first bill as a U.S. senator. Why this focus on essential workers first?

PADILLA: Right. Well, I think a couple of things. First, the conversations about the need to update our nation's immigration laws are not new. Trying to build on some progress and some momentum from previous years and previous efforts. I think in part of those - in part because of those previous efforts, there is building momentum on even a bipartisan basis for help for DREAMers, for example, or for farmworkers, for example. But given the last year that we've been through, I don't see another more compelling case to be made than to recognize the tremendous service, the tremendous sacrifices, the tremendous work of essential workers.

Let's not let that be lip service. Let's make that mean something. And for all the workers that have been here for years, paying taxes and obviously serving during the course of a once-in-a-century global health pandemic, let's give them the security to live without fear of deportation and put them on a pathway to citizenship.

MARTIN: And the bill proposes a, quote, "fast, accessible and secure path to citizenship." What exactly does that path look like?

PADILLA: Yeah. So it's not immediate citizenship, but we do hope to make that pathway a few years less than what the normal wait times have been for others that have been waiting to apply and begin the naturalization process or have waited longer than they should have to given the backlogs with the federal government. And, you know, we hope to address that, too.

MARTIN: So it's no secret that the Senate is divided - very. In order for your bill and one would think other immigration reform bills to pass, you will need Republican support. McClatchy reported that one of your colleagues and a member of the subcommittee, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, stated there was no path to citizenship that he would accept. So where do you go from there? I mean, how - I mean, obviously he's one vote, but he seems to represent kind of a center of gravity for some of your colleagues.

PADILLA: Yeah. And exactly that. He is one vote. And he may be a center of gravity for some of our colleagues across the aisle, but there's a whole lot more that I do think are frankly open and genuine in their interest of getting something done in this area. So, you know, this is still my first couple of months in Congress, but I've made it a point to sit with a lot of my Republican colleagues, you know, on a one-on-one basis. I've also been participating in the bipartisan Senate working group, trying to find a path forward, either as a comprehensive legislative package that we can bring to the Senate floor with bipartisan support or with some of the individual elements that are already enjoying bipartisan support. We're still working through the process while we negotiate the details.

MARTIN: OK. Forgive me for interrupting, but that - those arguments have been made before. As you know, discussions of immigration reform have been on the table for years now, through multiple presidencies. They've been advanced by people who have had tremendous stature within the body, a tremendous stature with people of both parties, people like the former, you know, the late Arizona Senator John McCain. So what makes you think that this is a different moment where Congress would be willing to make progress on this issue, especially at a time when it's so polarized about so many things?

PADILLA: Look. I do think it's a different moment for a couple of reasons. No. 1, you know, sometimes it takes momentum and a couple of years of effort to create the climate for progress to be made. The uniqueness of this pandemic, the year-plus that we've all - have been powering through and struggling through, it has brought to light not just general contributions of immigrants to our communities and to the economy, but under the most dangerous of circumstances, essential workers putting their own health and lives on the line. If we can get that through Congress and on the president's desk, you know, we'd do it in a heartbeat. In an ideal world, we'd get it done with significant bipartisan support. But frankly, if we're able to do this through a budget reconciliation process or attaching it to other must-pass items, if that's the way to get it done, then we need to get it done.

MARTIN: That was California Senator Alex Padilla. He chairs the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship and Border Safety. Senator Padilla, thank you so much for joining us. I do hope we'll talk again.

PADILLA: Thank you. I look forward to it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.