Hispanic Democrats hear out Harris aide, expect support on immigration reform

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Hispanic Democrats hear out Harris aide, expect support on immigration reform
© PBS.org Jamal Simmons

Vice President Harris’s top communications aide survived the first major challenge of his tenure, after delivering apologies to congressional Hispanic Democrats over decade-old tweets that seemingly made light of immigration enforcement arrests.

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Harris Communications Director Jamal Simmons on Thursday met via teleconference with Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) members to address the tweets, which re-surfaced shortly after his position was announced earlier this month.

“Jamal was apologetic and seemed open during the meeting. He said that he was ready and willing to work with the CHC,” said a source familiar with the conversation, which took place at the CHC’s weekly members meeting.

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Still, Simmons received pushback in the meeting, particularly from the group’s most senior senator, New Jersey’s Bob Menéndez, who led the push in the upper chamber to include immigration provisions in President Biden’s signature Build Back Better (BBB) spending legislation.

According to another source in the room, “Menendez emphasized how his actions are more important than words from now on, and reminded Simmons to be thoughtful before saying anything that can hurt an entire community.”

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Simmons’ presentation to the CHC was preceded by a blitz on social media and direct calls to lawmakers, with powerful allies in the immigrant community vouching for the Harris aide.

Simmons, who previously worked at progressive public affairs firm The Raben Group and as a progressive political commentator including at Hill.TV, has a history of taking left-leaning positions on an array of issues, including immigration, before and since the tweets in question.

Still, some members of the CHC and many in the Hispanic community found it hard to forgive one tweet, where Simmons made a flippant remark questioning immigration arrests.

Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.), who decided not to attend the meeting because of the nature of that remark, said Simmons’ “acid test is going to be the test of time.”

“I think people have to recognize the sensibilities of our community,” said Correa.

“These people are terrified. To have statements like these made is a total disregard for what’s going on on Main Street,” added Correa, who’s become one of the most vocal defenders of immigrant rights in the CHC.

While Simmons’ 2010 comment contrasts with his historical and current stated positions on immigration, it hit a third rail with immigrant communities.

In the tweet, Simmons asked why Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was not “picking … up” an undocumented activist and a law student who outed their immigration status on live television.

In an apology to Erika Andiola, the activist in question, Simmons said he was not advocating for ICE to arrest the two, rather questioning the wisdom of undocumented people publicly outing their status.

Andiola, who publicly accepted Simmons’ apology, said she in part accepted his apology “because people who I truly love and respect (including undocu folks) know him, and they’ve known his stances on immigration for years.”

“.@VPHarris has the power to ignore the Parliamentarian if BBB goes to the Senate floor for a vote. No, the Comms Director doesn’t work on policy, but it sure won’t hurt to have someone influence the VP. Just saying,” added Andiola.

Both members who accepted the apology and who didn’t pointed to the immigration reform fight as a field where Simmons could make significant amends beyond verbal apologies.

Correa, who said he represents more Dreamers than any other member, said the issue goes beyond a single tweet, and beyond Simmons.

“My concern also is it creates a narrative – another point in a narrative of predispositions and attitudes that we are willing to accept,” said Correa.

“You make those statements and they become essentially acceptable. That’s the damage.”

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