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Ron Rivera says 'America's foundation is built on’ immigration in response to Donald Trump's policies

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The NFL’s only Latino head coach shared his perspective on immigration with CNN Money.

Atlanta Falcons v Carolina Panthers Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The Carolina Panthers’ Ron Rivera is the only Latino head coach in the NFL, and his heritage gives him a unique perspective on President Donald Trump’s approach to immigration issues in the United States.

Rivera said during an interview with CNN Money’s Ahiza Garcia that regardless of what the president is trying to do, it’s important to not lose sight of the impact of this administration’s planned policies, from building a wall to the so-called Muslim ban.

“There’s a group of people that are trying to make better lives for their families, and that’s what it really should be about,” Rivera said. “And I think what everybody has to understand, more so than anything else, is that’s what America’s foundation is built on, and we can’t lock people out because of that.”

As the only Latino head coach in the NFL, it hasn’t been an easy road for Rivera to get to this point, and he has experienced prejudice because of his race.

Rivera was born in California, but his father — a native Puerto Rican — was in the military. Rivera spent part of his childhood in Puerto Rico and avoided being a target of racism while surrounded by people who shared his heritage. That all changed when his family moved back to the mainland and another kid called him a pejorative term.

“I didn’t feel racism until I came back to the United States,” Rivera said. “But there was one term that set me off one time, and that’s ‘wetbacks.’ That was the one that got me.”

It felt personal to Rivera, whose mother’s family had emigrated from Mexico, across the Rio Grande and into Colorado and then on to the Salinas Valley in California.

Rivera played linebacker at UC Berkeley in the early ’80s, and even an All-American at a school widely considered to be liberal in thought and practice was not exempt from racism.

“I will say this — I felt it in college,” Rivera said. “It was a guy, he was Anglo — he was white — and he was supposed to be a teammate and made a couple of comments. And that stuck in my mind.”

Immigration has been a hotly debated topic in the United States, especially in the wake of the recent election. The administration’s plans to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, as well as the travel ban that impacts immigrants, remain contentious subjects.

But while lawmakers may try to talk around it by throwing out jobs and national security as reasoning, the element of race can’t be ignored.

Rivera, who has spent his life immersed in a sport without many people who share his heritage, said that knowing other Latinos look up to him provides more motivation to achieve.

“I feel that I have to succeed to the highest level I can. I’m at that level now,” Rivera said. “Once I realized this was what I wanted to do, I wanted to be the best. I wanted to reach the peak, the pinnacle of what I do, and I have been.”

Rivera has succeeded. He was selected in the second round of the 1984 NFL draft by the Chicago Bears, and was a member of the 1985 team that won Super Bowl XX. As a head coach, he has led the Panthers to three consecutive NFC South championships in 2013, 2014, and 2015, as well as an NFC Championship and a Super Bowl 50 bid in 2015.

Rivera also said that he struggles with Cam Newton’s drive to succeed as a black quarterback, because he feels like Newton’s race shouldn’t be a factor, but rather, “it should be really about your merit.”

It should be about merit, but race and the way it’s perceived in the United States is a complex issue that cannot be ignored.

Coaches in other sports, like Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh and the Warriors’ Steve Kerr, have been vocally critical of the Trump administration’s policies. Rivera, who blazed a trail as the first Latino in the league when he was drafted, is also the first NFL coach to speak out against Trump’s policies.