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PBS Tabis Smiley Interview with Rep. Xavier Becerra


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PBS Tabis Smiley Interview with Rep. Xavier Becerra

Rep. Xavier Becerra has been a member of the House since '93. In the 110th Congress, he's the Assistant to the Speaker of the House and the first Latino to serve on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. After earning his J.D. from Stanford Law School, he began his legal career representing the mentally ill and previously served as California's Deputy Attorney General and a member of the State Assembly. Becerra delivered the Democratic response to the ‘07 State of the Union address in Spanish.

Tavis: Congressman Xavier Becerra is serving his eighth term in Congress. He is the former chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus who now serves in the House leadership as an assistant to Speaker Nancy Pelosi. His personal story is part of the mosaic of the history of immigration in this country. The son of Mexican immigrants, he grew up in Sacramento and became the first member of his family to attend college, graduating from Stanford. Congressman, nice to have you on this program.

Congressman Xavier Becerra: Tavis, a pleasure.

Tavis: Glad to have you here. Your story is, again, as I said, part of the mosaic, part of the fabric of what makes this immigration debate about reform so interesting. Before I get into the debate itself, tell me how your personal experience, your upbringing, your life, your parents, informs your view of this as a member of Congress now.

Becerra: I'm the son of immigrants, so I saw how a couple of very hard-working individuals became great Americans because they devoted so much of their time not just to build their family, but to build this country. My father never got past the sixth grade, but in every respect he built the roads that we travel on every day. He built our home.

Well, the second home we had, and he has done many things. My mother, coming from Mexico when she married my father, didn't know English, learned it, got a job quickly, became the financial guru, and today my parents make more money in retirement than they ever made when they were both working.

Tavis: Tell me how you respond to somebody watching right now who would say that that is the kind of American story that we all applaud, so long as that story begins with something that was done that was legal and not illegal?

Becerra: Well, my father is a U.S. citizen by birth. The only reason he's a citizen by birth is because my grandfather used to work the western states during the harvest periods, working on railroads. And it happened that on one of those occasions my father was born in Sacramento, which was one of their bases of operation.

Well, in those days in the 1930s, '20s, '30s, you didn't have to worry about having documentation. Well today, people are coming into this country to do something that's very legitimate, very part of much the legal affairs of this world, and that is to work. There's a law that says you can't come in unless you've got documents, but there's, I think, a greater law than the manmade law that says there's a border and you can't come in.

It's the law of nature. Your parents probably had to go through that as well. They probably fought as much as they could to survive the law of nature which said if you don't make enough money or do something to put food on the table, your kids aren't going to survive. So we have laws, and we should respect them, and we have a law that says you can't come into this country unless you have proof that you've been allowed to come in.

But at the same time, we talk from one end saying you can't come into the country; at the same time, we got a lot of other Americans who are saying, "Come on in, I've got a job for you, I'll pay you even though I'm not allowed to." So the lawbreakers in the first instance are Americans who are offering these jobs to immigrants who become the lawbreakers in the second instance.

Tavis: Tell me then, given your explanation now, how we juxtapose these two competing forces, the law of the land that we have to live under and to your point, the law of nature? How does this immigration reform package, you think, get to squaring those things?

Becerra: The law of the land, or as I say the law of man, because it's mostly men who make these laws, has to correspond a lot more to the law of nature. You can't believe that we have 10 to 12 million people in this country without documents without some help from some Americans. It's the folks who continue to unscrupulously hire folks. Well, we have to make it so that you get rid of the magnet.

Second place, you can't just say to somebody who you know has been in this country either feeding your kids, cleaning the tables that you eat at when you go to the restaurant or gardening every day, that all of a sudden they gotta go. They've been here. We've known it. And so let's accept some realities. You get the sensible man, the reasonable guy on the street, and he or she can probably tell you what we should do, and that's pretty simple.

You do more vigorous enforcement at the border, because we have a right as a sovereign nation to protect our borders and know who's in our country, especially with all the terrorist threats that we have today. Secondly, you deal with the fact that we have a lot of folks for whom this is home now whose kids were born in this country, some valedictorians that can't go on to college because these kids are finding out they don't have papers to go on to get college degrees.

And so we deal with that, and at the same time we deal with the employers who continue to violate the law themselves by hiring people who come across the border and then get paid exploited wages.

Tavis: I don't ask this question, Congressman, out of any naïveté at all, but I'm curious as to your point of view on this. If you accept the fact - and we will, for the moment - that there are Americans who are lawbreakers as well who are giving these persons jobs, if we accept the fact that there is a huge impact that this immigrant culture on our economy, and if they were to disappear there's a lot of work that doesn't get done.

If you accept the fact that while we talk a bunch of trash, the stuff that many of them do we really don't want to do, although we say, "They're taking our jobs," nobody's trying to do the stuff that they're doing to begin with. If you accept all three of those things, then, what drives this debate? Because any reasonable person would, again, accept those three realities.

But to take them out all at once - if you took, to your point, the 10 or 12 million out en masse, there goes a lot of work being done, there are a lot of folk complaining 'cause they gotta start looking to rehire, the magnet is gone. What, then, is driving this debate? 'Cause I think people understand that, when you really think about it.

Becerra: Yeah. You've just defined politics. (Laughter) You said why it's so crazy. Because a sensible person gets in there, in three minutes, they figure out the solution. Now, implementing is tough, but you figured out the solution. It doesn't take a lot of science. What it takes is a lot of fortitude and a lot of courage to do what most people don't like.

Most people will agree, I'll agree, those folks who are in this country without documents, they've violated the law. But for 15 years they've been violating the law by staying in this country, and for 15 years they've worked. How did they survive when they can't come out of the shadows? Let's accept reality. Two-thirds of America, by the way, accepts that reality and says okay, for those who can prove that they've abided by the laws to live civically.

For those who have worked hard and haven't become a burden on society, okay, maybe you've earned that chance to show us - we'll give you some time to show us so you can stay here. Those who haven't, boot them out. And I think everyone agrees with that. It's pretty simple, Tavis. The problem is politics always gets in the way.

Tavis: Let me ask how much unanimity there is, how much universality of opinion there is, inside of your own community about this issue. And I raise that only because there clearly is not agreement as yet in Congress, there's clearly not agreement inside even the president's own party, the Republican Party, there's not even agreement in the Democratic Party.

And as I read various pieces here and there, there's not altogether agreement even in your own community. Talk to me about where the community more broadly stands on this current piece of legislation.

Becerra: And I'm going to take it - you mean by community the Latino community.

Tavis: The Latino community, exactly.

Becerra: Right. Because I think all of us consider ourselves Americans, and I think in every respect, except for a few nuances here or there, whether you're African American, Latino, Asian, White, whatever, you're American.

Tavis: I accept that.

Becerra: In the Latino community, I think what people are willing to say is this: you don't deserve a leg up simply because you happen to be here and you violated the law, you came here and you shouldn't have. A lot of us came in the right way. My father, as I said, was a U.S. citizen. But what they will say is this: you've been working here 10 years, 15 years, your kids are born in this country, you continue to show that you're a productive citizen.

You have a business or your job; you somehow bought a house, okay, fine. Most Latinos will say, "Okay, let's be real." But at the same time, they don't want a whole bunch of folks coming into the country, because they fought very hard to get what they had, as well. And so I think like any other American - again, going back to the average guy - you just think in a common sense way and you'll have the answer whether you're Latino, African American, White, Asian, Native American. It's common sense.

Tavis: So how does this debate get resolved? Because obviously, it ain't over yet. The fat lady is not even warming up yet on this.

Becerra: Courage. You just have to have the courage of your conviction, and the courage to do something that the average guy in Iowa or Alabama or in parts of Indiana will say, "That does not make sense to me." In California and L.A., we've seen it for years. In Miami they've seen it; in Chicago, they've seen it for years. By the way, in St. Louis, they're beginning to see it quite a bit.

But it's not as seeped in. And so what happens is folks react naturally. California 14 years ago reacted pretty naturally when we had a proposition called 187 which said if you're undocumented, you get no services. Well, most of them don't - most undocumented don't get any service already. But this was to say federal government, "You're not doing anything about this?"

We'll take care of it then. And so you can see the natural reaction. So in those states that haven't seen immigration the way California has, you can understand why there's a backlash of folks reacting very aggressively. But bottom line is this: you show them the immigrant that would be deported, and they'd say, "Wait a minute. That guy, I've seen him cutting lawns in my neighborhood for the last 10 years. He's always doing a great job and never does anything but act like a decent individual."

They'll say, "Wait, let him stay." It's like the politician. All the politicians are rotten except the guy who represents me. That's how I get elected; if enough folks think I'm a decent guy.

But everybody else, oh, they're all bad news. And so I think if we allow common sense to get into this, but more important within Congress have some courage, we'll do the right thing.

Tavis: Are you hopeful about it?

Becerra: I'm very optimistic, simply because I think the public will dominate this debate at the end of the day. It will tell all the crazies on the left and the right, get out of the way, we can't have a broken system continue to govern. We need to change the laws; we have to do what's right, and fix a broken system.

Tavis: He represents parts of Los Angeles; indeed, where this studio sits, in fact (laughs), in Congress. So take that.

Becerra: So treat me well. (Laughter)

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) I hope I did.

Becerra: You did.

Tavis: Nice to have you on the program.
Becerra: Thank you, Tavis.

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