ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Pete Domenici, the longest-serving senator from the most Hispanic state in the United States, kept his family's immigration experience private for years.
In one of his last speeches as a senator, the New Mexico Republican, who died Wednesday at 85, told his colleagues that his deceased mother had been an immigrant from Italy who was in the U.S. illegally.
The revelation stunned his Senate colleagues as they tried to work through immigration reform measures in 2006 aimed at helping an estimated 11 million immigrants in the country without legal status.
Those proposals, some backed by then-President George W. Bush, all failed.
Domenici said his family's saga began when his father, Cherubino Domenici, became a citizen after he was drafted into the Army during World War I.
A lawyer erroneously told his father that Alda Domenici, who came to the U.S. as a baby, became a citizen when they were married.
The truth emerged during World War II, when federal agents searching for Italian sympathizers started checking on Italian-American families.
"Federal officials came to our house to arrest my mother while my father was at work," Domenici said from the Senate floor. "It was a frightening situation for my entire family that occurred through no fault of my mother, who had lived in America for more than 30 years as an exemplary citizen."
Domenici, then a small child, said he wept as his mother disappeared in a black car. She was later released.
Domenici said his experience convinced him to introduce legislation granting immigrants in the country illegally a pathway to citizenship. The bill failed.
Christine Sierra, a retired University of New Mexico political science professor, had watched Domenici as he spoke on the Senate floor.
"I was very impressed," Sierra said. "He was so straightforward. People remember that."
Gabriel Sanchez, a retired University of New Mexico political science professor, said Domenici helped out at his father's grocery story and had worked among blue-collar Hispanics.
Sanchez said those relationships helped the Republican win elections in a Democratic-leaning state with large support from Latinos.
"He used to talk to me a lot about his mother, his family's grocery store, his immigrant roots," former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, said. "He used to talk to me about how he was proud that America welcomed the Domenici family. This carried through to his commitment to immigration reform."
Alda Domenici, a native of Fornovolasco, Italy, eventually became a citizen. She died in 1981.
Associated Press writer Morgan Lee contributed to this report from Santa Fe.
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