‘We're fired up and ready to work’: California Senator Alex Padilla on COVID relief and immigration reform

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Alex Padilla was recently sworn in as California's first Latino senator — in a state with a 40% Latino population. He will serve the last two years of Vice President Kamala Harris’ term before facing reelection in 2022. He speaks with KCRW about his journey from Pacoima to Washington D.C. and his plans in the Senate. 

KCRW: How does it feel to have traveled all the way to the upper chamber in D.C.?

Senator Padilla: “It's been quite the journey. Transitioning into the United States Senate is a kind of a big enough deal on its own. But the circumstances we're living in have made the work not just that much more important, but that much more urgent in starting with improving the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and so much more. So it’s a lot to take in. It's an honor of a lifetime. But we're fired up and ready to work.”

Let's talk about COVID relief. Many people in Southern California have had their health and finances affected by this pandemic. President Biden wants a relief package of $1.9 trillion. A group of Republicans has countered with a much cheaper package — $600 billion or so. It looks like Congress may use a budget reconciliation to pass the bigger package without Republican support. Do you think that's the right way to go without being bipartisan? Or is there a way forward that brings in Republicans as well? 

“I think the door is wide open for Republicans to join Democrats on acting urgently to provide much needed relief for families that are struggling in California and across the country, small businesses that have been struggling to keep their doors open, providing the resources necessary for health care facilities, and state and local governments, school districts, etc. I think ultimately that's what Americans want and deserve big action fast.

And so I don't want to get caught up in the procedural inner workings of the United States Senate. I'm here because the situation is absolutely desperate. In California, Southern California especially, has been the epicenter of the epicenter. 

In recent weeks, I know my hometown of Pacoima and … San Fernando Valley is one of the biggest red spots on the map with more cases each day, people dying each day. That's what drives the urgency with which we need to act. 

And it's been now, more than a month since the last relief package was adopted. The end of the pandemic is still not in sight. And so we need to continue to invest in a better vaccine distribution plan. We need to invest in schools and state and local governments, but provide much needed direct assistance to families who are either maybe facing evictions or not knowing where the next meal is coming from.”

Immigration is a big topic in Southern California. We've been hearing for years about the need for comprehensive federal immigration reform. But more specifically, what do you see as a road forward on this issue? President Biden signed some executive orders reversing some of his predecessors’ executive orders.

“President Biden's executive orders reversing some of the most cruel policies of the Trump administration is a good start. But comprehensive immigration reform done legislatively is long overdue. It may not be easy, but once again, it's going to be up to Republicans to decide whether we can do something on a bipartisan basis or not. 

But I'm hopeful. It wasn't that long ago in 2013, when a bipartisan package was approved by the United States Senate. I know, the political environment we're all living in has certainly changed in the last seven years. But it does provide me hope that it can be done on a bipartisan basis, sooner rather than later.”

Will you be putting forward any specific bill or bills? What would you like to see happen? And how would you like to see it done? 

“The initial proposals [that] come from the White House is a great start, it does cover a lot of pieces. But we do need to look at a pathway to citizenship for the millions of immigrants that in my mind have clearly earned it. 

And I'll give you one example that I'm particularly looking out for. I can't tell you how many tweets or how many Facebook posts I've seen praising essential workers. During this pandemic, workers in the fields working as farm workers, workers in the food industry, workers in the health care industry, many of these are immigrants, and many of them may be undocumented immigrants. 

But if they've helped us weather this pandemic, they deserve not just protections in the workplace, but a pathway to citizenship for their heroism and their patriotism. 

And also, no state has more at stake in the outcome and getting this reform passed than the state of California. It's not just the most populous state in the nation, but we're the most diverse state in the nation, home to more immigrants than any other state in the nation. 

… The Southern California economy ... wouldn't be what it is without the contribution and labor of immigrants.”