The Good Fight

Congressman Juan Vargas


It’s another busy day for Congressman Juan Vargas ‘83, newly elected Democrat representing California’s 51st district. Now splitting his time between San Diego and Washington, D.C., and juggling his schedule between votes and committee meetings, Vargas manages to snatch a few moments to reflect on the monumental challenges that accompany his latest political role.

“In many ways, Washington only works when it’s faced with a crisis,” he says. “That’s no way to work. It seems like people here only ultimately come together when things are falling apart.” Although a freshman in the federal arena, political struggles are nothing new to the 52-year-old, who spent eight years as a San Diego city council member, followed by several more in the California State Assembly. Just before he was elected to Congress, Vargas was serving in the state Senate; he’s arrived in Washington at a potentially historic juncture.

“It’s a very exciting time for me to be here, dealing with these very large issues,” Vargas says with characteristic optimism. “I’m particularly hopeful about the issue of immigration.”

With good reason. The son of a Mexican farm worker who came to the U.S. through the Bracero program in the 1940’s, he grew up on a chicken ranch in National City, Calif. Vargas attended USD on a full scholarship and went on to Harvard Law School, where he was a classmate of the future president, Barack Obama. Along the way, he served as a Jesuit for several years and worked for a time with orphans in the jungles of El Salvador. His devout Catholic faith drives his political agenda, which includes safeguarding Social Security and Medicare, and granting all undocumented workers in the U.S. legal status, followed by a path to earned citizenship.

“I try to tell my colleagues, ‘Why would you not want to encourage people to become full citizens, full participants?’” he says. “’Why would you want to keep them in a sub-standard, sub-human condition?’”

It’s a battle Vargas is ready to fight, not only because of his own experience, but because his district — which spans the entire California-Mexico border — has the highest number of undocumented workers in the San Diego region and one of the highest in California. Imperial County’s unemployment rate is at or near the top of the list nationwide.

“I think we have to get as much as we can in the bill and then pass it,” Vargas says. “If I had to, I would agree to something less than full participation, but it would need to be comprehensive. It can’t just be the Dreamers, the kids. Are you really going to tear families apart?”

Helping him achieve his ambitious mission are several long-trusted USD alumni: Chief of Staff Tim Walsh, who obtained his BA from the university in 2002 and earned a masters in peace and justice studies from USD in 2003; Press Secretary Dianna Zamora earned her masters in Global Leadership in 2008; Rita Fernandez ’10 is on staff as a community liaison, and Legislative Assistant Scott Hinkle ’08 is a graduate of USD’s School of Law, as is Vargas’ former chief of staff and close friend, Colin Rice ‘97.

“Juan is the most big-hearted guy you’ve ever met,” Rice says. “He’s extremely loyal to his friends, to his heart and to his beliefs. No one man can change the system, but with people like him in Washington, you begin to get the sense that change at some level is possible.”

The infectious enthusiasm that Vargas inspires among his staffers has all of them believing he will quickly gain the respect of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle, and that he’ll find a way to make a real difference in D.C. “Our district is very unique,” says Zamora. “He has a very unique personal and political perspective on how it can work and he can offer a plan for how to best move forward.”

And because Vargas is likeable, smart, honest and determined, Walsh predicts he’ll rise quickly. “I don’t think he’s ever lost that Jesuit mentality,” Walsh says. “He wants to serve others. I think he’s a shooting star and we’re lucky to have him in the region.”

Still settling into his new office and his new cross-country commuter lifestyle, Vargas, a married father of two girls, says he’s looking forward to what lies ahead. Whether he’s talking about immigration, jobs or gun legislation, his sunny outlook seems unshakable.

“So far, I’m still hopeful,”he laughs. “I haven’t been here long enough to be as cynical as some others. I think we can get to some compromises. That’s what the American people want.” — Karen Gross

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