Pedro Rios illegally crossed into the United States from Mexico with the help of a concerned uncle and a smuggler when he was 9 years old.
The uncle, an American citizen then living in Delano, told Rios' parents their son could get a better education in the U.S. The highest level of schooling in the small village in Sinaloa state where Rios grew up was sixth grade.
The uncle drove Rios to a meeting point on the Mexico side, handed him off to the smuggler and then retrieved him in the United States.
"I remember walking quite a bit, and then a car picked me up," Rios said. "It is a dangerous journey ... I was scared."
Rios, now 39, shared the story Thursday amid criticism over his stance on immigration issues. Rios is a Republican running for the 32nd Assembly District seat against Bakersfield City Councilman and Democrat Rudy Salas.
Rios said he later qualified for a green card and legal residency as a teenager under the 1986 amnesty program signed into law by then-President Ronald Reagan.
The Immigration and Reform Control Act of 1986 gave legal residency to illegal immigrants who entered the United States before 1982 and had lived here continuously. Rios became a U.S. citizen in 1996.
Rios' parents later became legal residents, though not U.S. citizens, he said.
Salas and the California Democratic Party have criticized Rios for saying he doesn't support the DREAM Act, generally a policy to allow young people who came to the country illegally and have stayed out of trouble to apply for legal residency status. No such federal law has been passed, though President Obama recently signed an executive order that lets those who entered the country illegally as children to apply to stay and work and avoid deportation for at least two years.
The California Democratic Party has issued a mailer that addresses "DREAMERS," those immigrants who fall under the guidelines of that policy.
"Democrat Rudy Salas supports giving the DREAMERS a chance to stay in America," the mailer reads. "Pedro Rios would let DREAMERS be deported."
"(Rios) has said very clearly that he opposes the DREAM Act," said Tenoch Flores, communications director for the California Democratic Party.
Flores referred to a statement Rios made before the League of Women Voters earlier this month. For Rios, given his background, to oppose the DREAM Act "would indeed be hypocritical," Flores said.
Indeed, a one-sentence video clip sent from the Salas campaign shows Rios saying, "I do not support the DREAM Act."
Efforts to find a longer version of the comments were unsuccessful. But Rios said the statement is being taken out of context. In an interview, he equated the DREAM Act to "crumbs" and said he wants "the whole pie."
"I stand for a long, sustainable immigration reform ... that will give all illegal immigrants in this country an opportunity to become citizens," he said, instead of just those immigrants who would be covered under the DREAM Act. "The word deportation has never come out of my mouth."
Rios said he supports strong enforcement of U.S. borders "so Mexico can have the pressure to transform and change." Also, he said, he would support an initiative like the Bracero Program that ended in the 1960s and allowed laborers to work temporarily in the United States.
Rios said the statement that he opposes the DREAM Act is a move to turn Hispanic voters against him.
The mailer went to "a subset of voters" in the district, Flores said, but he declined to be more specific.
"(Rios) may be hemming and hawing on this, but the bottom line is he opposes the DREAM Act," Flores said.
Local Republicans said Thursday they stand by their endorsements of Rios despite him having come into the country illegally.
"This does not change one iota," Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, said. "He became a citizen ... and then he went and served the military for eight years. He was a 9-year-old kid that his uncle brought across."
Republican state Sen. Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield, echoed that.
"The thing that's important to me was that he followed the process put in place at the time by (President) Reagan," Fuller said. "He also served our country in the military, served his community on the council, served as a teacher. So it doesn't change my endorsement, because I feel like we need people who can help make our country better, and he has certainly tried to do everything to the best of his ability that was required of him."
Former state Assemblyman Danny Gilmore, R-Hanford, who has recorded a radio ad for Rios, said how he came to the country isn't an issue for him.
"It really never occurred to me either way. ... I look at it as, when you're 9 years old, you go wherever your parent or guardian is taking you," Gilmore said. Had Rios come across as a teenager on his own, it may have been a different issue, he said.
Salas, in an emailed statement, said, "I certainly hope it does not impact the race. It's not an issue that I would ever try to exploit.
"I don't understand why he opposes the DREAM Act and the president's deferred action plan to keep families together," Salas added.
Republican Assemblyman David Valadao, who's running for a U.S. Congressional seat, said in an email: "I will not withdraw my endorsement of Pedro Rios. Hopefully this will elevate this important issue and force the federal government to focus on a solution."
"Since coming to America as a young child, Pedro Rios has served in the military, owned and operated businesses, and become a U.S. citizen," Valadao said. "I'm proud to live in a country where people can overcome great challenges and become productive members of our community. For too long, the issue of immigration has been dominated by the extremes, on both sides."