Hispanic Caucus energized by first Biden meeting

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) top brass met in the White House with President Biden on Tuesday, in a show of force for a group often at the forefront of Democratic clashes with former President Trump.

The CHC, led by Chairman Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.), discussed health care, vaccine equity, Biden’s infrastructure and jobs plan, immigration reform and racial equity.

The meeting, planned weeks ago, stood in stark contrast to the last time a CHC chair formally discussed immigration at the White House. In January 2018, then-Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.) showed up uninvited to an immigration summit with Trump and congressional leaders. She was ultimately allowed in the room.

CHC members said Tuesday’s reception was like the difference between night and day.

“We went in with the expectation of being complete partners,” Ruiz said Tuesday. “It just tells us we have had a tremendous turning point in our nation in the way the administration respects Hispanics.”

CHC members posted photos on social media of their White House entrance, noting the contrast with the group’s recent estrangement with the executive branch.

“It’s been a long four years,” wrote Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.), posting a picture alongside Ruiz, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.) and Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-N.M.).

“We had to hide under Trump and we’re welcome in the White House under Biden,” said Soto.

The meeting included members of the CHC’s executive committee, along with Cortez Masto, Luján and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.). Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) was invited but was unable to attend.

“The fact the caucus leadership is being invited and being given a seat at the table is a vast improvement of what we saw under the Trump administration, and frankly under [former President] Obama,” said Domingo Garcia, national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens.

While the CHC has as many members now as it did in the previous Congress, at 38, its Senate footprint doubled after November’s election, giving the group four senators.

“There’s great value in having four CHC members in the Senate, which allows us to ensure our community is always represented during every debate before Congress,” said Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“There is power in numbers, and with the largest number ever of Latinos serving in the Senate, we are in a better position to forge even stronger ties between the Senate Democratic caucus and the Latino community in the United States,” he added.

The CHC’s growth has been a primary goal of members like Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.), who led the group’s campaign arm for the past three election cycles. Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), a close ally of Cárdenas, has now taken over that job.

“When I got here eight years ago, there were 25 CHC members and now we’re at 38, and four U.S. Senate CHC members — that gives me goosebumps,” said Cárdenas.

Cárdenas added that meetings like Tuesday’s have tangible benefits beyond the symbolic gesture of an Oval Office meeting.

According to several meeting attendees, the conversation focused on vaccine equality and health care, before touching on a series of top CHC issues such as the child tax credit, housing assistance, local health clinics, as well as border management and addressing the root causes of regional migration in Mexico and Central America.

The conversation on immigration included discussion of a proposal to create a specialized corps that would be activated when there’s a surge at the border.

“We know they will continue to happen regardless of who’s president,” said Ruiz, adding that a rapid response team would “greatly reduce processing times…to help asylum seekers have the resources they need to get to their destination and their court appointments for a decision by an immigration judge.”

At the meeting, Biden confirmed to CHC members he will set higher refugee caps by May 15, after the White House initially announced Friday it would retain Trump’s 15,000 refugee limit for fiscal 2021.
The administration backtracked shortly after its initial announcement, which drew swift criticism from a wide range of Democrats, including several members of the CHC.
The meeting was scheduled to last 45 minutes, but lasted nearly two hours, including a couple of emotional moments and a moment of levity.

Soto said he noted the bust of civil rights icon César Chávez in the Oval Office as a reflection of the community’s humble beginnings, and members were moved by Espaillat’s recounting of his arrival in the United States as an undocumented youth.

The mood was lightened when Biden described the tenacity with which he intended to stick to the issues raised by CHC members, according to attendees.

“Like a fly on …” said Biden, interrupting himself to avoid salty language.

Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) broke the ensuing silence with a reference to last year’s vice presidential debate between Vice President Harris and then-Vice President Mike Pence.

“Like a fly on Mike Pence’s head?” asked Aguilar.

On the legislative front, both the CHC members and administration officials discussed the possibility of including elements of immigration reform in Biden’s upcoming jobs and infrastructure packages.

In particular, CHC members asked Biden to support a pathway to citizenship for essential workers, farmworkers, Dreamers and beneficiaries of the Temporary Protected Status program.

“The president is committed to speaking at the State of the Union Address about supporting reconciliation if need be to pass parts of immigration reform,” said Soto, referring to Biden’s planned address to a joint session of Congress next week.

Such a move could allow for a key element of immigration reform to be passed by a simple majority of 51 votes in the Senate, ticking a box off Biden’s list of campaign promises.

Biden has sent Congress a comprehensive immigration reform bill, but neither chamber has indicated a floor vote is coming. Two more targeted bipartisan immigration bills have cleared the House, but have yet to be considered by the Senate.

Mayra Macías, executive director of the Latino Victory Project — an advocacy group dedicated to electing Hispanic Democrats — said the new relationship with the White House would take some getting used to, particularly for younger Hispanic activists.

“We actually have people who answer our calls and emails,” said Macías. “For so many young Latinos that came to political consciousness during the Trump administration, this is a different way of engaging.”

Tags Adriano Espaillat Alex Padilla Bob Menendez border surge Catherine Cortez Masto CHC Congressional Hispanic Caucus Darren Soto Donald Trump Immigration Joe Biden Michelle Lujan Grisham Mike Pence Pete Aguilar Raul Ruiz Ruben Gallego
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