Latino Congressmen Debate Hispanic Agenda

Host Michel Martin speaks with Congressman Xavier Becerra, a Democrat from California, and Congressman Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona, talk about the agenda for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute's Public Policy Conference this week. The conference takes place in Washington, D.C., and was paid a visit by first lady Michelle Obama.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, it's hard for those who fought the good fight to handle the idea that a civil rights era photographer became an FBI mole back in the day, but apparently it's true. We'll tell you more about that in a few minutes.

But first, in this country today marks the start of Hispanic heritage month. We thought we'd take a look at some key issues in Hispanic politics. Two years ago, Latino voters overwhelmingly supported President Obama, helping him win key swing states, including Florida, Colorado and New Mexico. The Latinos are cooling on the president. A new tracking poll by the company Latino Decisions shows that the president's popularity among these voters has dropped from 81 percent in April of 2009 to close to 64 percent in August of this year. So some wonder whether that cooling support might cost the Democrats support this November.

Joining us to talk about these and other issues are two members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Congressman Xavier Becerra is a Democrat from California and the vice-chair of the House Democratic Caucus. Congressman Raul Grijalva is also a Democrat from Arizona. And I should mention the Congressional Hispanic Caucus does not currently have any Republican members. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Representative XAVIER BECERRA (Democrat, California): Thank you.

Representative RAUL GRIJALVA (Democrat, Arizona): Michel, thank you.

MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask you, Congressman Becerra, why that is, that the Congressional Hispanic Caucus does not have any Republican members? They have their own group - the Congressional Hispanic Conference. But it would seem that there might be overlapping concerns, so why is that?

Rep. BECERRA: I'm not quite sure. We've made efforts in the past, overtures, to try to consolidate so we have just one caucus. And I hope at some point we'll get there. But right now the Republican members have decided to stay within their particular group.

MARTIN: Congressman Grijalva, I mentioned the polling numbers earlier that says that Latino voters still have robust support for the president. I mean 64 percent approval is nothing to sneeze at. But that is quite a bit less than earlier in the year.

Rep. GRIJALVA: Yes, it is.

MARTIN: Do you feel that way?

Rep. GRIJALVA: I, like many voters, there's some levels of frustration where we - maybe the agenda should've been moved further down the road and more things should've been done. But I think overall if Latino voters are going to look at, let's say the issue of immigration, the responsibility of why we're not moving is going to fall on somebody.

And our colleagues on the other side of the aisle, the Republican Party, is being seen more as the reasons why comprehensive reform isn't moving. Not necessarily the administration, not necessarily Obama and not necessarily the Democrats. So I think the expectations were higher and justifiably so, and they haven't been met. And so there's going to be a level of disappointment and frustration.

MARTIN: Do you feel that way personally?

Rep. GRIJALVA: There's a couple of issues - more than a couple of issue in which I feel a level of...

MARTIN: Like what?

Rep. GRIJALVA: Well, I would've liked to see immigration reform move forward at some level. I wish the president would've engaged much earlier than he did. And probably done some more on job creation than we have since our community's the one most affected right now with regards to unemployment.

MARTIN: Along with African-Americans.

Rep. GRIJALVA: Yes.

MARTIN: It has to be said. In fact, the numbers actually are higher for African-Americans on average, which is an interesting question to evaluate why that is.

Congressman Becerra, to Congressman Grijalva's point, I want to play a clip of then-candidate Obama talking about immigration during the presidential campaign. Here it is.

President BARACK OBAMA: And I will make it a top priority in my first year as president, not only because we have obligation to secure our borders and get control of who comes in and out of our country, not only because we have to crack down on employers who are abusing undocumented immigrants instead of hiring citizens, but because we have to finally bring undocumented immigrants out of the shadows.

MARTIN: Seems pretty unambiguous. I will make it a top priority in my first year as president. Now, you're a member of the House leadership. Why has there been no movement on this issue?

Rep. BECERRA: There I wouldn't blame President Obama. We have a president who has not just said he wants to do it, but spoken, as you just pointed out, eloquently on this. And secondly, we have a Congress with leadership in the House and the Senate on the Democratic side that's ready to do it. We have, unfortunately, what's called a Senate minority that is willing to hold hostage any legislation unless people can muster 60 votes. And as a result, immigration, which is a very tough issue, has found it very difficult to find the 60 votes it would take in the Senate.

There are 51 votes in the Senate, which is a majority in the Senate. But Republicans are demanding 60. And at this stage you can't find a single Republican senator who is willing to say he or she is willing to vote for or at least work with members in the Senate on the Democratic side to get an immigration bill done.

So the president was very clear. I think he's committed to this, passionate on the issue. Unfortunately he's in the White House, not in the Senate, and he can't vote anymore in the Senate.

MARTIN: Congressman Grijalva, what's your perspective on this? Do you agree?

Rep. GRIJALVA: To a great extent it's not his fault. And I've always believed that the Senate needed to move on this issue and they haven't. And not in disagreement, but just as an observation, if I may, I think the pulpit of the White House should've been, could've been used much more effectively to bring kind of that national support for the issue of immigration reform. And perhaps it would've moved or put some pressure on some of the senators to at least sit down and talk about it.

MARTIN: He could've elevated it as a priority, in your view.

Rep. GRIJALVA: That's my point.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're talking about current issues in politics with two members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. It also happens to be the start of Hispanic Heritage Month. I'm joined by Congressman Xavier Becerra of California and Congressman Raul Grijalva of Arizona.

I wanted to ask you, gentlemen, both a question I asked two members of the Congressional Black Caucus yesterday, one of whom was also a member of the congressional leadership. We talked about unemployment. Unemployment for African-Americans and Latinos is higher than the national average. These groups also tend to be the most likely to be underinsured or uninsured. So one would say that these groups probably benefited from two of the signature legislative initiatives passed by this Congress - economic stimulus and health care overhaul.

But it emerges also in polling that those are two of the issues that some people are most angry with the Democrats for and with the White House for passing. So the question I have for you, if this is a signature achievement and many of your colleagues are perhaps in political jeopardy because of supporting this, what does that say about the state of the country, particularly in regard to its concern for these two groups? Congressman Grijalva, what are your thoughts?

Rep. GRIJALVA: It's a sad commentary, that the effect of those decisions, those two policy initiatives in many ways saved a lot of jobs in our community. And the issue of health care is bringing in people that would - never had an opportunity of being insured. They're good things and I'm proud to support them. What it says about the tenor and the tone of the country is right now the issue of investment, the issue of people in need, the issue of lending a hand and government's role in intervening and helping people in most critical needs, is looked upon as a fault of government as opposed to a responsibility of government.

That's the political tone that's been set. That's the political tone that's been preached now for about the last eight, nine months, and unfortunately it's having an effect on the elections.

MARTIN: Congressman Becerra, what do you think?

Rep. BECERRA: Michel, I would just add that if you were to poll Latinos in America, I don't think they would tell you that they're upset or unhappy with the policy with regard to health care reform or the Recovery Act. What you will find is this - which are the sectors in our economy that lost the greatest number of jobs? Construction, manufacturing, hospitality, industry? Three of the sectors that were hardest hit - where are most Latinos employed? Construction, manufacturing, hospitality. And so we got hit hard as a population. We're going to have to work hard to get those jobs back.

And so folks are gonna suffer the consequences, but I think there's an appreciation of the fact that someone was trying to focus attention - health care, job creation - where it hurt the most. And so I don't think you're gonna find people upset at that. People are upset...

MARTIN: Well, that's my question then - do you think that in part the voters who are upset are upset, in part, because they see these two groups as disproportionately benefiting and that disturbs them? Do you think that's part of what the voter anger is about? Is that they feel that blacks and Latinos are among the groups that are disproportionately benefiting from the work of this White House and this Congress?

Rep. GRIJALVA: I think if you're unemployed, you're unemployed, whether it's -you see it you think that too many African-Americans or Latinos got to benefit from a recovery act, legislation, stimulus bill or not. Whether you're uninsured or not, it's not because you didn't get insurance and somebody was black or brown got insurance. You're just uninsured. If you lost your home, you're not saying, you know, you shouldn't have lost your home and someone who's black or brown didn't.

Latinos lost as many homes and probably more than others did. I know in California we represent a third of the population as Latinos, but we lost 50 percent of the homes. And so what you're gonna find is that people are just very angry, frustrated by the conditions they find themselves in. Some of it rubs off and you always - on elected officials.

But I don't think Americans today distinguish so much as black Americans or brown Americans or white Americans. I think Americans just want to be working. They want to have a job. They want to have kids going to college and they want to have health care. And I don't think they see us moving quickly enough in Washington to make it happen.

MARTIN: Just briefly, if I can ask you, Congressman Becerra, because you're a member of the leadership - what is the mood among members of the caucus right now as you're kind of heading toward midterm elections in November?

Rep. BECERRA: I think there's a fighting mood in the caucus because unlike '94, wherein Democrats lost a large number of seats, where we didn't get things done, I believe everyone in our Democratic caucus says: We did a lot. This was a do-a-lot Congress. It's just that the public hasn't yet seen the full benefits of it. But I think there's a fighting mood in the Democratic caucus to get things done and show people that we're working hard for them.

MARTIN: Congressman Grijalva, what about you? As you look ahead to the fall, what's your mood?

Rep. GRIJALVA: Yeah, I think there's a lot at stake and my mood both as a candidate and a member of our caucus is what Xavier just said you've got to fight back. Many of the things that our leadership and our caucus is being accused of are fabrications. Many of the wedge issues that are being developed are around the undefined issue of what do you fear, whether it's immigration, whether it's economic policies of this president.

And so a lot of it is fear driven right now and that feeds the anger. And so I think the thing for us to do is to stand strong and fight back, because many of the things that we have been trying to do have not resounded in the media or anywhere else and we've been fighting this whole undefined fear. And I think the only way to beat that is to fight back.

MARTIN: I thank you both so much for speaking with us. Congressman Xavier Becerra represents the 31st District of California. Congressman Raul Grijalva represents the 7th District of Arizona. They were both kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studio. Thank you both so much for coming in.

Rep. BECERRA: Thank you.

Rep. GRIJALVA: Thanks, Michel.

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