Rep. Xavier Becerra & Jersey Vargas

The California congressman—co-sponsor of the bill known as H.R. 15—and the pint-sized activist weigh in on U.S. immigration policy and the impact on families.

Rep. Xavier Becerra has been a member of the House since 1993. He serves as chair of the House Democratic Caucus and is the first Latino to serve on the powerful Ways and Means Committee. The California representative is also a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and of the Executive Committee of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. In the 110th Congress, he was the assistant to the Speaker of the House. After earning his J.D. from Stanford Law School, Becerra began his legal career representing the mentally ill and previously served as California's deputy attorney general and a member of the state assembly.

Ten-year-old Jersey Vargas garnered worldwide attention earlier this year when, during a visit to the Vatican, she asked Pope Francis to help save her undocumented immigrant father, Mario Vargas-Lopez, from deportation from the U.S. Born in the U.S. to a Mexican family, the fourth-grader was part of a delegation of Hispanic rights activists from California on a mission to bring attention to U.S. immigration reform efforts. Her family has lived in the states for more than a decade, and her father had been detained since 2013. Vargas-Lopez was released on an immigration bond shortly after the interaction between his daughter and the Pope, and is awaiting the outcome of immigration proceedings.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Sometimes it does take a child to make people realize that there are families and real people behind all of the stats and political arguments about whether or not to reform this country’s immigration policies.

10-year-old Jersey Vargas did just that when she caught our attention with her direct plea to Pope Francis to intervene on behalf of her father, Mario Vargas-Lopez, who was at the time in a deportation center having been there for two years when he did not see his family.

Also taking up their cause, Representative Xavier Becerra of California, of course, who is the co-sponsor of the comprehensive immigration reform bill known as HR15. Congressman, always, sir, an honor to have you on this program.

Rep. Xavier Becerra: Thank you.

Tavis: And, Jersey, it’s nice to meet you for the first time.

Jersey Vargas: Thank you too.

Tavis: Let me start with you, Congressman, and get a sense of where we are at this moment. I mean, we’ve been discussing this on this program for quite some time. I think most news shows have been talking about immigration and whether or not there’s a chance for something to happen this year.

Everybody believes that that window is closing really fast for something meaningful to happen. So you’re there in Washington. You’re one of the leaders. You’ve met with the president. Where are we at this moment and how do you see that window?

Becerra: It is closing because we never have been so close. The Senate passed its bill a year ago and the fact that, in the House, the Republican leadership has either delayed or deceived or dodged the issue and has made it difficult.

But the window, while it’s closing, is easy to go through because we saw what the Senate did. It was bipartisan. We have a bill that has 200 signatures on it. You need 218 to pass a bill. So out of 435, we need about 20 Republicans and we get this done.

And so it’s time to vote. We can get it done and then we don’t have to worry about a temporary solution for Jersey’s dad. We can do a full fix, do it the right way so not just Jersey’s dad, but every American family knows that we’ve got an immigration system that finally works.

Tavis: What’s making it so difficult? I’m not naïve, of course, in asking this. But 20 doesn’t seem like an insurmountable number, but what’s making it so difficult to get those 20?

Becerra: And it shouldn’t be difficult because we know we’ve got at least 20 Republicans who are willing to join those who’ve already signed on. We have some Republicans who’ve already signed on the bill, so we know we’ve got them.

But there’s this pressure. It’s a political pressure coming from the far right and it’s made it difficult for some of these Republicans to move forward.

I think my colleagues on the Republican side will ultimately do something. They’ll move because I think they know it’s the right thing to do. It’s not just good for the country. It’s good for us morally to move on this issue.

So economically, we know it’s good. It’s been clear. We’ll create jobs by doing this. It’s good for us security-wise because we’ll know who’s in the country and who’s leaving. But, morally, it’s the right thing for us to do.

Tavis: So there’s an economic argument, as you point out, which seems to be pretty clear-cut to me.

There is a social argument which is pretty clear-cut what we gain from these persons. There’s a political argument which you’ve just dissected in terms of why the politics are what they are. There is a moral element to this which you’ve just laid out now.

I’m trying to get a sense politically of why it is or how it is that the Republicans think that this can be a winning issue for them if they block any meaningful immigration reform when the data is so abundantly clear.

Do you really want millions and millions of a particular community to vote against you into the future because you wouldn’t move off the dime? I mean, just help me understand. You’re the strategist here. Politically, how does that make sense?

Becerra: It doesn’t. You just made it clear from the way you posed the question. It doesn’t make sense. That’s why I think we’re going to get there. It’s just a matter of politics. And you know sometimes politics doesn’t make sense. Otherwise, why would we do some of the things that we do in this country?

Why would we cut, with our eyes closed, with these sequester cuts that hit Jersey in her school or hit families that are working very hard? Because politics sometimes closes its eyes. But this one, you can’t escape. Jersey’s here. You can touch Jersey. She’s real. She goes and visits the Pope.

And this is going to happen, Tavis. It’s just a matter of getting enough of the Republicans to say enough is enough, we’re going to get this done because, quite honestly, I think politically most Republicans, at least Republicans in the leadership positions, understand this is not the way to drive a political message that gives you a chance to do policy later on.

You’re going to lose not only your shirt and your pants, you’re going to lose the moral authority to be a political party if you don’t join the rest of America that has said, hey, fix the system, get it done.

Tavis: I thought I would start with you not because you’re the senior member on the set, but because you and I are about to be upstaged [laugh] by Jersey Vargas and her compassion and her courage in just a second. So I thought we’d get our little tete-a-tete out of the way first and leave Jersey here.

But before I go to Jersey, give me your sense of how important, how resonant, you see her story, the role that she’s played, before we bring her in this conversation. How have you read what she’s been able to do?

Becerra: It’s amazing first that she had the courage to stand up to everyone, including the Pope. But more than that, I think Jersey, what she was just saying to the world, is I’m no different from a little girl somewhere else in America who’s going through the same thing.

I want to see my daddy. She wants to see her daddy. And there’s no way you can be an American and not feel that. And the power of Jersey is that she was just honest.

Tavis: So, Jersey, first of all, welcome to our show. I see you’re wearing something on your left arm here. Can I…

Vargas: Like a napkin?

Tavis: It’s like a napkin, yes.

Vargas: Yeah.

Tavis: Tell me what that is and why you’re wearing it.

Vargas: I’m wearing it because right here we have a napkin for the Congressman Xavier Becerra because some people don’t know like which people are supporting the immigration reform.

So what we’re doing is we’re making like, what you call, like mantas in Spanish for people to wear so they could show that they’re actually supporting immigration reform.

Tavis: So that’s what’s on your left arm.

Vargas: You could wear it on your hand, on your backpack, everywhere.

Tavis: So you want to get this campaign moving where people start to wear those and visibly we can see people who are supporting meaningful immigration reform.

Vargas: Mm-hmm.

Tavis: And the napkin in your lap is for the congressman?

Vargas: Yes.

Tavis: You want to give that to him now? You want to present that to him?

Vargas: Surely.

Tavis: Sure.

Vargas: This is what my mom made. She made it with all her heart. She made it by herself. You can see that she also added details and she wrote “Xavier Becerra, 11 millones.” That means that there’s 11 million immigrants who want an immigration reform.

Tavis: Can you hold that up? Just hold that up right there. I want the people to see what your mother made for the congressman. Tell me about your parents. For those who have heard a bit about your story, Jersey, and don’t know the story of your father, tell me about your mother and father.

Vargas: Well, like a long time ago, my mom and my dad like they were always together. And that was the time that I was always happy because my family was always reunited. So then the day that my dad – ’cause one day I woke up in the morning and that was when I saw my dad exit out the door and I just fell back to sleep.

And when I saw my mom, she said that your dad went with his friend to go and work in Tennessee because he didn’t have a job over here.

So he went to go and look for a job in Tennessee. So then I prayed every night for my dad to come over there in Tennessee safely. And when he came over there, it took him like I think it was three days and two nights.

The day that he came over there, that’s when he finally got a job and he started working. And my dad always sent money for my family ’cause he was the one who was like – he was the one who provided for our family like to bring food on the table.

Tavis: What do you think people don’t understand about what happens when families are separated? What do you want people to know about what happens when families are broken apart?

Vargas: Well, like when families are broken apart, like it’s very sad because you think that you’ll never see your family or your dad or your mom ever. You think you’re not going to see them anymore.

So then when other people see this, like some people say that, oh, we want this family to come back together, but other people think – like on the other side, they think like, oh, they’re just doing this and they’ll get their dad back or anything.

Like they think it could be solved quickly and they think it’s very easy and that we’re not actually showing emotion.

Tavis: What’s the situation involving your father right now?

Vargas: Like my dad, he came out of jail. And when I came out of the airport, I saw a bunch of people from (inaudible), a group that supports – like we also want the immigration reform. It’s like a group, yeah. So that when I exited out of the airport, I saw a bunch of people from (inaudible).

And then when I started walking closer, I saw my family. And when I started walking even closer, I saw this man and he had a bouquet with flowers and a bear. Like I noticed that that was my dad and so I ran to him and I was like super happy and I couldn’t breathe, like I was out of breath.

Then I just hugged him. Like I was very happy to have him and I just cried. Like tears of joy came out of me. And then I hugged him so much because I couldn’t believe it, like that day I was like is this real or is it not?

Like it was like, since my dad wasn’t with me for those two years, it felt kind of weird. But after that, he’s like my family was together back again. It just felt like the happiest day ever in my life.

Tavis: How do you process – did you expect that so much attention was going to be given to your outreach to the Pope? I mean, everybody around the world has been talking about this. Did you imagine it would resonate in that sort of way?

Vargas: Like when I first – ’cause we went to the cathedral to read, what do you call it, this letter to Pope Francis that we were going to give. And I read it and I expressed myself saying that how my family is, like I described my dad that he was like the best dad in the world, in my opinion, because he was always there for me.

So then I described him and then, after that, like all the cameras were there and I was kind of shy. But either way, I did it because I always thought in my mind, like if I do this, then this would help my family and my dad would get back with me.

So then I wouldn’t imagine that I would like be like a lot of people would recognize me because sometimes when I’m with my dad like grocery shopping, there’s people like always staring at us.

Then they just look at us like if they recognize us and they tell us, oh, you’re that girl from the TV, Jersey Vargas. They’re like I’m so proud of you because you have your dad with you. Then they tell my dad it’s an honor to meet you because you’re finally back with your family.

Tavis: I should say, a programming note here ’cause you may have seen this in print somewhere. We were actually supposed to have Jersey’s father on this program with us, and I want to come to the congressman on this note.

But he is not here for this program tonight in part because he couldn’t get off work. His employer would not give him the day off to come be a part of this conversation. So in the midst of all that’s going on, he’s still working hard, trying to make ends meet for his family, but can’t get off to come have a conversation with us about meaningful immigration reform.

And I just found that to be – that just rubbed me raw, but I wanted to put that out there for those who might have read somewhere that her father was going to be on this program tonight, congressman.

Becerra: Put a period after everything she just said, and you have now given America the frame of what it means to not fix a broken immigration system, period.

The fact that her dad cannot be here, the fact that if he were to try to come, he might lose that job, the fact that he couldn’t contest the firing because of his immigration status, the fact that he went all the way to Tennessee where he probably knew no one and, within a few days, he was already working.

I mean, that kind of industry is what I think America wants. That kind of ability to somehow survive and you have to do it in the shadows. That sort of built this country. And while not everyone’s going to get a chance to stay once we fix the broken immigration system because we got to make sure that, after a background check, you’ve been right by the law, you’re going to fend for yourself and for your family, but why would you not want people who say I’m going to go through everything to the point where I am going to come and risk not knowing the language, not knowing where I am when I come to this country?

Even when I’m here because I can’t get a job here, I go to Tennessee where I’ve never been before and send money back. And then you have a daughter who is going to fight for her family.

To me, it’s the American story and, in 20 years, Tavis, we’re going to look back and say, “It really took us that long?”

Tavis: What strikes me about this particular aspect of Jersey’s story where her father is concerned is the hubris and the hypocrisy built into this.

Given that he leaves to go to Tennessee to get a job, I mean, we’re fighting for the right to be treated with dignity and to have our humanity respected, but there’s somebody in Tennessee that will give him a job. You know where I’m going with this, obviously.

Becerra: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: It’s like in the midst of all of this, there are people who will employ these individuals because there is clearly some value to their being here even as we talk about whether or not they ought to be here. I mean, it’s so convoluted to me.

Becerra: It takes two to tango. And we’ve been tangoing with these undocumented immigrants for decades. The good thing is now, Tavis, most of America, because most of America now supports doing a comprehensive fix to the broken immigration system, most of America will acknowledge that we’ve been tangoing with immigrants for a long time.

And they’re willing to now say, okay, you have a right to be able to dance with a light, not in the shadows.

The difficulty is there’s still some folks who say I’ll let you tango. I’ll let you go ahead and take care of my elderly mother or take care of my kids while I’m at work or take care of my yard or harvest the food that I eat, but I won’t you to be here to stay.

And that’s a difficulty, but we’re going to get past it. We’re going to get past it because of stories like Jersey’s.

Tavis: So back to Jersey’s story. She’s too eloquent to be called cute, although she is awfully cute [laugh]. As eloquent as she is, as courageous as she is, given all the media attention that she’s garnered because of her conviction and her commitment to this cause, hers is not the only story like this, as you mentioned earlier, and the American people know that.

What I’m getting at is why we think that even with powerful stories like this, even with visuals like this, even with narratives like this, that we think we can get something done here? Because, again, this is a story, but it’s not altogether unusual.

Becerra: Tavis, remember had Jersey not had a chance to actually meet the Pope, her dad might not be here today. He might have been deported. But because she was courageous enough to push and get there, it became a story for the world.

And, of course, we all look back and say, oh, there’s no way you can separate that father from that daughter. But as we speak, that might be occurring. So what we have to recognize is that we got to get it done.

The good thing is that most of America, as I said, already recognizes it. It’s just the politics. Immigration for two decades has been used as a wedge. You remember Proposition 187 in California back in 1994. California, this is a very progressive state now. In 1994, close to 60% of Californians voted to deny folks like Jersey even benefits like school and the rest.

So we’ve really progressed, we’ve evolved, America’s evolved. We’re going to get there and just while we’re waiting there are a lot of kids like Jersey who are saying, “But my dad is now about to be deported,” “My mom didn’t come home today.” It’s tough.

Tavis: So, Jersey, what is it – if you could create a perfect world, a perfect world for your family – I know you don’t live in a perfect world, but if you could create an ideal perfect world for your family right now, what do you really want?

Vargas: Well, right now since I have my dad, like he could still be deported. Like I want to make a difference in the world to get an immigration reform because, with the immigration reform, I think that immigrants wouldn’t be deported because it’s also kind of weird because Mexicans and all the Hispanic and Latino people have been working for other people.

We are the ones who like work in restaurants, we wash peoples’ clothes. Like we’re the ones doing everything for other people and now they don’t want us here. Like that’s kind of like odd and weird because we’re the ones doing everything.

Tavis: Congressman, let me ask you the uncomfortable, unsettling question perhaps, but I think it’s relevant to this conversation in part because we all saw you walk out of the White House some weeks ago, having had this conversation with the president.

So that in the era of the Obama administration, they have far worse than the Bush administration did. Let’s call a spade a spade. They’ve deported more people during the Obama years than were deported during the Bush years.

So part of what we’re talking about here is a policy that’s allowed to go on unfettered where so many persons end up being deported. How do we square what the president says with what his administration does on the issue specifically of deportations?

Becerra: So start off knowing that this president, before he even got elected in 2008, ran saying, “I’m going to fix broken immigration system. I want to pass immigration reform.” Did it to his peril because in those days, in 2008, running for president and saying that could get you unelected.

He has enforced a broken law and, when you try to work with something that’s broken, you’re going to get broken results. The president, I think, understands that he cannot continue to watch a broken law separate families.

We still have to enforce the law. We still have to make sure that the drug dealers are booted out and deported. We still have to make sure no one’s trying to come into the country to cause us harm. But yet working with a law that’s broken that lets you go after the drug dealer might also cause you to go after Jersey’s dad.

So what I think the president is saying is let’s get it done, a permanent long-term solution, which requires Congress. But I think the president has made it clear. If I can do something within the confines of the existing broken law to make it work better, I think I will.

That’s why there’s some 600,000 young people a little older than Jersey who have qualified for the deferred action program for the so-called dreamers. That’s why right now the president is, with his Secretary of Homeland Security, looking at ways to try to work within this broken law a little bit better.

But let’s call a spade a spade, as you just said, Tavis. The law is broken. You’re asking the president to try to work with a broken law. That broken law captures people like Jersey’s dad just as it captures the guys that are selling us drugs.

Tavis: Tell me specifically about your comprehensive legislation and what it does, what it will do, to solve this problem if you can pick up those 20 Republican votes.

Becerra: It tackles the three or four things that everyone now agrees has to get done. Border security. You have to bring it into the 21st century. So use a lot of the virtual technology so we don’t have to have a border patrol agent every 100 yards. So use the technology and the manpower to make sure we have real border security.

Two, workplace security. You have to make sure that someone getting a job has a right to work and that someone offering the job has the right to offer it, going back to your thing about how it is that Jersey’s dad could get a job in Tennessee. Somebody’s willing to hire. So you got to go after those guys that are willing to violate the law and offer the job.

Three, fix the legal system for immigration so that there aren’t people waiting 10 or 15 years to be united with their family the legal way which causes a lot of folks to say, “I’m not waiting 15 years. I’m coming in.” Fix the legal system so you don’t have these backlogs.

And then finally, deal with Jersey’s dad. You work hard, you play by the rules, you pass a background check, you won’t go on public assistance. You’re going to pay taxes, you’re going to learn English, there’s a place for you here. You’re not going to do those things; you’re going to have to leave.

You do those four things, you got a system which already we know because of the Senate bill that passed, we’ve been told will reduce the deficit which means taxpayers pay less taxes to the tune of about a trillion dollars over the next 20 years. It creates thousands of jobs and it gives us stability because of security and it helps the economy move forward.

Tavis: Even with those four components you just laid out, Congressman Becerra, there are those who, in this country and in Congress, for that matter, who will see this as amnesty.

And under no conditions will they ever sign off or support anything that is amnesty for people who came to our borders, came to this country, illegally. To those persons who see this is as blanket amnesty, you say what?

Becerra: Talk to Jersey’s dad. It’s not amnesty when you travel all the way to Tennessee, a state you’ve never been to, probably don’t know where it is, and somehow you find a job and you’re able to with the minimum pay that you’re probably getting still send money home so that Jersey and her family can survive.

That is not amnesty. That is the work ethic that has made this country great. We’re going to get there, Tavis. We’re beyond that now. There used to be a poster, I remember, when I was younger, about years ago, a poster of a young kitten hanging off of a ledge. You could see the claws of that kitten. The kitten’s looking down ’cause it knows it’s getting ready to fall. The title underneath it said, “Hang in there, baby.”

Well, these anti-immigrant folks, these folks that don’t want to look at reality, are hanging in there. They think they can keep the world that they know, that they love, and not accept the fact that there are folks that work very hard to make this country great. We’re going to get there.

Tavis: I want you to look in that – you see that camera right there? There’s a camera right there. You see that red light? Okay.

Just look in that camera and I want you to say something to young people in this country who you want to enlist to help you in your fight. What do you call these again now?

Vargas: They’re called like handkerchiefs.

Tavis: Okay. So I want you to look in that camera and I want you to say whatever you want to say to young people who you want to encourage to engage and help you about wearing those. But I wonder if you might do it in Spanish for me?

Vargas: Okay.

Tavis: Okay.

Vargas: What I want to say is that I want to ask that all the children to wear these handkerchiefs because it represents the immigrants and it will show that to people who are not aware that there are many people supporting immigration reform.

I also want people to wear it so others can be attracted to them and like them. And most of all, understand their meaning and support immigration reform which I’m hoping is approved very soon.

Tavis: Si. Jersey, I am honored to have had you on this program. I celebrate, as I said earlier, your courage and your conviction and your character, your dedication to this cause. I wish only the best for your and your mom and your dad and your family.

I think the congressman’s right. It might take a minute, but we’re going to get this right. We are a better nation than this. And as long as it might take to get it done the way it ought to get done, we’re going to get there.

So you keep engaging your fight, and I’m honored to have had you on this program.

Vargas: Thank you.

Tavis: All right. Thank you. Congressman, you’re hopeful that something’s going to happen here?

Becerra: I’m inspired. I’m inspired. It’ll get done.

Tavis: Always good to have you on.

Becerra: Thank you.

Tavis: Thank you, Congressman Xavier Becerra, Democrat of California. That’s our show for tonight. We were in fact upstaged by Jersey, but I’m okay with that. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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  • Benita H.

    Thank you for bringing this issue to the people. There are so many people that are uneducated about this subject. Many many of these families have lived here for many years and work hard! America needs to wake up and see the plight of these families. We need these immigrants in our country. Thank you!

  • Benita H.

    Is there somewhere to get the hankerchiefs or should we make our on?

  • Chris

    Good interview but failed to note the father was arrested and convicted for drunk driving, so a little ingenuous to suggest he was sending all his money home to support the fam.

  • Psychic Services-Frank Michel

    Guess who made white business owners really wealthy the last three decades since their businesses were built by the labor of illegal immigrants, who endured ridiculously low wages, inadequate housing, and threats of deportation.

    Our government has refused to put an appropriate immigration system in place except for the annual lottery quota, a wall across the southern border, and mass deportations. There oughta be a law, and it should deal with real immigration issues in the 21st century.

  • JustMe

    One thing that wasn’t mentioned and it makes me upset that it wasn’t. Because these “immigrants” have been mislead for too long and it’s time to wake up. That little girl refers to her people as “immigrants” (which are actually people of european, african and other races that are not NA), “hispanics” (which are from europe), “mexicans” (label given to brown people, natives, south of the US to keep them out) etc, everything but what they really are. These people are descendants of the original people before europeans got here. Yes, they are Native Americans (continent not US). When people identify as something other than what thy really are then others can manipulate them anyway they want. No more identity theft and siding with countries. It’s time to stand up for your RACE which is Native American and stop the lies.

  • Keil

    Folks who are interested in this issue should also watch the Frontline documentary called Lost in Detention. Our current immigration policies are breaking up well-meaning, working families. In some cases, the children, who are U.S. citizens, have to face the decision of returning to Mexico because they don’t want to be separated from their mother or father.

Last modified: June 12, 2014 at 11:48 am