California state Sen. Ricardo Lara, whose father swam a frigid canal to get to America, is often at odds with others in the immigration debate.
By Patrick McGreevy
Photography and video by Katie Falkenberg
Reporting from Sacramento
The subject was illegal immigration, and Ricardo Lara, head of the Legislature's Latino Caucus, was livid.
Lara, then a Democratic Assemblyman from Bell Gardens, wanted to grant driver's licenses to some undocumented Californians. A Republican lawmaker was objecting.
Some of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists used driver's licenses to get through security checkpoints and board planes they later flew into the World Trade Center, said Assemblyman Tim Donnelly (R-Twin Peaks).
If people here illegally "can board an airplane, think of the damage they can do," said Donnelly, a former member of the volunteer border patrol group known as the Minutemen.
Lara rose from his seat when it was his turn to speak, steely-eyed and stiff, visibly trying to control his anger. His father had been smuggled across the border from Mexico nearly 50 years before, a broke 19-year-old in search of work.
"We've asked all our children in this country to work hard and you will succeed, and these kids are not any different," Lara told the hushed chamber. The proposal he co-sponsored "would simply allow these students to go to school, to get a license and to continue their dream of pursuing a better life for themselves and their families."
That was a year ago, a fight that Lara and his caucus ultimately won in the Democratic-dominated Legislature. The governor signed the license measure into law last fall, allowing those who qualify for President Obama's temporary amnesty program to drive legally in California.
Ricardo Lara, right, is pictured at 8 years old with members of his family, including his father, Venustiano Lara. (Lara family photo) More photos
Lara, now a state senator, has emerged in recent years as a key figure in the push for immigrant rights — the point man on the caucus' often controversial agenda. His out-front role frequently puts him at odds with those who oppose the use of taxpayer resources to benefit people in the country illegally.
He has helped pass college scholarships for undocumented students, more on-the-job protection for California farmworkers and a law preventing police from seizing undocumented drivers' cars, among other policy changes. That's a turnabout in a state where less than 20 years ago voters passed Proposition 187, containing some of the harshest treatment in the nation for those here illegally. The measure would have cut off government services to such immigrants but was voided by the courts.
"I can't help but think of my parents," Lara said, recalling the highly charged battle over the measure, "when I hear such hate from people who don't understand the price paid by immigrants."
His father, Venustiano Lara, had struggled to swim across a deep, frigid canal on the moonless night when he came to America, rushed along by a coyote as a fellow migrant disappeared beneath the surface. Soaked and afraid, with just a quarter in his pocket, he rode 500 miles to a farm near Fresno for a job picking cotton and tomatoes.
Eight years later, he met his future wife, Maria Dolores Tadeo. She had overstayed a U.S. visa, working as a housekeeper and seamstress without legal papers, often humiliated by her employers.
I knew that we were different from other families when my mom and dad would tell us: 'If we ever are missing, just go immediately to your aunt's house.' "
— Ricardo Lara
One of nine children, she too had fled an impoverished Mexican family. Her dinner some days had been whatever egg yolk she could sop up from the abandoned plates of the men in the family, who ate first.
The Laras raised their five children in a working-class neighborhood of East Los Angeles, where they still live. Ricardo Lara, now 38, grew up worrying that on any given day, his parents might not return from work. Would they be picked up and deported?
"I knew that we were different from other families when my mom and dad would tell us: 'If we ever are missing, just go immediately to your aunt's house,' " he said.
His father paid taxes but could not get many government services. He paid cash for the birth of each of his children. Then, after President Ronald Reagan's 1986 amnesty grant, the Laras became U.S. citizens.
"Their struggle emboldens me ... when I am legislating or advocating on behalf of an issue in Sacramento," Ricardo Lara said recently, sitting with his parents in their home, a 10-minute drive from his own.
Ricardo was the first in his family to earn a college degree, a bachelor's in journalism with a minor in Chicano studies from San Diego State. He found a passion for politics, organizing rallies against Proposition 187 — "a direct attack on people like my parents" — and was elected vice president of the student body.
The Lara family story
For senator, immigration is political, personal
Ricardo Lara is "defending the rights of immigrants because those were my parents."
After graduation, he dived into Los Angeles County politics, learning the ropes as a staffer for Democratic legislators with whom he shared a bond: At least one parent had come illegally from Mexico.
GRAPHIC: Legislators' family histories
Lara helped draft a law that passed in 2001, allowing immigrants without legal status to attend California universities at in-state rates if they spent three years in a California high school. In 2010, he was elected to the Assembly, then made chairman of the 24-member Latino Caucus in his first term. Today he represents nearly a million people in the Senate.
Fellow Democrats admire his industriousness.
"Nothing was handed to Ricardo," said Sen. Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles), who as a member of the lower house had put Lara on his staff. "He had to work very hard to get where he is."
One of Lara's early floor fights came with a bill he offered to allow migrants grants and fee waivers from California's public universities if they served in student government.
The proposal provoked a firestorm of protest from Republicans, whose upraised microphones signaled they wanted to speak. Donnelly weighed in against it. So did several others. As tensions boiled over, Assemblyman Allan Mansoor (R-Costa Mesa) called Lara's proposal a "slap in the face" to legal immigrants.
Lara, center, attends a Senate Rules Committee meeting at the Capitol in Sacramento. Lara's parents immigrated to the United States from Mexico, and their struggle has influenced how he legislates. More photos
The bill passed both houses and was signed into law. "I just hope," said Lara, "that one day we get to the point where we embrace our diversity, we embrace our differences."
Lara does not always win. One of his bills would have increased enforcement against schools charging pupils extra fees; another would have set educational requirements and ethics training for city council members across the state. But he doesn't dwell on the failures.
In December of last year, soon after his election to the Senate, he proposed another law, one that could create a state Office of New Americans. It would aid immigrants in obtaining government services and help smooth the path to citizenship.
An ombudsman could have helped his parents when they were trying to emerge from the shadow of illegality, said the senator.
Recently, Lara's father recalled the day his son took his first oath of office, sworn in by the chief justice of the California Supreme Court. It had been 46 years since the plunge into that cold canal near Mexicali.
Venustiano Lara had stood with Ricardo in the state Assembly, tears shining in his eyes.
"That day," the father said, "was one of the proudest moments of my life."
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