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© Charlotte Fassler

interviews

The Life Work of Senator Rodriguez, Part One

by Senator Rodriguez
July 11, 2018

This interview with Senator Rodriguezwho represents District 29 in El Paso, was conducted and condensed by frank news. It took place June 28, 2018. This is part one of an ongoing conversation between frank and Senator Rodriguez.

Senator Rodriguez black and white

Tatti: I covered the presidential election in 2016, and interviewed someone who worked for your office. 

Sen. Rodriguez: Yes, of course. 

Tatti: I loved El Paso then...

Sen. Rodriguez: Move over here.

Tatti: I want to!

Sen. Rodriguez: Please do. This is the best city in the country.

Tatti: In this process we're seeking experts who live with immigration policy everyday. 

Sen. Rodriguez: Who told you I was an expert? Who misinformed you?

Tatti: Well, we define expert differently at frank. Someone who crosses the border everyday to donate blood for $75 a week is an expert.

Sen. Rodriguez: That's a good way of looking at that, okay.

Tatti: So, that's what we're here to discuss, but to start, would you tell me where you grew up and how you ended up where you are now?

Sen. Rodriguez: I grew up in South Texas down in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Have you been down there? South Padre Island, Brownsville, McAllen?

Tatti: Not yet.

Sen. Rodriguez: This is the very southern tip of the state of Texas there by the Gulf of Mexico, so I grew up down there.

I was a migrant farm worker, followed the crops all over the country, went to high school down there, went to our local university and then to the Pan American University, now it's called UT Rio Grande Valley, and I went to law school at George Washington up in Washington DC.

During the most momentous period of many people's lives, Nixon is in office, Watergate happened while I was there, the Vietnam War was raging, we were on the streets and I got a lot of exposure coming from an agricultural region, migrant farm worker, I had culture shock being on the East Coast and the attitudes of people over there, you know the higher, more superior intellectually, thinking that they're better than you experience.

I had traveled all over the country already as a migrant farm workers so, it wasn't like it was my first time being out of my home. I'd been to California, to Idaho, to North Dakota, to Indiana, to Michigan, to Missouri.

Tatti: When did you decide to run for office?

Sen. Rodriguez: Not until 1992.

Tatti: What inspired that?

Sen. Rodriguez: Working with the first Chicana county judge that we elected in 1990, who invited me to be her legal advisor here at the courthouse and realizing that the work I was doing for her, liasoning with the county attorney's office and all the other elected officials, the sheriff, the district clerk, the County Clerk, you know the constables, the judges, I was handling all of that for her, I told her I could do a better job than the county attorneys doing, so I'm going to run for office.

Because I went through Watergate as a young person, I was very idealistic just like you guys, I felt like I could change the world; I still do as a matter of fact.

But if you read the history of Watergate you will find out that a lot of us young people who wanted to be in public service, who wanted to run for office, became disillusioned when the president of the United States was found to be lying to the people and was a crook, despite the fact that he said, I am not a crook, right?

I was interested in politics and public policy, I wanted to run for office earlier, much earlier. But I became disillusioned with that whole Watergate episode like a lot of other young people did. And so even though I continued supporting other candidates, I kind of dropped out of the notion that I myself would run. I had always planned on doing some legal services work for farm workers, because I had been a farm worker and that's what I did, 10 years worth after I left DC.  Like a lot of other young people I became disillusioned with government, got engaged more in community work, and it took me from 1974 until 1992, to get myself to run for office.

Tatti: Do you see similarities in the perception of public service and government now?

Sen. Rodriguez: There's no question. There's a lot of analogies we could make about Nixon's view of the presidency and how he used the presidency, and how Trump views the presidency and how he's using the presidency. No respect for the institution, no respect for the Constitution, engaging in policies that oppress people, that minimize and marginalize those who are different. We are going through another traumatic period in our nation's history as a result, which we went through back then because of Vietnam and Nixon.

Tatti: If we zoom out from the present to look at immigration with a wider lens, has policy changed drastically from president, to president, to president?

Sen. Rodriguez: That's a very good question. I supported President Obama but I was a critic of President Obama and joined chorus with those who said that he was the deporter in chief. Because more people were deported under Obama then George Bush or Clinton combined. There have been immigration policies that someone like me, who has been a supporter of immigrants all my life, disagreed with some of my Democratic presidents. But, neither Clinton nor Bush nor Obama separated families.

I know it's kind of kosher today to read in the paper, some media saying, well you know, separation of families takes place all the time. If a mother commits a crime, she has to go to jail and the child was separated from the mother, they give all kinds of examples, right?

But what they're overlooking is that in those typical situations, the child remains with a family member. With Grandma, with an aunt, with an uncle, with relatives. Very rarely is a child abandoned. That's the difference.

What you see here is official government policy separating children from their mothers, and keeping them out of touch with one another for long periods of time, which even a mother who's incarcerated has an opportunity to be talking to her child to her children, in the regular criminal context. And the children with the relatives can go visit the mother at jail during visitation hours.

This is no comparison to what's happening right now. This is inhumane, there's no other way to say it, everybody's been saying it, but it's true. It's inhumane, it's cruel and it is a black mark on the history of this nation. It has gotten to the point where our president and people under him and those who support him, Governor Abbott you know, the elected officials here in Texas who support him and these policies, are all culpable in having committed, and are committing a crime against these children.

I call it a crime, because these children are going to be harmed for life. Make no mistake about it.

I'm not an expert in that but I've heard the expert testimony, because prior to the development of this zero-tolerance policy in the separation of families, immigrants come in, including those from Central America seeking asylum. They started coming in, in 2014 because of the increased violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

A lot of them are unaccompanied minors, but some of them were with their mothers or fathers. When they presented themselves at the border they were arrested and taken to these detention centers that we have had in Texas since 2014, over in Dilley; little community of Dilley, and Corn City. Those are kind of in Central Texas. I serve on the Senate Veterans and border Veteran Affairs and border security committee, and there was an attempt by the state to certify or license those two facilities; detention facilities. Barbed wire, their prisons with the children, there with their parents, not separated.

The state, because of a federal court judge's decision, decided that they needed to license those two facilities as child care facilities, quote-unquote, under state law. And there were lawsuits filed against that happening, because this is by no means, no stretch of the imagination, a child care facility. They're prisons, and run by the private prison industry; private companies. There was a bill introduced by the Republicans to have these facilities certified as child care facilities. And many of us opposed that. When we had the Senate committee hearing last year during the regular legislative session, we had the experts come in, the pediatricians, the psychologists, the therapists, the counselors, all of them saying, having them in that setting with their mothers is a lifechanging experience for these kids.

Four-year-olds, five-year-olds, six-year-olds, they're going to be traumatized for life, they're going to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, they're going to have emotional damage for the rest of their lives, and be more susceptible to illnesses. 

Their testimony was pretty compelling, very strong and as a result, even two of the Republican senators felt so changed by what they heard that they didn't join voting the bill out of the committee.

Then, after about two or three weeks, the powers that be persuaded them that they needed to vote for this bill, voted out of committee so they could come to the floor of the Senate and voted out of the Senate. And that's what happened. Long story short, that's what happened.

You have an attitude in the Texas Legislature that is the same attitude in Washington by those who are anti-immigrant, anti-latino, who proclaim that they are doing these things in order to promote safety and security in our country, but in fact in my view, are doing it out of political expediency. Using immigrants to create fear in the general population as has been done in past history so that they can get the support of their right-wing conservative elements. Plain and simple.

Tatti: Do you think that Texas has a responsibility politically, to be the leaders in the conversation about immigration?

Sen. Rodriguez: Absolutely, but we're not because of the Republicans controlling the legislature, and all of the levels of power. We don't have a single Democrat in approximately 28 or so state agencies, running the agencies. The Senate is 31 members where I work, 11 of us are Democrats. They have a clear majority, so they can pass literally anything they want. We used to have a long standing, over 60 year rule, called the two-thirds rule, that said in order to bring any bill to the floor of the Senate to debate, you had to get two-thirds of the Senate members to support it.

This lieutenant governor Dan Patrick did away with that rule, because when he became lieutenant governor us Democrats, under the two-thirds rule could block bills like Senate bill 4, the sanctuary cities bill for example, and we were blocking it, ever since I came into the Senate. So, he did away with the two-thirds, and now they could pass anything they wanted without us, without the Democrats, unless two of the Republicans came over with us, which under the Iron Fist of the lieutenant governor happened only one time, one session and then they lost their chairmanships.

He punished them and this last session not a single one of them crossed over to help us block the bathroom bill, the sanctuary cities bill, anti-immigrant legislation, bills that inserted religious liberty into all kinds of bills, Child Protective Services, foster care, other things, essentially putting a provision in those bills saying that if those people who provide those services have a sincerely held religious belief, that it's against their religion to provide services to someone, that they can not do so.

That's the atmosphere working in the Senate, and that we find at the national level. Getting back to your question, I mean the atmosphere for relating to immigration issues is poisonous.

It's the worst that I have ever seen, even though if you study American history, we've got these periods where we have welcomed undocumented immigrants to come and pick our crops, to come and work on things, service sector construction and so, especially when there was that need for labor, and then when the economy is good, get rid of them, including US citizens. It happened in the 30s and 40s, that's the history of this country. I mean, we are supposed to be a country that is welcoming to immigrants and we have been, but there's also this aspect of it, that whenever we did not want the immigrants around, we use them as scapegoats, they're taking jobs, they're hurting the economy, they're all on welfare, they're committing the crimes.

Tatti: What's the reality of living in close proximity to the border?

Sen. Rodriguez:  It's a safe city in the United States for its size, based on FBI statistics. We don't have the violence here that you hear about in Juarez or in Chihuahua or down in Matamoros, where I grew up Reynosa.

It's normal, we live it and in fact I think this is the best, this is the largest binational community in the world, El Paso Juarez. And it is beautiful. We have a symbiotic relationship with Juarez, why? Because we have a shared history, this used to be part of Mexico.

It's only after the United States stole the land from Mexico through the pretext of the Mexican War; US-Mexican war, that all of a sudden there was a separation from this natural resource. The river, the Rio Grande. We have long-standing historical ties, cultural ties, language ties, customs, familial ties, trade ties, like nowhere else in the world. Then you have people come in like Trump, and start putting money to put up walls between us? Start implementing policies that demonize immigrants, including some of our own family members.

Remember that this is for us, the Ellis Island of the Southwest. Immigration coming in from Europe and Asia mainly come through Ellis Island. But for us, a lot of people came through El Paso over a period of history. That's why we call it the Ellis Island of the Southwest, with migration patterns up to LA.

When you speak of immigration, you really have to appreciate the history of this nation with regard to immigration, and the policies, and the politics that have played a part in the development of our laws with respect to immigrants.

Look at the Chinese Exclusion Acts, when we allow Chinese to come in because we wanted them to build our railroads, including here in El Paso by the way, then when they weren't needed anymore, all of a sudden it's the Yellow Peril, get them out of here.