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The first Mexican American woman in Congress leaves a legislative legacy focused on children and families

Retiring after three decades, Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., reflects on the work she's done and its lasting impact.
Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard
Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., at the Capitol in 2019.Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call via AP

As Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard prepares to retire after 30 years in Congress, the California Democrat and first Mexican American woman elected to Congress is reflecting on a trailblazing career and recent recognition for her efforts to advance children’s rights and well-being.

She has recorded several significant firsts in her time in Congress, including being the first woman to chair the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the first Latina to serve as one of the 12 “cardinals,” or chairs of a House Appropriations subcommittee that regulates federal spending.

But Roybal-Allard has also been recognized for spearheading legislation that has improved maternal and newborn health, her advocacy on a legal pathway for immigrant youth and her efforts to change conditions for child workers.

Roybal-Allard recently received a 2022 Champion for Children Award from Shine Global, a nonprofit media company whose films aim to educate the public on children and family issues.

More than a decade ago, Roybal-Allard screened one of their films, "The Harvest/La Cosecha," executive produced by Eva Longoria, to members of Congress. She used the movie, which depicted the dire conditions of child farmworkers who move from place to place with their families, to introduce legislation aiming at raising the minimum age for children working in the fields and improving conditions around their labor.

Child farmworkers are the only group of children not regulated by labor laws. Almost half of all work-related child fatalities occurred in agriculture, and 33 children are injured every day, a National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety study found.

“That is a tragedy,” said Roybal-Allard. “It goes against everything we stand for as Americans and our values and how we value our children.”

In March, Roybal-Allard reintroduced a House bill she co-sponsored with Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz. The Children’s Act for Responsible Employment and Farm Safety of 2019 would revise child labor laws, add criminal penalties for violations resulting in a child’s death, serious injury or illness in agriculture and impose other safeguards for those under 18.

“Children, whether in this country or in any country are our most precious commodity. They are the future of our country," Roybal-Allard said in an interview with NBC News, as she expressed feeling "very honored but at the same time very humbled to receive an award from such an organization."

As vice chair of the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education Appropriations Subcommittee and co-founder and co-chair of the congressional caucus on maternity care, Roybal-Allard helped to pass significant health care initiatives.

The congresswoman pushed the Food and Drug Administration to include folic acid in corn masa flour, which is used to make tortilla dough and tamales. A lack of folic acid is a contributor to neural tube defects in children.

“Folic acid is absolutely critical to making sure that babies are not born with tubal birth defects and the highest rate was among Latina women,” the congresswoman said.

In another win, Roybal-Allard helped pass the Newborn Screening Saves Lives Act that tested newborn babies for the full range of preventable diseases. Every state is required to test newborn babies, saving thousands of lives and preventing the onset of a particular disability, she said.

Creating her own legacy — after her father

The congresswoman is not the first Roybal in Congress: her father, Edward R. Roybal, also a Democrat, served in the House for 30 years and was a co-founder of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. The first Latino from California elected to Congress since 1879, he would become one of the most influential Latino politicians on Capitol Hill.

Reflecting on her childhood — she was born and raised in Los Angeles’ historically Latino Boyle Heights neighborhood — Roybal-Allard did not mince words about what she and her family lived through as her father fought to enter city politics (he was the first Latino elected to the L.A. City Council) and later national politics.

“The white establishment of that time was not happy that a Latino was elected to the City Council,” Roybal-Allard said.

Roybal-Allard recalled having to stay in safe houses on the way to school, having her family's phone tapped and the death threats against her father, who died in 2005.Working to create a path for Dreamers

Roybal-Allard is a co-author of the Dream Act, originally introduced in 2001. The bill aimed to provide a pathway to citizenship for “Dreamers” — young Americans who were brought to the U.S. as children but who lack legal immigration status.

The Dream Act has since gone through 11 variations and has been stuck in the Senate since. The House passed the newest version of The Dream Act last year, known as The Dream and Promise Act — reintroduced by Roybal-Allard — and awaits consideration in the Senate.

As the Dream Act stalled in Congress, President Barack Obama in 2012 announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, also known as DACA, through an executive order. Though it didn't grant long-term legal status to young Americans brought here as immigrant children, it allowed those who were eligible to work and study without fear of deportation.

Roybal-Allard was a strong supporter of DACA; her California congressional district has the highest number of DACA-eligible youth.

The decade-old Obama-era program, however, is in jeopardy.

A federal judge in Texas deemed the program unlawful last year and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently sent the case back, temporarily allowing the program to continue.

"It is tragic that there are those who continue to demonize our immigrant community — to be unsupportive of our DACA recipients — and just totally ignore the contributions and the value that they bring to this country," Roybal-Allard said.

"They were the essential workers," Roybal-Allard said. "Despite many not having protections and rights under several federal laws proposed, DACA recipients continued to work in the fields, took care of the elderly and poor, worked in our hospitals, and were teachers and social workers that helped our community get through this pandemic."

As the fate of DACA remains in limbo, Roybal-Allard reflected on the years of struggle trying to get The Dream Act out of the House.

"Quite frankly, it was the Dreamers themselves that made the difference," she said, citing the tireless activism by the young people and their allies who constantly make their case to members of Congress.

Urging a younger generation to 'push through'

As Roybal-Allard prepares to say goodbye to a career spanning 30 years — the same length as her father's — she urges the next generation, especially Latinas looking to hold elected office one day to “push through” the challenging times.

Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard
Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard poses with students at a reception at Inner City Arts in 2010 in Los Angeles. Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images file

“You just have to believe in yourself and understand that the experiences that you have as a woman, as a Latina, as a minority, are invaluable because you bring that different perspective to the policymaking table,” she said.

Susan Maclaury, Shine Global’s co-founder and executive director, said that "when Latinos look at Lucille and look at her body of work and her commitment to right, I hope they take tremendous pride in that and inspiration."

Asked how she wants to be remembered after her retirement at the end of this Congress in January, Roybal-Allard focused on the work.

"One thing that I hope is that the people that I have represented over the years know that I worked as hard as I possibly could on their behalf," she said, "and that I served them honorably and that hopefully, I made a positive difference in their life."

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