WASHINGTON — Less than two months into the job, Senator Alex Padilla, Democrat of California, is impatient to take on the kind of major immigration overhaul that has bedeviled Congress for decades.
Mr. Padilla, 47, was appointed to the Senate in January to fill the seat vacated when Vice President Kamala Harris was inaugurated, and he was quickly named the chairman of the Judiciary Committee’s immigration subcommittee, where he plans to push for an expedited pathway to citizenship for the more than five million unauthorized immigrants who are essential workers.
The son of Mexican immigrants who had little formal education, Mr. Padilla graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, became California’s secretary of state and is now the first Latino senator to represent the state with the largest Latino population in the country.
Before delivering his first floor speech in the Senate on Monday afternoon, he sat down with The New York Times to talk about his vision for the office and what he wants to get done in Congress. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about your family’s story.
How much time do you have? My parents came to United States in the late ’60s. They met in Los Angeles. They’re from different regions of Mexico. They found jobs, they found each other, they fell in love, decided to get married, and they applied for green cards. That was the sequence. I thank the U.S. government every day for saying yes to their applications.
They became legal residents. They started a family in the San Fernando Valley. They came with very limited education. In hindsight, it makes all the sense in the world why they emphasized education so much for my sister, my brother and I. My mom had a chance to finish grade school; my dad wasn’t so lucky. For 40 years, he was a short-order cook. My mom cleaned houses. On that modest income, they raised three of us.
When I got the acceptance letter to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I had never been east of El Paso. So it was a little scary. But I knew I had to go for two reasons: One, it was the chance of a lifetime. Second, I wanted the fulfillment of my parents’ dreams, to know their work and their struggle and their sacrifice were all worthwhile.
In one generation, an immigrant cook and house cleaner’s son gets to serve in the United States Senate. Talk about the American dream.
I understand you plan to speak on the effects of the Covid-19 crisis on the Hispanic community in California.
My hometown of Pacoima, Calif., is the epicenter of the epicenter. For me, it’s not just data. It’s personal. My dad still lives in the house we grew up in. Thank God my father got his second shot about two weeks ago. We’ve had him practically bubble-wrapped for the last year.
My best friend growing up lost two uncles to Covid. My wife’s two best friends — one lost a mom; one lost a dad.
The first time I got a chance to participate in a [Senate Democratic] caucus Zoom call, I was set up in the dining room. Less than 10 minutes into the Zoom, I had to tell them, “I’ve got to go, because a friend of the family just passed.”
The urgency because of the devastation of Covid is like nothing we’ve ever dealt with before.
You’ve been on the job for 50 days now. You’ve been through two all-night vote-a-ramas, an impeachment trial and now passage of President Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus bill. That feels like a lot.
If I’ve ever used the term “drinking from a fire hose” before in my life, I completely take it back, because these last few months have been like nothing else. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s certainly gratifying. To think back and say I was one of the votes for this package that was approved on Saturday [March 6] that’s being compared with L.B.J. and F.D.R. — to be a part of that? That’s an indicator of the kind of impact you can have.
Your last job was as the secretary of state of California. So you’re quite familiar with election law. What is your view on the state of American elections? What can be done to beat back the false claims of widespread voter fraud that a large percentage of the American people now believe?
Were you here on Jan. 6? You OK?
I was here, yes. I had trouble sleeping after, but I think I’m pretty much recovered. Thank you for asking.
What was that whole insurrection based on? The big lie. Lies and disinformation are not just potentially dangerous. They’re deadly.
I’m the only recent secretary of state in the Senate. In the election space, you have to do the nuts and bolts of how to run elections freely and fairly. You have to make sure we’re protecting against cyberthreats.
But countering disinformation is huge. So how do we do it? Continue to put out the right information and get more people to participate. When more people participate and see the experience is a good one, that goes a long way in restoring and strengthening public confidence in the process.
There’s plenty of precedent for the federal government to play a role from the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 to the National Voter Registration Act to the Help America Vote Act.
After the attack on the Capitol, there’s been a lot of talk in Democratic circles about which Republicans they can work with anymore and drawing a line against those who voted to subvert the will of the voters. Where do you fall on that?
Those who continue to believe the big lie even when they know better aren’t really interested in working together, so I’m not holding my breath. But minus them, there have been a handful of Republicans who have done more than just, “Welcome to the Senate.” If we can agree on something to make progress, I’m happy to leap at those opportunities.
Which Republicans reached out to you beyond just pleasantries?
Roy Blunt [of Missouri, the No. 4 Republican] was one of the first. Part of our commonality is he’s also a former state secretary of state. There’s actually three of us: Blunt, Sherrod Brown [Democrat of Ohio] and myself.
I had pleasant conversation with Senator [Shelley Moore] Capito [of West Virginia] and [John] Cornyn from Texas. We may not agree on a whole lot, but he’s also from a border state.
You’ve been put on some important committees: Budget, Rules and Administration, Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Environment and Public Works, and Judiciary. You’ve also been named the chairman of the Judiciary’s subcommittee on immigration. What do you hope to achieve in that role?
The stars are aligned to make progress on immigration. If it was up to me, I’d take the Biden package and say, “Let’s go.” But the reality is, what can be done that will get 60 votes? What can be done through reconciliation? Now that the Covid bill is done, we turn our attention to this.
Do you think immigration reform can be done through reconciliation, a budgetary procedure that requires only 51 votes to pass?
I think there’s elements of it that can be done, absolutely. But there are other pieces that can’t. What’s the strategy for getting as much done as we can as soon as we can? Having studied prior years, I’d be wary of taking too long, because the closer we get to the next election, that becomes an excuse.
This is how my journey influences my work now. The very reason I left a career in engineering and got involved in government was Proposition 187 in 1994. I was relatively fresh home from college. I came home to a political environment that had ads running on television saying that immigrants and children of immigrants should no longer be eligible for public services, that the economy’s tanking, and it’s the fault of people like my parents and families like mine. It was beyond insulting. It was enraging. I had no choice but to get involved.
I was talking with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York the other day, and she said she wants Democrats to go bold on immigration reform. She doesn’t see some of the proposals as “cutting edge” and is worried Democrats are allowing conservatives to weaken the agenda. How bold does immigration reform need to be?
As bold as we can make it. We need to get as much done as quickly as can. Biden did this already: extending [Temporary Protected Status] to Venezuelans.
So, there’s the T.P.S. question. There’s the situation at the border. There’s restoring the asylum system. There’s taking care of Dreamers. My bill says any essential worker deserves a pathway to citizenship. But there’s other more bureaucratic pieces people aren’t talking about: the length of time the process takes to become a citizen; the cost of the application itself.
Research shows that when immigrants become citizens, there’s a net economic benefit, not just to the individual and their family, but to the economy.