Hispanic Caucus Chair on Joe Biden: I 'Peered Into His Heart' and He Wants a Path to Citizenship

Even before Representative Raul Ruiz was the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, or became a member of Congress in 2012, he was a doctor in California.

Ruiz sat down with Newsweek for a Q&A-style interview to talk about being a physician and a lawmaker during a pandemic, the ins and outs of getting Biden and Congress to move on immigration, the Latino vote, disinformation campaigns, and more.

Newsweek: When people hear the name Coachella they think of the music festival, but you grew up in Coachella, California. The child of farmworkers you achieved your dream of becoming a physician and have been in Congress almost a decade.

How does your life experience and background inform your work, not just for your constituents, but for the Latino community across the country whose priorities you advocate for in Congress as chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus?

Growing up in a trailer park, son of farm workers, and being the first generation to graduate from high school and go to college, I understand from my own life story the hardships and struggles that many of our community members face. It gives me a real first-hand perspective, not just then, but even now, as my mother still lives in the home where we moved into in Coachella—where both my brother and sister are blue collar workers. I have an extended family that continues to work very hard and struggle, and I have childhood friends that are struggling now to put food on their table, pay for their kids' education, and take care of their parents.

So, one, I have the street credibility of my childhood and two, being a student of science, a scientist myself, and a doctor from Harvard, I utilize my training and experience as an emergency physician, public health expert, and my skills working in the emergency department, to come up with strong evidence-based policy that will actually work in its implementation on the ground.

Often, these past couple of weeks, I've just really been feeling bliss because I go to work and I talk about protecting the powerless and the fight for environmental justice and pollution. And I understand not only because I've taken care of patients coming in with worsening asthma or COPD—usually poor patients from under-resourced communities with lack of physicians and lack of medications—but also because of the ability to problem solve and provide good evidence-based solutions to this issue.

Then I go into another meeting where I talk about gun violence and gun safety in a public health framework. Then I can go into another meeting and talk about helping our veterans exposed to burn pits, who are now dying of cancer and other illnesses. So for me being able to use all of my life experience trained in humanitarian disaster aid, emergency medicine, public health, and my street credibility, and my understanding because I'm so involved with the community, it helps me to speak right to the heart of the issues with good, solid policy that will make a difference in the lives of the people I serve.

Newsweek: Let's move to one of those priorities, which is immigration. You recently met with President Biden, Vice President Harris and CHC members at the White House to discuss the idea of immigration planks like an earned pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, farmworkers, and essential workers being part of the coming sweeping infrastructure package Biden is hoping to pass.

The CHC left that meeting saying the administration is open to the idea. Can you share the details of that conversation, and is it your belief that Biden must deliver on this campaign promise and stand with the Latino community as activists say the community stood with him?

I looked in the man's eyes and peered into his heart and I can tell you that authentically and genuinely he wants to find a way to develop a pathway to citizenship for our millions of essential workers who have borne the brunt of the pandemic and that are undocumented. For our Dreamers, farmworkers, temporary protected status (TPS) holders, et cetera.

It is true, however, that we do need legislation to codify DACA and TPS and to provide these immigration policies that will fix our immigration system. He fulfilled his promise in introducing his immigration reform plan on day one, and that plan is now in the hands of Representative Linda Sanchez and Senator Bob Menendez, two members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Meanwhile, we aggressively and successfully advocated for the passage of the Dream and Promise act that would give a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, TPS holders and DED holders, as well as the Farm Workforce Modernization Act.

I'll be the first to tell you that although those two bills will be a major victory for our communities—they cover about four to six million undocumented essential workers and others—that there will be many more that we need to address. We also need to fix the immigration system, streamline it, and make it more efficient to use technology at the border to do border security the right way. That's in addition to addressing the root causes of the migration that thousands of families are making to flee violence, corruption, and hunger in their home countries.

In the case that we eventually need a budget reconciliation process, there is a very strong case to be made by us and the administration that immigration reform, the pathway to citizenship will be a strong budget issue because it increases our GDP. In fact, previous studies have shown that immigration reform can increase our GDP by $1.4 trillion. It also would create over 2 million jobs and it will increase cumulative American salaries by over $780 billion.

Newsweek: A follow-up for you on immigration. Polls show that most Americans, when they hear immigration, one topic that comes to mind is the influx of migrants coming to the border in the first 100 days of Biden's presidency. What do you say to Republicans who say this must be dealt with first before any other parts of immigration reform can move?

I say it's a stall and delay tactic, because ultimately they do not want to have any serious conversations on moving forward. You know, they tried it their way, which was based on hate, fear, cruelty, human rights violations, by separating children from their mothers and causing terror in order to intimidate and push forward an ineffective border wall. And it didn't work.

In fact it made things worse, because they decimated the system that would effectively and efficiently process asylum seekers who legally have the right to seek asylum, according to our American laws. Now it takes even longer and it's more complex to get them into a court hearing as quickly as possible. So they pretty much shot themselves in the foot. We also know that the surges that are occurring at the border will continue to occur in a cyclical manner, regardless of who's president, due to conditions in their home country, not conditions in our country.

We've heard the horror stories of many who have escaped violence. Many families who send their children under the threat of sexual violence, physical violence, even death, if they do not comply with narco traffickers or gang members. Given the recent major hurricanes in Central America that decimated their agricultural industry, many of them are suffering from hunger and so they're going to where they believe the food source is plenty. These are the issues that they failed to address and these are the issues that they actually made worse.

Newsweek: As we know, immigration is not the only issue Latinos care about. When it came to Latino voters in November, Biden secured nearly two-thirds support and did well in key states like Arizona, which helped him win the presidency.

But Donald Trump improved markedly from 2016, in states like Florida and along the border in Texas, two states with huge Latino populations. What lessons should Democrats be taking from those results to ensure Republicans don't continue to make gains in the midterms next year or in 2024?

It's important first to recognize that Latinos catapulted the Biden-Harris ticket to victory. They did so because of the record amount of Latino voter turnout, which created the margins necessary for them to win in swing districts in states such as Arizona, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and even Georgia. In Georgia, President Biden won by 11,000 votes. The new increase in Latino vote was 17,000. So definitely Latinos played a very crucial, significant role in president Biden winning his election.

There was an increase in new Latino voters for Republicans and Trump, but that increase was not significant enough to say that Biden lost Florida and Texas because of that increase. Nonetheless, those increases that we saw should compel Democrats to take it seriously and understand what members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus have been saying all along, which is that, one, Latinos are not a monolith.

They're not a "Latino vote." They are Latino voters. So they need to not nationalize the Latino outreach and message, but they need to regionalize the efforts. Two is we saw the Trump campaign invested money specifically to do outreach to Latino voters in those areas. So there needs to be a substantial increase in investment, not only with consultants, but in the media markets that Latinos listen to or view at home.

Thirdly, the message needs to hit the hearts and minds of Latinos based on their background, where they live, where they work, and the interests they have. You need to utilize the methodologies that work in Latino communities and speak to their issues—almost like a parallel campaign or multiple parallel campaigns—even within the Latino community. Those are some very, very important lessons learned, especially, "If you spend it, then they will vote."

Newsweek: One enduring problem for Democrats seems to be the rise of disinformation campaigns, charges Democrats in Congress have echoed based on news reports that say they are aimed at Latinos, particularly in Spanish, on platforms from WhatsApp to YouTube calling Democrats communists and socialists.

First, can you explain what you've seen, why it's a problem, and what you say to Republicans and Trump supporters who say it's not disinformation to say Democrats are embracing socialism more than in the past?

There is a new aggressive push, not only by Republicans, but also by Russia, that spreads conspiracy theories with half truths in order to paint a picture for a certain worldview, and that worldview oftentimes creates division. In the case of Russia, they would like nothing more than to see us implode as a society and see the ruins of our democracy.

These conspiracy theories are aiding and abetting in the destruction of our democracy, because if you do not believe in the truth, if you cannot accept the truth as presented through good journalism and keeping the powerful in our country in check, then the pillars of our democracy will crumble. When you hear leaders like Trump, who said, "Believe me, and only me"— In other words, don't believe news stories, don't believe your own eyes as you see things on TV—it signals we're moving down a very dangerous path. One that many democracies have taken to their own demise.

So this is why the intentional misinformation that's out there is an intentional strategic ploy to confuse our voters to a point of apathy, or even to negate the realities that are before them. Conspiracy theories as wild as the Big Lie that President Biden didn't win the election that fueled the attack on our democracy and our government on January 6th, which was a very serious activity of insurrection in our country, or the conspiracy theory that the coronavirus was a hoax. They are very damaging.

What's ironic here is that the American Rescue plan, the American Jobs plan, the American Families Plan are all based on public-private partnerships with private business and moving the country forward in a capitalistic model to benefit the country, which is not socialism. It's not communism. It was in fact President Trump's refusal to accept a democratically legitimate elected election that most resembles the totalitarian leaders of these communist, socialist countries.

Newsweek: A Los Angeles Times report out last week says California hospitalization rates, where you are a congressman, are at their lowest of the entire pandemic. That's positive news, but Americans have seen pandemic fears recede only to get worse. Also, nearly 40% of Californians are Latino, and according to the CDC, Latinos are twice as likely to get infected, three times as likely to be hospitalized, and twice as likely to die from the virus. Given your background as a doctor, what would you like to see Americans continue to do or do more of to further weaken the spread of the virus?

Well, we need to use equity as a methodology and the architect of not only the bills, but also in the implementation of our vaccination outreach and educational campaigns. This is not new. I've been sounding the alarm since the beginning of the pandemic that given the healthcare access inequalities and the barriers that have already produced inequalities in chronic health disparities within underserved and medically under-resourced communities, that the pandemic was going to produce the results that we're already seeing.

Hispanics are at high risk because of the poor access to healthcare, the uninsured rate, the cost of healthcare, the lack of resources in their communities, and because they make up a large portion of our essential workers that are high-risk. So they're high-risk of getting infected and then going back to an overcrowded home, often living in a two-bedroom apartment, with three generations of their family with them. They can't quarantine away from families and it can easily spread among families and the community.

These are all factors why we're seeing such high infection rates and high death rates in the Hispanic community and why we're seeing the lowest vaccination rates in our communities as well. In essence, you have the highest-risk community that is dying most, receiving proportionally less vaccines, which is unconscionable. What we need to do is start shifting our equity methodology and not use only a first-come, first-serve basis. Because then you advantage those with access to the internet, those that have flexibility from work to stand in line, go to their nearest pharmacy, and be on the phone for hours navigating a complex system to get vaccinated.

Instead, you need to use good-old fashioned community health, where you proactively allocate vaccines, working in partnership with local community members and organizations that know the community the best, and take the vaccines to the people in the language and a culture and the context in which they understand. I've done it here in the Eastern Coachella Valley with the hardest-hit, hardest to reach farmworker community, and it works.

Newsweek: You recently partnered with Senator Cory Booker to fight what you call "environmental injustice" that impacts communities on the ground, which you said can be as varied as "low-income housing next to an interstate or farmworker communities in desperate need of clean air and clean water."

It seems that there are some natural partnerships when it comes to CHC and Congressional Black Caucus priorities, is that something you feel is powerful, when Black and Latino lawmakers come together on shared priorities that impact their communities?

It definitely has a powerful resonance, not just with the African-American community and lawmakers, but also with our Native American brothers and sisters, and our Asian Pacific Islander brothers and sisters and lawmakers. The reason why it works is because the factors that have produced the inequalities and infection rates and death rates in our communities are very similar and the social determinants of health amongst our communities are very similar. So when we fight for equity, we fight for equity for all.

When we fight for environmental justice, we fight for environmental justice for all communities who succumb to the pollution in the air and in the water that affect our community's abilities to live a fruitful and productive life. It is not a coincidence that a recent Washington Post report showed that the vast majority of the highest polluting areas are around marginalized, underserved communities of color.

Decisions are often made without those communities input or even those communities in mind. That is why the Environmental Justice Act with Senator Cory Booker will codify a systematic inter-agency way to prioritize community in decisions regarding investments in permitting the private sector in different communities to ensure they have a say to put a limit on the amount of pollution and measure the cumulative impacts of those solutions. It also allows communities a legal recourse where they can fight for justice based on wrongful decisions that harm their community's health.

I am glad that President Biden under his infrastructure American Jobs plan has equity at the forefront. I have spoken with Secretary Buttigieg about infrastructure in the future and how we need equity in infrastructure development in the communities that need them the most. But we also need them to be in a form that promotes clean energy so we don't compound the effect of more cars and trucks going in and polluting communities that already faced the highest pollution and asthma rates in our nation.

Newsweek: What's one thing you're hoping to do for fun this summer as vaccinations are up and hopefully there is some respite in the coming months that you haven't gotten to do much over the last year?

Take my daughters to Disneyland!

raul ruiz chc
Congressional Hispanic Caucus chair Raul Ruiz, with US Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi (L), Democrat of California, speaks about immigration at a press briefing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on March 18, 2021. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images