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Kevin de León: The Teacher Who Helped Rally Immigrants to March

- Written by: Pilar Marrero, Portrait by: Ricardo Palavecino

In late 2014, Kevin de León was California Senate Pro tempore elect when his bill SB 396 was enacted, removing all unconstitutional provisions of 1994's Proposition 187 from state laws.

It was almost 20 years to the date that the voter initiative had been passed by voters. De León, then an organizer and a teacher of English as a Second Language, U.S. History and Civics, had helped put together the resistance against it and a march that would become a watershed moment in Los Angeles and California history.

At that time, he was a college dropout from the University of California in Santa Barbara. Years later, in 2003, he graduated with honors at Pitzer College. Today, he is a lecturer at the UCLA Luskin Public Affairs and a Distinguished Fellow for Climate, Environmental Justice and Health, with the USC Schwarzenegger Institute.

Born in Los Angeles in 1966, de León is the son of a single, Guatemalan-born immigrant mother, Carmen Osorio, who supported the family working as a housekeeper, among other jobs.  His father Andrés León, also from Guatemala, was largely absent from his life.

De León was raised in the Logan Heights neighborhood of San Diego and spent part of his youth in Tijuana, Baja California, where his stepfather's family lived.

He moved to Santa Barbara to attend college, but dropped out and stayed in that city, where he took a job with One Stop Immigration, a nonprofit organization where recent immigrants took classes to prepare for their citizenship exams.

This is where de León first heard about a voter initiative that targeted immigrants, which would later be called Prop 187. The anti-immigrant movement brought fear to the community, but those targeted could not vote, he remembers.

That's when he and other colleagues at the nonprofit (Fabián Núñez and Juan José Gutiérrez) started organizing a way to give those immigrants a public voice on the issue. "We had to march, talk to our family members, our co-workers and neighbors. We had to come together because this was about our dignity and self-respect.”

The march was held on October 17, 1994, and it was a success in bringing immigrants and their supporters to the streets. It was then the largest march ever to be held in Los Angeles but criticized by many, even inside the Democratic party, where it was believed to have helped pushed some to vote for the Proposition as many marchers were carrying Mexican flags.

But for de León and other organizers, the march was a success. He would go on to become a labor organizer for the California Teachers Association and to be the campaign manager for Fabian Núñez's campaign for California State Assembly in 2002. 

In 2006, de León ran for assembly, defeating Christine Chavez, the granddaughter of labor leader Cesar E. Chavez. In 2010, he was elected to the California State Senate and became State Senate President pro-Tempore in 2014.

During his time in the California legislature, he pushed a progressive agenda and investments in infrastructure (parks and housing). In the Senate, he emphasized an environmental and pro-immigrant agenda.

For example, SB 350, signed into law in 2015, mandates that utilities in California purchase 33% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020 and 50% from renewable sources by 2030. He also pushed a quarter of the revenue in cap-and-trade to low-income communities and created a rebate initiative to make electric cars more accessible to working families.

When Donald Trump won in 2016, de León pressed for state money to provide legal assistance to immigrants facing deportation. In 2017, he sponsored SB54, the California Values Act, which prohibits state and local law enforcement agencies from using local resources to perform the federal government's job. 

In 2018, de León ran for the U.S. Senate to unseat long-term Senator Dianne Feinstein. Although he was able to get a spot in a run-off, he did not win.

In March of 2020, de León was elected councilman of the Los Angeles 14th Council District but is expected to take the position in mid-October after the previous councilman José Huizar was arrested in a federal corruption case.

De León has one daughter, Lluvia Carrasco.

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