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Hispanic Lawmakers Defy Categorization

by Marcela Sanchez

March 8, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Washington Post Newsweek Interactive. All Rights Reserved.

 Here's what the critics say about the Hispanic members of Congress: They really don't have much power. Their power is not growing proportionately to the Hispanic population of the United States. Their power is useful on issues important to U.S. Latinos, but virtually useless on matters involving Latin America.

Here are the kinds of things the critics cite:

•Legislation was proposed last week in the House to grant permanent legal status to thousands of Salvadorans and other Central Americans. The bill's co-sponsors represent the districts with the two largest concentrations of Salvadorans in the United States, though neither representative is Hispanic.

•In December, the House, by a one-vote margin, approved a free-trade authorization measure so coveted by Latin American officials that one would think its moniker--Trade Promotion Authority--is Spanish for indispensable. Two-thirds of the Hispanic members of Congress (14 of 16 Democrats, to be exact) voted against it.

•A major force behind both parties' continuing consideration of giving new benefits to some immigrants during this national election year is the potential of increased Hispanic political power--in voting booths around the nation, however, not on Capitol Hill.

Here's why most such criticism misses the point.

No other national political group stands to win as much from the seemingly unending growth in numbers, influence and popularity of the U.S. Latino population--now arguably the nation's largest minority--than the Hispanic delegation on Capitol Hill.

Hispanic members of Congress expect their numbers to grow to 26 in this year's congressional elections. The 38-member Congressional Black Caucus is currently the largest such group in Congress. But the Hispanic delegation could be even larger by the end of this decade, placing them among the ranks of the top three state delegations in Congress.

They will still be far from a homogeneous bloc--and that could broaden their influence. The group is already a diverse one. Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-Tex.), for instance, favors color-blind politics and coalitions. On the other hand, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), is called by some the "Moses of 2000" because of his outspoken defense of immigrants--even though he is Puerto Rican (and as such, a U.S. citizen).

They represent urban, rural and border districts. Their constituents may be recent Latin American immigrants with poor command of English, several-generation Latinos with no command of Spanish, or simply not Latino at all. Party loyalties are sometimes stronger than ethnic ones (The Congressional Hispanic Caucus members, for example, are all Democrats.) Yet on issues that matter to the Latino community at large, unity has frequently prevailed.

Hispanic lawmakers also defy easy characterization in the international arena. Few have lobbied more vehemently on behalf of citizens of another country as the three Cuban American representatives have on behalf of Cubans. The other Hispanic members have limited natural affinity for some of the more prominent issues involving U.S. policy in Latin America because most are Mexican Americans or Puerto Rican.

But their interest in this area, as in others, is growing. Last year, for instance, the Hispanic Caucus met for the first time with ambassadors from all the Americas, said Rep. Robert Menéndez of New Jersey, ranking Democrat in the House Western Hemisphere Subcommittee. They have begun to participate in inter-parliamentary exchanges with Latin American counterparts and more frequently receive governmental and non-governmental delegations from the region.

Their influence rises as they climb the leadership ladders of both parties. Menéndez is fifth in the Democratic Caucus hierarchy -- the highest rank ever for a Hispanic in Congress. Rep. Lincoln Díaz-Balart (R-Fla.) is a member of the influential Rules Committee, while Rep. José Serrano (D-NY) is senior member of the powerful Appropriations Committee.

Today Hispanic members of Congress are the first ones to welcome others willing to carry the burden of many issues that some years ago might have been exclusively theirs. But as those same issues begin to carry themselves, Hispanic members of Congress will need to redefine themselves effectively to remain a force to be reckoned with.

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