Padilla: 'Work Cut Out for Us' in Housing Unaccompanied Migrant Children

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Sen. Alex Padilla, D-California, delivers a statement in support of Xavier Becerra, nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Feb. 23, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Sarah Silbiger/Pool/Getty Images)

California Sen. Alex Padilla acknowledged Monday that President Biden and the Democratic-controlled Congress are facing a mounting challenge in finding safe shelter for the increasing numbers of unaccompanied migrant children arriving in the U.S.

The task is increasingly daunting: The number of children and families crossing the border jumped 100% between January and February, while kids crossing alone has increased 60%, according to statistics released last week by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. And as a candidate for president, Biden promised more humane treatment of detained migrants than his predecessor.

"Definitely with the uptick in the numbers of folks we're talking about, and better, more humane housing conditions, coupled with COVID-19 protocols, it is definitely more challenging," said Padilla.

In an interview with KQED on the day of his first speech on the U.S. Senate floor, Padilla said the spike in apprehensions at the southern border should be an incentive for Congress to pass legislation that overhauls the nation's immigration laws.

"It's just the latest reminder of why immigration reform is long overdue," he said.

Protesters rally near the federal building in San Diego on June 23, 2018, demanding the reunification of thousands of children who were separated from their immigrant parents by border officials under the Trump administration's controversial 'zero tolerance' policy. (David McNew/AFP via Getty Images)

And Padilla — who is chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, and Border Safety — reiterated his support for eliminating the Senate filibuster rules to ease the passage of legislation, including his first bill, which aims to lay out a pathway to citizenship for essential workers.


While the hurdles in front of the bill are high, Padilla's embrace of the issue highlights his focus on the issue of immigration early in his Senate career.

And Padilla's willingness to buck the filibuster may be an early signal of how his approach to the job will contrast with fellow California Sen. (and former boss) Dianne Feinstein, who has yet to stake out a position on ending the filibuster.

"I haven't spoken to her about this issue quite yet," Padilla said. "But I think the time is coming where we're going to have to take a stand on whether this filibuster stays or not."

But the immediate challenge facing the Biden administration is how to safely shelter the hundreds of migrant children being taken into custody daily by border agents.

The Trump administration had been expelling migrants of all ages caught crossing the border, under a health order issued during the COVID-19 pandemic.

President Biden eased the restrictions for unaccompanied minors, who have arrived at the border in increasing numbers since he took office.

Immigration advocates have called on federal officials to process the children as quickly as possible in order to get them out of shelters and into homes with relatives or sponsors.

Padilla said Congress and the administration should ensure funding is sufficient to vet potential sponsors.

"Resources should not be an impediment from treating people safely and humanely," he said.

In the short term, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services faces a severe crunch in shelter space for the migrant children.

A convention center in Dallas is being tapped to hold up to 3,000 immigrant teenagers, and the federal government is reportedly looking for vacant facilities in California as well.

On Monday, about 50 immigration advocates gathered in Mountain View to protest the potential selection of Moffett Field as a shelter facility.

"So we have our work cut out for us," Padilla said. "It's our job to maintain the proper oversight and keep the proper pressure to make sure it's done and done properly."

It's unclear how the surge of children and families arriving at the border will change the long-stalled prospects of comprehensive immigration reform on Capitol Hill.

Despite past setbacks, Padilla expressed hope that "the stars are aligned to achieve significant reform this year."

He pointed to the increased public consciousness about the work of employees deemed "essential" during the pandemic — the farmworkers, grocers, construction workers and cooks who have continued going to work for the past year.

More on family separations

A study from the UC Berkeley Labor Center found that nearly half of immigrant workers in California are employed in essential jobs.

"For all the tweets, all the Facebook posts and other gestures of gratitude I've seen over the course of the last year praising essential workers — if we're genuine about that, let's give those essential workers, including 5 million undocumented essential workers, not just security in the workplace, but a pathway to citizenship," Padilla said.

Padilla's first Senate bill, the Citizenship for Essential Workers Act, would expedite a path to citizenship for those 5 million employees, along with undocumented workers who lost their jobs, and relatives of essential workers who died from the coronavirus.

On the Senate floor, Padilla spoke of his mother and father, a house cleaner and cook, respectively, and how providing a pathway to citizenship for workers like them is "personal for me."

Padilla's measure is unlikely to be considered in absence of a larger immigration reform framework. And such a deal seems out of reach because of the Senate's filibuster rule, which effectively requires 60 votes to pass most legislation.

Since he arrived in the Senate, Padilla has supported ending the filibuster and opening the door for Democrats to pass legislation on voting rights, climate change and immigration with a majority vote.

But California's senior senator, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, has not taken a position on whether to abandon the parliamentary procedure.

Padilla is no stranger to Feinstein's steadfast commitment to bipartisan legislating in the Senate: He began his political career in the early 1990s as an aide to Feinstein.


"If it's one thing I've admired of Sen. Feinstein for many, many years is her ability to be effective, regardless of who's in the majority. That was the case for the bulk of her time here in the Senate," Padilla said. "But clearly, the political environment has changed in the last couple of years. And I would appeal to her that let's not let the filibuster continue to obstruct the much-needed progress that we need to make and the much-needed assistance that American families need."