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Updated Feb 24, 2023, 10:39am EST
politics

Nanette Barragán looks to prove the doubters wrong as the Hispanic Caucus hits the road

CHC chair Nanette Barragán holds a roundtable with HHS Sec. Xavier Becerra.
Congressional Hispanic Caucus/Bianca Lugo
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The News

LOS ANGELES, CA — The Congressional Hispanic Caucus is hitting the road this year as they look to reassure Latino communities that they’re taking their concerns seriously amid a concerted push from conservatives to win them over.

On Thursday, the CHC held a listening session on youth mental health at the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles with Health and Human Services Sec. Xavier Becerra, the first, they say, of several events designed to showcase President Biden’s agenda. Participants discussed destigmatizing mental health treatment within the community, hoping to address a rise in suicide rates among Hispanic Americans.

“Growing up in a Latino household, you often hear the phrase ‘los niños no lloran’ [boys don’t cry],” Rep. Nanette Barragán, D-Calif., the new CHC chair, said at the roundtable.

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They’re in the preliminary stages of hosting similar gatherings with Education Sec. Miguel Cardona in Austin, Texas; with Sec. Jennifer Granholm in Reno, Nevada to discuss clean energy; and an event in Doña Ana County, New Mexico around workforce issues.

“As we know, one thing that we got to do with Latino communities is continue to touch and engage them over and over again,” Barragán told Semafor.

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Kadia’s view

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus is set to play as important a role as ever in the Democratic Party this year. They’re entrusted to deliver votes for the party, but also policy substance for their caucus members. This week alone they pushed the Biden administration to rescind a border crackdown and appoint a Hispanic board member to the Federal Reserve.

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But the caucus is also getting past a chaotic start that could imperil its mission.

Barragán’s leadership was thrown into question after she fired the group’s executive director just weeks into the job. While two sources told Semafor that actual calls to oust her as chairwoman were limited to just two or three members, several Democrats familiar with her former staff said they heard complaints she was difficult to work with and could be emotionally abusive to aides. One source said he’d heard her described as a prosecutor, even within her own office: ”She’ll break you down, she’ll find vulnerabilities — you know, she’s a lawyer.”

Some critics questioned whether the CHC could achieve its ambitious goals this cycle without staffing up early with top flight aides, a task they said was made harder by Barragan’s reputation.

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Asked about their concerns, Barragán told Semafor that the staff move was “made in collaboration” with the rest of the CHC and had not diminished their operations.

“This was a collective decision and in the best interests of the organization,” she said. “We are now in a search for a new executive director, but nothing is stopping — as you see, we are on the road today.”

Barragán is said to have a close relationship with Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and House caucus chair Pete Aguilar and the CHC’s input will be critical in shaping immigration policy, in particular.

“Nothing happens on immigration without the Hispanic Caucus,” Barragán told Semafor.

After years of leading resistance to Trump’s border crackdowns, CHC members condemned Biden’s recent plan to adopt some similar strategies to prevent people from seeking asylum at the border, including requiring migrants to turn to other countries for help first. They’ve also demanded to be consulted on any legislation that emerges from bipartisan talks on the issue.

Barragán said she’s had conversations with House leadership, the White House and has encouraged the tri-caucus (which includes the Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus) to work together in response.

“This moves us closer to ending asylum as we know it,” she said. “I mean, if you look at the statistics of who gets granted asylum, they’re so tiny already and now you’re going to change the burden and the presumption? I’m at a loss for words,” she added.

But the politics of the border go hand in hand with policy. Nervous Democrats in competitive races pivoted to the right on immigration in the midterms, with many pushing the White House to maintain a Trump-enacted pandemic policy to speed up removals. The CHC managed to quiet some of the panic with Democratic wins in key races. But they need to keep proving they’re still in touch with the voters they serve or risk losing influence — with millions of lives potentially affected.

Rep. Tony Cárdenas, D-Calif. told Semafor at Thursday’s event that the caucus was still up to the task.

“Just like any family, there are moments where you’re arguing a little bit, but the bottom line is we come together as a family as a community, and we move forward,” he said. “We’re bigger and stronger today than we were yesterday.”

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Notable

  • Politico’s Myah Ward digs into the similarities and differences between the White House’s new border rules and the Trump administration’s. While Biden officials reject the comparison, citing new legal pathways to apply for asylum, immigration advocates and CHC members have drawn a line between the two approaches.
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