Latin Post: Mobilizing Latino Voters Can Help Communities, Says California Assemblymember Luis Alejo
By: Michael Oleaga
Latinos have been making monumental steps in California, including in the state's legislative body. Assemblymember Luis Alejo is among the names paving the way to improve the lives of all Californians -- including Latinos, undocumented and documented.
"The reason I got excited about politics in a state like California, the eighth largest economy in the world, Sacramento is the place where you could work on legislation or on budget issues that impact millions of people all over the world," Alejo told Latin Post, who said he initially thought his calling was to provide legal help for economically disadvantaged families who could not afford legal aid representation. "But having worked in Sacramento, that's really a place where you can do some transformative changes."
Alejo has been in the State Assembly for five years. He has been involved in two landmark bills, including 2013's Assembly Bill (A.B.) 60 that provided undocumented immigrants the opportunity to obtain a California driver's license -- which was finally implemented in January 2015. In a statement released on Sept. 25, the California Department of Motor Vehicles revealed more than 500,000 driver's licenses have been issued to undocumented immigrants as a result of A.B. 60.
"For me, that's one of the clearest examples, that you can come to Sacramento and do something so significant that really helps everyday hard-working families," said Alejo, who also authored A.B. 10, which raised the state's minimum wage and may affect between 2.5 million and 3 million working Californians.
"California is leading the way on issues," Alejo added.
Alejo authored A.B. 20, which would provide undocumented agriculture workers with a work permit. California is the largest agricultural state, with 50 percent to 75 percent of the state's agriculture workers being undocumented. The assemblymember recognized there is a labor shortage, with farmers competing for each other's workers.
"We all know, anybody who has worked on immigration-related issues or reporters who have covered them, nothing's going to happen in Washington in the next two-to-three years. It's going to take more time," said Alejo. A.B. 20, however, has been stalled in the California Senate Appropriations Committee.
Alejo is also the chairman of the California Latino Legislative Caucus, comprising of 22 members -- 17 assemblymembers and 5 state senators. Latinos hold four of the top leadership roles in the legislature, and in January 2016 for the first time in its history, Latinos will hold the Senate President pro Tempore and Speaker of the State Assembly positions.
The Salinas County assemblymember said one of the core issues for the caucus has been education, which included the fight to pass the California DREAM Act, enabling undocumented immigrant students to receive Pell Grants and attend college. Climate change, health care, affordable housing, transportation and economic development have also been at the forefront for the legislators.
"Often, people in the past were critical of the caucus, saying, 'You guys are focusing on a Latino agenda,' and we'll tell them the Latino agenda is the same for every working Californian," said Alejo. "Latinos want good jobs, safe neighborhoods, good schools, good opportunities, good air and access to safe and clean drinking water, so all those issues for Latinos are what other Californians care about."
Alejo said the progress during the last two decades has seen a "dramatic" rise of Latino voters. Efforts have been made, with other caucus groups, to increase funding for naturalization; with 2.5 million permanent legal residents in the state, Alejo said the Latino and immigrant voice would be stronger.
With the ongoing negative rhetoric towards Latinos and immigrants during the 2016 presidential campaign, Alejo said he hopes this motivates and mobilizes the community to take action.
"The last two presidential elections, we've seen record numbers of Latinos come out and vote nationally, especially in California. I think the same will be in 2016, that if we mobilize, our community will be much more effective, having its issues and concerns addressed by these presidential candidates," said Alejo, but he acknowledged there is lower Latino turnout during the off-presidential election cycles.
"In light of the rhetoric that we're seeing nationally, I hope that is transformed into activism and engagement by our community in 2016. It certainly will be a significant one, but it's a reminder, in light of the past few elections, that there's still a lot of work for us to do to get our community more engaged," Alejo said, noting education and new strategies on connecting with Latino families are needed.
Alejo said every family has a natural leader, and he hopes for a strategy to connect with that leader to encourage the entire family to go out and vote. The strategy, however, should not be limited to presidential elections, but in decision making throughout the year including after-school meetings, city council meetings or school board.
The California Latino Legislative Caucus chairman is also aware of the changing demographics in the state legislature, and looking in 2016, 11 candidates have been endorsed -- including nine Latinas. Alejo said female Californian residents account for nearly 52 percent of the state's population, but the number of women in the legislature dropped to 26 percent.
"If only half of those nine win, we will have a record number of Latinas ever serving in the California Legislature. For us, it's a very exciting time that we're fighting not only to have more representation but making sure there's gender equity, more women serving. ... We're what no other state is doing, no other Latino caucus across the country has been able to do or be able to accomplish what we have and they're not pushing the envelope on issues like we are."
Contact the Reporter: Michael Oleaga / firstname.lastname@example.org