WASHINGTON — At a ceremony to usher in a record number of Latino Democrats in Congress, lawmakers exuded more outrage than delight as they recognized their legislative ambitions are contending for now with a standoff over a border wall with Mexico that has partially shut down the government.
"It's because of Trump’s obsession with stirring up anti-immigrant sentiment that we're in this predicament and it is quickly affecting the most vulnerable,” said newly minted Democratic Congressman Jesús “Chuy” García, D-Illinois, the first Mexican American to represent the state in Congress.
“It is very unfortunate that he chose this fight, he brought this closure on. We’ve offered solutions and I hope common sense prevails,” García told NBC News.
García was one of the members of Congress who participated in a ceremonial swearing-in Wednesday night at the U.S. Capitol for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), a bipartisan organization whose members are all Democrat. According to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), there are thirty-three Latino Democrats in the current Congress and five Republicans who have their own caucus known as the Congressional Hispanic Conference.
Speaking to a packed crowd, newly elected CHC Chair Rep. Joaquín Castro, D-Texas said that the highest number of Hispanics in Congress represents a greater focus on the community at large and a greater opportunity to counter negative perceptions about Latinos, which some decry as a reason for the elevated attention of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
"It’s no secret that the last few years the Latino community has been a target of a lot of disinformation and in many ways a lot of slander, and I want to thank each and every one for standing up against that and telling the truth about our community, a community that is sincere, that is hard working, and that most of all is not going anywhere,” said Castro.
The shutdown has dampened new legislators' hopes of hitting the ground running. Rep. Sylvia García, D-Texas is one of two women — the other is Rep. Verónica Escobar — making history as the first Latinas representing Texas in the Congress.
García said that while most of the attention has been on federal government workers who have been furloughed or are working without pay, she is worried about the shutdown's effect on working families in her Houston district as well as nationwide. The congresswoman’s district is 76 percent Hispanic.
“We’ve got to make sure that people are going to be able to file their tax returns and get tax refunds and we’ve got to make sure people that people have food on the table, that the SNAP (food stamps) program continues," said García. "We've got to make sure that anyone who files a disability claim has a case worker that can process it. I think it’s important that we put the government back to work; it’s hurting people.”
While the shutdown is front and center, Latino legislators say they are looking at working on a number of key issues this year. One of them is fighting against the inclusion of a citizenship question on the 2020 Census, fearing it will dampen participation, as Census bureau researchers have suggested.
An under count of Americans would adversely affect resources and funding for local and state governments.
“It would be most detrimental to our community in particular and would be a great setback for our country to include the citizenship question. It would be a capitulation to authoritarian rule in our country,” said Rep. García to NBC News.
Several cities, including García’s Chicago, have sued the federal government to try to stop the question from being added.
Other issues that are high on the CHC's agenda include the ongoing push for healthcare access — Latinos have had the highest rates of uninsurance and made big gains under Obamacare — as well accountability on the post-hurricane response in Puerto Rico. CHC members will be holding a meeting and going to the island this weekend.
At the ceremony, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told the group that immigration will be a priority in the new congressional session, including keeping the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program alive, which is currently tied up in courts as supporters battle the Trump administration’s attempts to end it.
Amid talk of the different issues, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer drew cheers when he spoke of greater diversity of the new congressional class.
“It’s getting to look more and more like the America we love and the record number of people here is testament to that,” he told the crowd.
The new Congress includes the nation's first South-American born legislator, Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-Fla., who was born in Ecuador.