December 2, 2023

Immigration Marriage

Feel Good With Immigration

The first gay immigrant in Congress

With help from Jesse Naranjo, Ella Creamer, Rishika Dugyala, Brakkton Booker and Teresa Wiltz 

What’s good, mi gente! This week, the first woman speaker of the House steps down from leadership, Republicans debate how best to help Herschel Walker get elected in Georgia, and the Senate nears passage of a bill that would codify same-sex marriage into law. We dive into some of these developments with the first gay immigrant elected to Congress.

What, to a gay immigrant, is patriotism?

In these times, when politicians still successfully campaign on nativism and building walls, when the nation’s highest court casts doubt on whether marriage equality is a guaranteed right, when some associate pandemics with an entire nationality, it may be difficult to feel proud of one’s adoptive home.

But to Robert Garcia, the 44-year-old former Democratic mayor of Long Beach, Calif., who just won his election to the House, patriotism is not a foregone proposition.

“Too many people think that patriotism is about individualism or about taking care of your family or this whole ‘America First’ mentality,” he told The Recast. “What being a true American patriot is, is making your country a welcoming place.”

Garcia, who came to the United States from Peru when he was 5, is heading to Washington as the first openly gay immigrant to serve in Congress. He’s already flown into town this week for new member orientation, and The Recast caught him for a brief interview amid a flurry of meetings and media rounds. Democrats won’t be any less busy over the next two years trying to get legislation passed now that they’re in the minority.

Still, with the GOP’s slim House majority, Garcia is hopeful he’ll be able to find common ground with some on the other side of the aisle. He knows a thing or two about working with the opposite side — until 2007, he was a member 0f the Republican Party.

At the top of his priority list: immigration reform.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

THE RECAST: Let’s start by talking about your mayoral tenure. How do you feel that it helped launch your congressional campaign?

GARCIA: Being mayor of my community completely informed the kind of person I am, the kind of leader I am. Mayors are on the ground every day and know how to get stuff done. And so I hope to take and bring those skills to Congress.

We’ve been able to do a lot of really great progressive reforms. And besides all of the big things that mayors work on — public safety and housing and infrastructure — we’ve also moved forward many progressive policies and new ideas.

Things like a Justice Fund that provides undocumented workers and undocumented people with legal defense [for] deportations, guaranteed income pilot programs, raising the minimum wage before the state did. We really pushed at the city some really strong and bold progressive policies that oftentimes are talked about in Washington, but we actually get them done at the city level.

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THE RECAST: Tell me a little bit about your background — you’re originally from Peru. Do you feel it has informed your perspective on politics?

GARCIA: I emigrated to the U.S. when I was 5 years old with my family. We grew up pretty poor and always had tías and tíos and cousins living with us.

We came to the U.S. because the situation was bad in South America and there wasn’t a lot of opportunity. Like a lot of immigrant families who come here for the American Dream, we [had to] just survive.

We had some tough times growing up. We all were Spanish speakers, so we had to learn English. My mom cleaned houses and eventually, she got a job at the local clinic. I spent most of my time in college as a non-citizen. I didn’t have my full documents. I was grateful to become a citizen, and when my family all became citizens.

There’s a lot of things I am: Yes, I’m gay. And, yes, I’ve been a mayor. But there’s nothing that makes me more me than being an immigrant. I’m very proud to be an immigrant, and that has defined me more than anything else in my life.

THE RECAST: There’s a lot to being an immigrant — the uncertainty of not having papers, the stability that comes with becoming a citizen. What part of your experience is most salient in the work you do?

GARCIA: For me, going into public service and running for mayor was always about trying to give back to the country. My mom always instilled the sense in my family of being grateful for being in the United States and for becoming U.S. citizens. And then you got to spend the rest of your life giving back to your country.

That’s deeply patriotic. Immigrants are very patriotic people and are grateful to be here. They’re hard workers and deserve a pathway to citizenship. When I became a citizen, that was a life-changing moment for me and my family.

Doors were opened for me that were not available to me before. When making the decision to run for Congress, it was about making sure that other kids get the same opportunity that I got.

At the same time, we have to re-center what patriotism is. Too many people think that patriotism is about individualism or taking care of your family or this whole “America First” mentality. That’s not what patriotism is.

Patriotism is actually helping people — that you love your country so much, you want to make it better. You want to help the people that are here in this country, particularly people that need it. I think what being a true American patriot is, is making your country a welcoming place.

THE RECAST: It’s really interesting to hear you say that, because many elected officials who are immigrants often have their loyalties questioned, even if they are U.S. citizens. You’re coming to Congress at a time when immigration reform has been stalled for years. So much money has been poured into the cause, but it’s at a standstill at the moment. How would you break through the logjam?

GARCIA: Immigration is at the top of my list. There aren’t a lot of us in Congress that have gone through this immigration process and become naturalized.

It’s very important to me, and I just don’t think that as Democrats, we have talked hard enough on this issue. It’s always frustrated me. I have a broad view of what strong immigration reform looks like.

We’ve got to be smart about finding a pathway to citizenship and moving the ball forward. We haven’t had significant immigration reform in more than 30 years, since the 1980s. Yes, we’ve made really important wins around DACA and other programs in the past.

But we have to create pathways to citizenship for the 11 million [undocumented] people that are here. Those folks deserve stability.

THE RECAST: There’s been a lot of Republican opposition to immigration reform. But on the other hand, we saw this week something different on LGBTQ rights, with 12 Senate Republicans voting to advance protections for same-sex marriage (with some carve-outs for religion). Still, there’s a lot of LGBTQ civil rights protections that haven’t been codified into law. Do you see yourself working with Republicans to move those issues forward?

GARCIA: I do. I was happy to see the Senate [vote]. But the bottom line for me on LGBTQ rights and working with Republicans is that for me to work with someone, you have to at least value my basic humanity.

GARCIA: I do. I was happy to see the Senate [vote]. But the bottom line for me on LGBTQ rights and working with Republicans is that for me to work with someone, you have to at least value my basic humanity.

If you’re not willing to accept the fact that I, as a gay person, have a right to be married, have a right to adopt children, have a right to protections in the workplace, if you’re not going to afford me that basic respect and dignity, I really don’t have a lot of interest in working with you.

I’m happy to work with anyone and any Republicans that are willing to at least cross that threshold.

THE RECAST: You used to be a Republican yourself. As a former member of the party, do you think there are enough of those people in Congress who are willing to acknowledge those aspects of your experience and work with you?

GARCIA: I think about the last [major] immigration reform bill, which was signed by Ronald Reagan.

When I became a citizen, my family loved Ronald Reagan — they viewed him as a hero. So many other immigrants who were on the naturalization path [at that time] became Republicans, including me and everyone in my family.

But that Republican Party doesn’t exist anymore.

I hope that the current party can get back to 20 years ago, and it’d be different, but it hasn’t proven itself to be able to do that today.

I hope that there’s enough independent Republicans today that are willing to work with Democrats on immigration.

THE RECAST: What do you make of the shift of Latinos to the GOP in places like Florida, and what does the Democratic Party need to do to win those folks back?

GARCIA: I think that’s a little bit overblown. It’s certainly happening in Florida, there’s no question that there is a shift happening.

But for most of the country, you saw on election night that Democrats have by far the most support within the Latino community. Now, that doesn’t mean we can take the community for granted.

And I think Democrats need to continue to do outreach to ensure that issues around education and health [care] and immigration stay a big part of the party platform and bring Latinos into the discussion into leadership. Those are really important parts of keeping this coalition together.

So I hope to be a voice and be very involved in winning back Latino seats and making sure that we win in two years — not just the presidency, but the House — and Latinos are going to be a big part of it.


We’ll be keeping tabs on how Garcia works with his colleagues in this new period of divided government. In the meantime, here are some reading, viewing and listening recommendations to launch you into the pre-holiday weekend.

WATCH the latest episode of “The POLITICO Show” on Snapchat: They rallied on Jan 6.; now they’re part of Congress