Reading Time: 3 minutes

Pedro Rios was nine years old when he arrived to the United States, and now he’s a Republican candidate for California’s state legislature.

“I’m an immigrant, like many, who has worked to succeed and I’m living the American Dream,” the farmer, now 39, says in a Facebook post advertising his run at the 32nd Assembly District in the Bakersfield area.

Pedro Rios, a Republican running for the California state assembly, didn’t become a legal resident until he was a teenager. Courtesy of

But what Rios consistently avoided saying — until late October — was that he started out as a young illegal immigrant who was smuggled as a child over the border from Mexico.

Rios didn’t become a legal resident until he was a teenager and was able to take advantage of an amnesty in the 1986 immigration reform passed by Congress and signed by President Reagan. He became a U.S. citizen in 1996.

As Bakersfield area press reports have indicated, the disclosure has proved awkward for Rios — who opposes the DREAM Act for undocumented youths to earn legal status — as well as for Rios’ local Republican champions.

Not least among Rios’ champions is Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the staunch conservative from Bakersfield who is the House of Representatives’ majority whip.

McCarthy is at the top of the list of Rios’ endorsements in this region, where Democrats have gained strength among an increasing Latino population.

Rios disclosed his history when he came under attack from Democrats and his rival, Rudy Salas, also Hispanic, for failing to support the DREAM Act or President Obama’s recent move to allow youths, as a stop-gap measure, to apply for temporary legal status.

Publicly, McCarthy — Rios’ star supporter — has toed the hard GOP line on immigration, attacking the idea of any breaks to allow undocumented youths or adults to earn legal status.

“We should not provide any amnesty that would benefit those who defy our laws and enter the United States illegally,” McCarthy’s website says. “In order to reduce the number of illegal immigrants in our country, we must enforce the laws that already exist. In order to do this, we must secure our border by using both physical as well as electronic barriers.”

At the same time, McCarthy acknowledged earlier this year that the GOP has alienated Latino voters in California and needs to address that failure.

Rios is part of that effort.

McCarthy was an architect of the “Young Guns” candidate recruitment drive that propelled the GOP to victory in 2010. He’s trying to replicate that with a “Trailblazers” drive for California’s state legislature.

McCarthy stuck with Rios after Rios acknowledged he was a beneficiary of amnesty. He suggested that since Rios was a child, he wasn’t responsible for entering illegally.

“This does not change one iota,” McCarthy told the Bakersfield Californian newspaper. “He became a citizen … and then he went and served the military for eight years. He was a 9-year-old kid that his uncle brought across.”

The media in Bakersfield sees the flap as an opportunity to advance public dialogue on immigration.

A Bakersfield Californian columnist took Rios to task, accusing his campaign of hiding his background as long as it could to placate conservatives — even though Rios’ life story would likely resonate, and boost support, among Latinos. Since his revelation, Rios has said he opposes the DREAM Act because he wants broader immigration reform to benefit others, not just those who arrived as children.

In a stinging Bakersfield Californian editorial, however, the local GOP is taken to task for reacting to Rios’ revelation with comments hinting that Rios was “somehow different, more virtuous and deserving” because Congress and Reagan created an amnesty.

“What sets Rios apart from the millions of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. today — the ones so often demonized by Republicans for breaking the law when they crossed the border?” the editorial asks. “Rios got lucky. That’s all. “

Help support this work

Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising so that our investigative reporting can have the widest possible impact on addressing inequality in the U.S. Our work is possible thanks to support from people like you. 

Susan Ferriss

Susan Ferriss joined CPI in 2011 and directs its immigration project. As a Cox Newspapers Latin America...