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Latino members of Biden's Cabinet defend policies on Covid, immigration

“We are a nation of laws, our laws provide for humanitarian relief, and we will see those laws come to life," Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said.
Image: Miguel Cardona, Xavier Becerra, Alejandro Mayorkas, Isabella Casillas Guzman.
Miguel Cardona, Xavier Becerra, Alejandro Mayorkas, Isabella Casillas Guzman.Getty Images

Latino members of President Joe Biden's Cabinet defended his policies to control the pandemic, saying he's improved vaccination rates and restricted immigration at the southern border to protect public health in the United States.

The coronavirus has disproportionately impacted Latino families, decimated many jobs and small businesses, and threatened recent gains in Latino educational attainment — in particular, college completion rates.

The administration has been under fire for denying entry to the U.S. to thousands of Haitians and other mostly Central Americans, continuing a Trump-era public health order to expel migrants and their families.

While defending those policies, the Cabinet members touted administration initiatives on healthcare and education access, and progress on infrastructure and aid to working families.

MSNBC "American Voices" anchor Alicia Menendez interviewed Alejandro Mayorkas, Xavier Becerra, Miguel Cardona, Isabella Casillas Guzman, and White House directors and key staffers Emmy Ruiz, Julie Chávez Rodríguez and Carlos Elizondo about the issues they're tackling, as well as their Latino roots, for a Hispanic Heritage Month special, “American Voices: Latinos Inside the White House” airing Sunday at 7 p.m. on MSNBC.

The four Latino Cabinet members and key White House staffers each have origin stories that are part of what they are drawing on, along with years of government and executive experience. 

Below are excerpts from their interviews.

Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Department of Homeland Security:

On returning to Haiti some of the thousands of Haitians who gathered under a bridge in Texas last month: “A new government took power and the situation is more stable. We’re very mindful, of course, of the tragedy of the earthquake that occurred. That earthquake occurred in a particular area of the country. It was distinct from the tragic Jan. 10, 2010, earthquake."

On the rule of law and immigration: “We are a nation of laws, our laws provide for humanitarian relief, and we will see those laws come to life, to their fullest, in the ensuing days and weeks of this administration.”

On whether he is denying immigrants at the southern border the welcome his immigrant parents got: “We accept so many individuals here in the United States. We do address asylum claims. We’re in a very unique position right now, addressing a global pandemic, and the public health imperatives … It is not necessarily a differential of our humanitarian embrace, but rather a differential born of the circumstances that our country and the world is confronting now.”

On his Cuban heritage and being part of a larger American Latino community: “When my father spoke in English, he tended to be a rather serious person. When my father spoke in Spanish, there was a of joy of life in his voice and in his mannerisms. through that contrast, I understood very profoundly, not only my heritage and its importance, and the fact that I am part of a particular community in America, but it also spoke of the impact of displacement, and what it means to lose one’s country of origin."

Alicia Menendez interviews Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas  for the “American Voices: Latinos Inside the White House” special airing Sunday, Oct. 10 at 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC.
Alicia Menendez interviews Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas for the “American Voices: Latinos Inside the White House” special airing Sunday, Oct. 10 at 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC.MSNBC

Secretary Xavier Becerra, Department of Health and Human Services:

On treatment of immigrant children in HHS care and allegations of abuse: “I am the son of immigrants. I understand well the immigrant experience ... There are allegations. We investigate every reported allegation … Children are not only surviving, they are being vaccinated. They are getting health and mental support. We are putting them with responsible custodians.”

On the challenge of vaccinating more Latinos in the U.S.: "We have made major efforts — seeing great strides in getting many of our communities that are often left behind, vaccinated at no charge ... Too many folks in our community have been ripped off. This is free, take it."

On his experience at Stanford University and a realization about his family: “I thought I was middle class growing up because we ate really good food. Mom’s a great cook … Driving to Stanford, get to Palo Alto, I know I’m not middle class, because I see what middle class could look like…”

On how his Mexican American family instilled “ganas”: “I tell people the word ganas (drive, motivation) … don’t look it up in the dictionary because the dictionary’s definition never hits it on the mark ... I never saw my dad without a job … He rose for the sun and he didn’t come home until the sun set. It was one of those things where you decide every day. ¡Ten Ganas¡, because they were in America. They were going to have better. Their kids were going to have better.”

Image: Alicia Menendez interviews Biden Cabinet secretary Xavier Becerra.
Alicia Menendez interviews Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra.MSNBC

Secretary Miguel Cardona, Department of Education

What students need: “We need to make sure, as we are reopening schools, we’re giving students an opportunity to have social and emotional supports, access to mental health supports … especially in areas where there was more loss … We need to make sure that when we reopen our schools, we are thinking about the holistic needs of our students, not just the academic ones.”

On building educational equity into school reopening funding: “We sent out two-thirds of the funds that Congress asked us to send out and we held back a third. We said that last third will go to the states when we see a plan that has equity and stakeholder engagement in it."

On biculturalism's benefits: “I always say I’m the same person from the barrio to the briefing room ... I grew up bilingual and bicultural ... Biculturalism to me is an asset that I think as a country we need to do a better job embracing.”

On sharing his Puerto Rican culture as a teacher: “We were celebrating Three Kings … we had a parranda (a holiday community stroll with singing and music) … that brought people together to learn about different cultures, through music, values I was raised with … That experience through the bicultural lens allowed me to recognize that when we see students for who they are, what they bring to the table, and look at that as assets, we’re more likely to create a community where we want our children to attend."

Administrator Isabella Casillas Guzman, Small Business Administration

On the pandemic's impact on businesses: “Currently about one-third of our businesses are at least temporarily shut down, so we are continuing to try to support them with relief, especially for our high-impacted industries...”

On the Latino small-business landscape: “The rates of entrepreneurship in the Latino community are really high … but so many of them lack access to capital or networks to really help their small business grow … It’s one of the things President Biden and I spoke about, that not every small-business owner has that lawyer, or the accountant, or the consultant on speed dial.”

On her Mexican American heritage: “I’m definitely a Californian, born in Burbank, California. But my family has a long history in Texas, and we are multigenerational here in the United States. It’s been an incredible experience to see all the entrepreneurs that have come out of my family in Texas and California as well.” 

On being underestimated: “In high school, I was one of those kids that was also told not to shoot for that one college I was determined to go to because I wasn’t going to get in.”

Emmy Ruiz, White House director of political strategy and outreach

On Biden’s vaccination strategy: “Part of what has been interesting in that strategy has been that it is not just your traditional, you know, bureaucratic approach. It is one where we are doing everything we can to take resources to communities.”

On being a gay, Latina mom in the White House: “I think it’s really important for those of us that are, you know, truly honored to walk these halls to bring our multiple identities ... I also bring the identity of being a daughter, and being a caregiver, being a friend, being an organizer ... My goal here is to bring my whole self — and create opportunities.

Julie Chávez Rodriguez, special assistant to the president, senior deputy director of public engagement

On working at the White House despite not agreeing on every policy decision: "When we look at things like the child tax credit and the opportunity to cut out child poverty among Latinos by 45 percent, that’s sort of what keeps me here. When we think about the opportunity to continue to provide affordable health care to the Latino community and to be a part of … decisions that are being made about how we reach our community or what resources we’re getting for our community, that’s what keeps me here … I think this administration has done a tremendous job ... ensuring that representation of our community is really throughout..."

Carlos Elizondo, White House social secretary

On a plate from his mom being in the White House's 2021 Hispanic Heritage Month exhibit: "This plate here is incredibly personal and special pottery that’s called Talavera that’s made in Mexico, which is my ancestry. My dear parents ... sent me this 34 years ago, when I first moved to Washington to start ... it is always a great reminder of not only my personal connection to my family, but to my heritage and to where I came from."

The Hispanic Heritage Month special, “American Voices: Latinos Inside the White House” airs Sunday at 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC.

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