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(WASHINGTON) — When Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., was sworn in for the 118th Congress in January, he became the highest-ranking Latino in Congress, serving as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the No. 3 position in his party in the chamber.
Aguilar, a fourth-generation Mexican-American, recently sat down with ABC News contributor Maria Elena Salinas to discuss his personal story, his new role in the House and the pressure of representing a demographic that often feels overlooked.
“It’s a sense of opportunity. My story is not very different than so many other, you know, Latinos who grew up in communities where they had to work hard to get by,” Aguilar told Salinas in the interview, which aired Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”
At just 26 years old, Aguilar began his political career in Redlands, California, 11 miles east from where he grew up.
“I joined the Redlands City Council, actually, by getting appointed to fill a vacancy for someone who had left town, and then became elected at the age of 27 and became mayor by 30,” Aguilar said.
He won election to the U.S. House in 2014, representing what is now California’s 33rd Congressional District. Now, as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, his job is to unite members of his party around legislation and party issues, while also finding common ground across the aisle.
“What issues do you feel that you and Republicans can have common ground on?” Salinas asked.
“I think there has been common ground on the ability for ‘Dreamers’ to become citizens,” Aguilar responded, referring to the hundreds of thousands of young people who were illegally brought to the U.S. as children. “We have Republicans on board with that.”
Policies surrounding immigration have been at the forefront of Aguilar’s political career, with the protection of “Dreamers” being at the top of his list. Aguilar supported the DREAM Act, which would allow the young immigrants to establish permanent residency and eventually grant them U.S. citizenship.
His most recent efforts involved a letter pushing for legislation to allow “Dreamers” to hold federal employment.
“The Senate introduced a bill to help guide ‘Dreamers’ toward legalization of their status. This has been happening for decades now and it never comes to fruition,” Salinas said. “What needs to happen to make it a reality?”
“I think we need more friends and allies in the United States Senate,” Aguilar responded. “I can respect that, you know, that certain times the House has been at fault and the Senate’s been at fault. But in the last 10 years, Democrats have continually put these bills on the floor, and Republicans have stood in the way on the House side to see any real reform happen.”
Aguilar said he is also concerned with the influx of migrants at the southern border.
“How do you think President [Joe] Biden is doing on the border?” Salinas asked.
“I think the grade would be incomplete, right?” Aguilar answered. “There’s plenty to do. We know that it’s a humanitarian issue down at the southern border. What President Biden sought to do was to clean up the mess from the prior administration, too.”
“But it’s not less messy right now,” Salinas pressed.
“Well, but I would tell you that the tone of how we address this is very, is very different,” Aguilar said.
He also noted that the Democratic Party has to win back the Latino vote, after recent elections show the party losing ground with those voters. According to national exit polls of the last three election cycles, the share of Latino voters backing Democrats has dropped nine points, from 69% in 2018 to 60% in 2022.
“I think that how we talk to voters, how we meet them where they are and we talk about the issues with them really is important,” Aguilar said. “And there’s no cookie cutter way to talk about Latino issues. We need to realize that we need to have a plan to talk to those voters and those individuals. And I think that we need to do a better job of that.”
The congressman said he is already strategizing how to win back a House majority, emphasizing that lawmakers need to get out and talk to constituents about their legislative wins, such as the bipartisan infrastructure law and the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act to combat gun violence.
“So can we interpret that as your biggest challenge is going to be winning back the House in 2024?” Salinas asked.
“We have to do it to save democracy, to help our communities,” Aguilar replied.
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