SF Chronicle: Sen. Alex Padilla’s first bill would offer citizenship to essential workers

By Tal Kopan

California Sen. Alex Padilla unveiled his first piece of legislation since arriving in the Senate on Friday, a bill that would offer millions of immigrant essential workers and their families a path to citizenship.

Choosing the topic for his symbolic first bill is indicative of the Democrat’s efforts to make his presence felt immediately in Washington on matters of immigration, a contentious issue that has stymied lawmakers for decades.

In an interview, Padilla said his Citizenship for Essential Workers Act was an easy choice for his first piece of legislation as a senator on a personal and policy level. He noted his Mexican immigrant parents spent four decades working in the service industry — his father as a short-order cook and his mom cleaning houses. Padilla is the first Latino senator from California and one of only a handful in the Senate, and he has already used that position to voice concerns of the Latino community in Washington.

“I think nothing speaks to the moment more than COVID response and fairness for essential workers,” Padilla told The Chronicle. “On a parallel track, we know that immigration reform is long overdue in the United States of America and there are no states that have more at stake in immigration reform than the state of California.”

On its own, it’s virtually impossible the bill would become law. The legislation would apply to some legally present immigrants and undocumented immigrants alike, providing an immediate opportunity to start the naturalization process for an estimated 5 million or more people who work in more than a dozen essential industries, including health care, agriculture, service, child care and manufacturing.

Republicans have long opposed almost any legalization of even the most sympathetic cases of undocumented immigration unless it was paired with stringent measures to crack down on future illegal immigration.

But the legislation is emblematic of how Padilla hopes to shape the perpetual debate on immigration as it unfolds in coming months. Padilla has also been one of the lawmakers leading a more expansive immigration bill from President Biden, which includes measures like his essential workers bill. It would also would legalize other populations like “Dreamers” who came to the U.S. as children. Padilla said that legislation is still the “ideal package” and that he fully supports it, but his bill is a complement that highlights a specific area of the broader deal.

“A standalone measure allows us to uplift specific elements of a comprehensive package as you continue to gain momentum and support,” Padilla said.

Padilla is working with some powerful Democrats on the measure. His lead counterpart in the House is Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro, who recently served a two-year term as the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Also on the bill is Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance (Los Angeles County).

In the Senate, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a popular progressive who ran for president in the last election, is a co-sponsor.

In a news conference introducing the bill, the lawmakers noted the potential economic advantages of legalizing the status of workers, which also opens the door to aggressive tactics to get it passed. Warren called for using a procedural trick that allows economic legislation to pass the Senate with a simple majority vote instead of the usual 60-vote requirement to advance legislation, called reconciliation, saying it should be done “right now.” Such a move would delight progressives and immigration advocates who demand a win from the Biden administration on the issue, but could set up a political quagmire for leadership that also has to defend vulnerable moderate lawmakers in swing districts.

Democratic leadership has positioned Padilla to be a major player on immigration as he navigates his new job as well as a re-election campaign in two years. He is appointed to fill only the remaining term of his predecessor, Vice President Kamala Harris.

Padilla was named the chair of a subcommittee on the Senate Judiciary panel that oversees immigration policy, a significant nod for a first-term senator, which will allow him to shape almost any legislation that moves through the committee.

He said he asked for the position, and when it was granted, he changed the name of the committee from the Subcommittee on Border Security and Immigration to the Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship and Border Safety “to potentially set a different tone than the cruelty of the Trump administration border and immigration policies of the last four years,” he said.

“I’m here, I’m ready to work, I know it’s urgent and I’m just so thrilled that this chairmanship gives me a unique opportunity to help advance this policy as quickly as possible,” Padilla said.

Castro told The Chronicle that he began working with Padilla on the issue even before the senator was sworn in, after he was named to replace Harris.

The pair have focused on the issue during the coronavirus pandemic as one of fairness — noting that Americans have had an outpouring of appreciation for the frontline health care, food industry, service industry and janitorial staff, among others, who have risked their lives to keep America running over the past year.

“Alex Padilla is a strong partner in Senate, especially to build a fairer immigration system,” Castro said. “He not only brings subject matter expertise, but also reflects the lived experiences of millions of Americans. … This effort has real potential to meaningfully improve people’s lives.”

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