Interview: Stephanie Valencia on the 'Huge Evolution' of Immigration Politics

JEFF CIRILLO: Stephanie Valencia has been working on immigration reform in Washington, from Capitol Hill to the White House, for more than a decade — long enough to watch how dramatically the politics of the issue have changed.

At the beginning of her career in politics, Valencia worked as a House and Senate staffer on the Democratic side, often wrangling moderate Democrats reluctant to support relaxing restrictions on immigration and citizenship. Two presidents later, Valencia said, many of the most prominent voices in the Democratic Party are singing a radically different tune.

“One of my very vivid first memories of working on Capitol Hill was Rahm Emmanuel saying, ‘I’m not going to touch that issue with a ten foot pole’ in 2006,” Valencia said. “Today you see [Democratic presidential] primary candidates raising their hands on stage to say they would support health care for undocumented immigrants. That is a huge evolution.”

Valencia — a former White House official and the founder of Equis Labs, a technology-driven political firm focuses on empowering the Latino electorate — kicked off her semester as a fellow with the Georgetown University Institute of Politics and Public service this month. She discussed her career and the future of immigration in U.S. politics alongside the fall 2019 fellows cohort in an interview with On the Record. 

Looking to 2020 — and Beyond

According to Valencia, the evolution of Democratic views on immigration has laid down a challenge for the party’s presidential frontrunner, former Vice President Joe Biden. While Biden emphasizes his connection to former President Barack Obama, other candidates have criticized the Obama administration’s immigration policies.

“There’s obviously a lot of pressure on [Biden] given Obama’s deportation record,” Valencia said. “A lot of people have been critical of that, so how do we think about what lessons need to be learned from the Obama administration? Biden hasn’t truly answered that yet.”

Valencia said the “most thoughtful” 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have been on former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke and former San Antonio mayor Julián Castro, who have experienced the issue on a personal level from living near the U.S.-Mexico border.

Even as the national conversation among Democratic candidates, Valencia cautioned that dramatic change on immigration may not come as easily as Democrats think. The party’s voters are split regarding questions such as what to do with undocumented immigrants who have been living in the country for many years or how not to further incentivize people to enter the country illegally.

“Even within the Hispanic community there’s nuance on this issue,” Valencia said. “There are Hispanic voters who will say they want stronger immigration laws, they want stronger enforcement, they don’t mind the concept of a wall.”

Valencia predicted it will take “several years for us to have an adult conversation about the issue.” She said the “vilification of immigrants” on the Republican side has created a volatile political environment that makes compromise difficult. Still, she said the reaction to the Trump era has had a lasting change in the politics of immigration.

“More so than in the past, I think there is an awareness of why people come,” Valencia said.

A Winding Path to Change

Though not from an immigrant family, Valencia says her experience leaving New Mexico, where most of her neighbors were also Latino, for the East Coast has helped informed her views on Latino issues.

“I went from a place where everybody looked like me to Boston College, where nobody looked like me,” Valencia said.

She also later lived in Mexico and El Salvador, experiences which she saidput her on the path to understanding the U.S. relationship with Latin America and the people who make up the immigrant community in the United States.

Valencia’s winding career in politics has found her at the center of immigration reform in Washington since as early as 2004. After first working on the Hill as a fellow with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, Valencia started as a “little baby press secretary” for a little-known representative from Los Angeles. She then worked for Rep. Rahm Emmanuel (D-Ill.), a member of House leadership, and Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.). 

Salazar “worked down the hall from a guy named Barack Obama, and we shared a lot of staff,” Valencia said. Working close to then-senator Obama helped Valencia join his presidential campaign in 2008 as deputy Latino vote director.

After the election, she worked in his Office of Public Engagement, where she helped build “issue coalitions" and communicating with the public about two signature Obama administration issues: immigration and healthcare.

Following a stint at the Commerce Department Valencia worked on tech policy at Google. Valencia finally started Equis Labs, which she now leads, after working for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign.

“After Trump was president, I decided I can’t go work in a company anymore,” Valencia said. “I had to go and try to get back in the game and the resistance.”

As a GU Politics fellow this fall, Valencia will host weekly discussions on Wednesday from 4 to 5:30 p.m. The conversations, open to all Georgetown students, will cover the 2020 election and what it will take for Democrats to take back the White House.

This article is the second installment in a series of interviews with fall 2019 GU Politics Fellows. Read the first installment, with ABC White House correspondent Karen Travers, here.

Caroline Gardner contributed to this report.

Jeff Cirillo