After years of harping on the problems created by illegal immigration across the U.S.-Mexico border, it was gratifying to see some prominent local Republicans finally acknowledge last week that at least some good has come of it: Pedro Rios.
Rios, the 39-year-old Republican candidate for the hotly contested 32nd District Assembly seat, has been clear throughout the race that he came to the U.S. from Mexico as a child. But only last week was it widely revealed that he entered the U.S. illegally -- smuggled across the border at age 9. He became a legal resident in 1986 under President Reagan's amnesty program and gained his U.S. citizenship in 1996.
What sets Rios apart from the millions of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. today -- the ones so often demonized by Republicans for breaking the law when they crossed the border? Rios got lucky. That's all. He was here at an opportune time, during the Reagan administration, when Congress passed an amnesty plan that gave legal status to 3 million illegal immigrants.
But to hear his political supporters tell it, Rios is somehow different, more virtuous and deserving, than the millions of other undocumented immigrants today who weren't lucky enough to get amnesty.
State Sen. Jean Fuller said: "The thing that's important to me was that he followed the process put in place at the time by (President) Reagan. He also served our country in the military, served his community on the council, served as a teacher."
Of course he followed the process under Reagan. Any illegal immigrant at that time would have jumped at amnesty, just like any would today if that option, or any that decriminalized their presence here, were available. And, like Rios, many of today's undocumented immigrants might surely serve in the military, run for office and become teachers if they had the chance. But they don't.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, said Rios' past doesn't change his support of the candidate. "He became a citizen ... and then he went and served the military for eight years," McCarthy told The Californian. "He was a 9-year-old kid that his uncle brought across."
He sounds a lot different than the McCarthy who opposed the federal DREAM Act, which would have helped other people like Rios who were brought here by relatives as children to stay in the U.S., and would have allowed them, like Rios, to serve in the military. In a statement on his website about his vote against the DREAM Act at the time, McCarthy wrote: "As a nation founded by immigrants, we should (continue to) embrace the individuals who wait in line and come to the United States legally to work hard and contribute to our society. However, we should not provide any amnesty that would benefit those who defy our laws and enter the United States illegally. ... We should also ensure that illegal immigrants are not receiving any of the benefits that are reserved for American Citizens."
In an editorial board meeting last week, Republican Assemblywoman Shannon Grove acknowledged that her opinion on some aspects of illegal immigration have evolved since she ran for Assembly in 2009, especially pertaining to situations like Rios'. She admitted that back when she supported an Arizona-style "show your papers" law for California, she thought undocumented immigrants could just pay a fine and be allowed to stay here. As frighteningly naive as that sounds, Grove says she has since learned a lot about the issue, thanks in part to the stories of local young people who were brought here as children. In praising Rios, Grove said he'd walked steps in his lifetime none of us have walked. It's true that none of the people in the room at that time had been smuggled into the country as children. But outside those walls, out in our own community and across our state, many thousands were. They deserve the same respect, the same chances, that Rios had.
Grove still believes in strengthening the border, and that ultimately the federal government must change its immigration laws, but she said she also believes you can't deport 12 million people to solve the problem. It's not often a politician admits to such a change of heart, and we respect Grove's forthrightness.
But we have to wonder if she, McCarthy, Fuller and others would be rushing to Rios' defense if he were the Democratic candidate. Is their position just a matter of political expediency? McCarthy and Grove both oppose amnesty. But when it comes to Rios they seem to be carving out a big exception, essentially saying amnesty is OK for our friend here. He's on our side. And look how great he turned out.