Jose Gaspar

Sunday, Oct 28 2012 08:00 PM

JOSE GASPAR: Rios' story resonates with Hispanic community

By Jose Gaspar

The local Republican Party is in damage control mode after it was publicly revealed that one of its own candidates, Pedro Rios, said he came to the United States as an undocumented immigrant. An uncle paid a smuggler to bring the then 9-year-old to the United States. Rios is running against Democrat Rudy Salas for the 32nd Assembly District. In his ads in English and in Spanish as well as on his website, Rios tells his story about coming to the U.S. from a small town in the state of Sinaloa, Mexico, in search of a better life.

Once here, he worked hard in the fields, educated himself, joined the National Guard, became a teacher, served two terms on the Delano City Council and is now a small business owner. And he eventually became a U.S. citizen.

Rios is staunchly proud of his background and he should be; his is a success story. But in those ads, his political handlers forgot to mention his entry as an undocumented immigrant. Oops.

"We didn't think it was an issue and the voters don't care," Rios said. "Why should I be saying that I was once here illegally?"

Maybe it's because voters will see this as an attempt by the party of law and order to hide this most sensitive political issue, which could hurt their chances of gaining a seat in the state Assembly?

"He hadn't hidden it. In fact, he shared it," said local Republican Party spokesman Javier Reyes. Shared it? Uh, he didn't reveal it publicly. And Reyes admitted that Rios had not shared that minor part of his story with him before.

And I agree with Rios -- his coming to the U.S. as undocumented should not be an issue in the campaign. But let's get real here. This is Kern County, where the undocumented are demonized and blamed for all that ails society. Right-wing politicians conveniently use the undocumented for cheap political purposes. Rios said that kind of thinking bothers him.

"I am a Republican that will change that mentality about the undocumented, and if I have to go against my own party, I will," he said. Here! Here!

As I mentioned, Rios should be proud of his personal success story. Like thousands of other Kern County residents, Rios was brought here illegally as a child and made something of himself. You certainly can't blame a 9-year-old for being put in that situation, even though many are of the mind that "they should all be sent back" to where they came from. Wisely, Rios along with millions of others nationwide took advantage of gaining citizenship under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 signed into law by then-President Ronald Reagan.

Rios' story on coming here undocumented resonates with the Hispanic community. But not with the majority of conservative voters, which probably is the reason why the Rios campaign refused to say a word about it on his campaign propaganda. The truth would eventually get out publicly sooner or later; no doubt the Rios campaign was hoping it would be later, and not until after the election.

Rios' admission about his past also puts Democrats in an awkward position. Dems are supposed to be the champions of the undocumented, promising "comprehensive immigration reform" but have been unable to deliver so far. Will they now come forward and support Rios from those who will undoubtedly attack him for breaking the law? Don't bet on it. Will mystery ads start popping up between now and Election Day painting Rios as deceiving voters and not being up front about his past? And will Dems make an issue of Rios' past undocumented status?

"I certainly hope it does not impact the race. It's not an issue that I would ever try to exploit," challenger Rudy Salas said in a prepared statement.

"I have no issue with it," said Candi Easter, chair of the Democratic Party of Kern County. "I think it's honorable that Rios came here undocumented and became a citizen," Easter added. "But what I find dishonorable is his opposition to the DREAM Act," she said. The DREAM Act is proposed federal legislation that would grant a path to citizenship for qualified undocumented youth in this country. And in fact, Rios admits he is against the legislation, saying he wants comprehensive immigration reform instead.

"That is what hurts him the most with the Latino community. His being against the DREAM Act means he has turned his back on helping other undocumented youth which he once was," said Cal State political science professor Mark Martinez.

Rios said he supports other means that would grant citizenship to the undocumented, although he did not specify anything other than to say "comprehensive immigration reform." There's that phrase again! To his credit, Rios said he will continue working on his campaign and has nothing to be ashamed about his once-undocumented status.

"If people have a problem with it, so be it," Rios said.

-- Jose Gaspar is a reporter for "KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News" and a contributing columnist for The Californian. These are Gaspar's opinions, not necessarily The Californian's. Email him at elcompa29@gmail.com.

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