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Congressional Hispanic Caucus continues to exclude El Paso congressman

More than 560,000 Hispanics on US-Mexico border excluded from representation through Hispanic lawmakers organization; la frontera at the crossroads of identity and political power

by Alberto Tomas Halpern and Emanuel Anthony Martinez // September 30, 2013 // Government

Congressional Hispanic Caucus continues to exclude El Paso congressman

Congressman Beto O'Rourke, Congressman Filemon Vela and Border Network for Human Rights director Fernando Garcia talk to members of the press after the September 16 town hall meeting on immigration reform. (Alberto Tomas Halpern/Newspaper Tree)

When voters went to the polls in 2012, immigration reform remained a highly-visible and unresolved issue.

Since 2005, immigration reform had emerged as a top priority for the country. On television, CNN’s Lou Dobbs had nearly doubled his ratings over two years, by delivering a relentless campaign against immigrants through his “Broken Borders” series. And in Washington, Congressman James “Jim” Sensenbrenner (R-WI) had passed H.R. 4437, a highly-restrictive immigration bill known as the Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act.

In El Paso, hundreds of high school students across the city spoke up on the issue when they walked out of their classrooms on March 29 and 30, 2006 in protest against H.R. 4437. “If we do not stand up against this injustice, we will lose a lot of families,” a 15-year-old student told the El Paso Times during one march. The Times reported that students from Burges, Jefferson, Irvin, Canutillo, El Dorado, Del Valle, Ysleta, and Riverside participated in the marches.

As the primary election season began taking shape in 2012, immigration reform advocates in El Paso’s 16th Congressional District were ready to support a candidate who would take their cause to Washington, D.C.

District 16 covers much of the El Paso region, including the cities of El Paso, Canutillo, Vinton and Horizon City. Fort Bliss, Franklin Mountain State Park and the Hueco Tanks State Park are also in the district. Of the district’s 707,375 residents, 560,806 or 79.28 percent are Hispanic.

In 2012, Democratic Congressman Silvestre Reyes was the eight-term incumbent representing District 16. He was first elected to congress in 1996 after a 26-year career as a Border Patrol officer.

He worked his way through the agency to become the first Hispanic Border Patrol Sector Chief in 1984 and served as sector chief in McAllen and El Paso. While stationed in El Paso in 1993, Reyes attracted national attention with a controversial border-security strategy called “Operation Blockade,” later renamed “Operation Hold the Line.”

“The emphasis of the operation was to deter unauthorized border crossings in the core urban area between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso by making a bristling show of force,” wrote Timothy Dunn in his book, Blockading the Border and Human Rights: the El Paso Operation that Remade Immigration Enforcement.

As a member of Congress, Reyes developed a reputation as a strong advocate for border security. In 2004, Reyes established a border security conference at the University of Texas in El Paso that would continue as an annual event through the rest of his congressional career. Shortly thereafter, in 2006, Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi appointed him as chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the House of Representative’s primary committee responsible for overseeing federal intelligence activities.

In 2009, Tom Barry, senior policy analyst at the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C., wrote a three-part investigative series, published by Newspaper Tree, chronicling Reyes’ close relationships to defense firms, including the PMA Group, Digital Fusion, General Dynamics, and SAIC. “The rising power and influence of Rep. Reyes over the last decade is also turning El Paso del Norte into the home of the country’s new military/homeland security complex,” wrote Barry.

Reyes’ most serious challenger in the 2012 primary race was former El Paso city councilman Robert “Beto” O’Rourke

O’Rourke is a native El Pasoan who attended local public schools, including Carlos Rivera and Mesita elementary schools. He graduated from El Paso High School before attending Columbia University in New York City.

O’Rourke, who is of Irish heritage, also speaks fluent Spanish.

Comprehensive immigration reform was a key issue O’Rourke supported during the 2012 primary and general election season.

“I will work to ensure that the people of El Paso, the ones actually living on the border and dealing with the implementations of immigration and border security policies passed in Washington, have a voice in this very important discussion,” O’Rourke said on his campaign website.

In a campaign video during the primary election, O’Rourke said his background as a border resident and his understanding of immigration, border security and trade would be a valuable tool in communicating El Paso’s message to the rest of congress.

“I think I have a very compelling and powerful story to tell about what we do to make our country a better, stronger, safer, more vibrant place, and I want to make sure that message is told where it counts in Washington, DC,” O’Rourke said.

On May 29, 2012, primary election day, O’Rourke defeated Reyes with 50.5 percent of the vote.

Dr. Richard Pineda, a communications professor at UTEP who followed the election closely, said Reyes lost because of a widely held perception that he was not involved or visible in the community. Pineda said the voters had become fatigued with Reyes.

“Really, it’s an issue of voters feeling that something needed to be changed,” Pineda said.

Longtime El Paso political journalist David Crowder covered the race between Reyes and O’Rourke. Crowder said that O’Rourke was able to defeat Reyes because he appealed to a broader group of people, including liberal Democrats, business and conservative Democrats and Republicans. Reyes on the other hand was backed by the El Paso Democratic establishment.

Crowder said redistricting also played a role in Reyes’ defeat. Core Reyes constituencies from the Lower Valley were removed from District 16 and placed in District 23, currently held by Democrat Pete Gallego.

O’Rourke’s primary win in the heavily Democratic district secured his seat in Congress. He went on to defeat his Republican challenger, Barbara Carrasco, by a wide margin in November. O’Rourke received 65.4 percent of the vote in the general election.

In that race, O’Rourke had cited his position on immigration reform, among other issues, as a key difference between the candidates.

“I also have taken positions that are in line with this community’s priorities and experiences. I am pro-immigration reform, pro-DREAM Act,” O’Rourke told The Prospector, UTEP’s student newspaper.

Asked if he believed El Paso voters expected O’Rourke to take up immigration reform in congress after his election, Crowder said he believed so.

“Yes, because he said he would,” Crowder said.

He added that immigration reform is and continues to be an important issue for El Pasoans.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus

Since 1976, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus has played a central role in shaping immigration policy and other issues affecting the Hispanic community in the U.S. The caucus is a “congressional Member organization,” governed under the rules of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Most Hispanic members of Congress are members of the caucus during their time in office, including Silvestre Reyes, who also served as chairman from 2001 to 2002.

“The function of the caucus is to serve as a forum for the Hispanic members of Congress to coalesce around a collective legislative agenda,” according to the caucus website. “The caucus is dedicated to voicing and advancing, through the legislative process, issues affecting Hispanics in the United States, Puerto Rico, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.”

When a Hispanic issue falls into the national spotlight, the caucus serves as a leading voice on that issue.

On September 6, 2001, Reyes spoke as chairman of the caucus on PBS NewsHour. The segment was called “Immigration Challenge.”

“We, from the caucus, think that we need to be inclusive in whatever we do in immigration, but more than anything else we need to recognize that there are people living in our country that are doing the kinds of jobs that others won’t do in the service industry, in the construction industry, in the agricultural industry and, therefore, we need to legalize them,” said Reyes.

In 2008, the caucus demanded a meeting with CNN’s parent company to condemn the anti-immigrant tone of television host Lou Dobbs. According to the Guardian, when the caucus’ request was rebuffed, caucus members “condemned the TV network for failing to recognize the ‘potentially dangerous’ consequences of Dobbs’s ‘divisive commentary.’”

A year before, in May 2007, Dobbs had spoken to 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl about a meeting he had with the caucus.

“Did they accuse you of being anti-Hispanic,” she had asked Dobbs.

“Well, that was the implication without question,” Dobbs had said. “And I was asked if I’d ever eaten a taco before, for God’s sake. Pretty amazing stuff.”

More recently, in December 2012, NPR reported that the caucus was at the forefront of the immigration reform debate. “The Hispanic Caucus, for which immigration has long been its signature issue, offered its own nine policy priorities in hopes of shaping negotiations,” Corey Dade reported.

And The Wall Street Journal reported, on July 10, that Hispanic lawmakers were urging President Obama to help pass an immigration reform bill in the House.

“Mr. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden met privately on Wednesday (July 10) with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to discuss ways to push the immigration bill through the Republican-controlled House,” Peter Nicholas and Colleen McCain Nelson reported.

On June 27, the Senate passed an immigration reform bill, S.744. The bill was crafted by a bipartisan group of senators known as the “Gang of Eight.” The legislation was approved by a 68-32 vote with 14 Republicans joining every Democrat and two Independents in supporting the bill. Democrats hold a majority in the Senate.

The caucus was a proponent of the Senate bill throughout the legislative process and worked to influence Senators to approve the legislation.

“From the beginning, the (caucus) has urged the Gang of Eight to develop a solution that provides an earned path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country. We are pleased this principle is a core tenet of their bill, and that our other priorities of keeping families together, providing a workable solution for the business community and preserving our values as Americans are included,” caucus chairman Ruben Hinojosa (TX-15) said after the Gang of Eight introduced their bill.

Despite representing a predominantly Hispanic congressional district that borders Mexico and running on an immigration-reform platform, O’Rourke is barred from becoming a member of the caucus. The Texas Tribune’s Julian Aguilar reported on July 24 that O’Rourke is ineligible to join the caucus because he lacks Hispanic heritage.

The next day, Texas on the Potomac, the Houston Chronicle’s staff blog about Texas lawmakers in congress, reported that the congressman’s office later clarified that O’Rourke had never asked to join the caucus. “O’Rourke has never expressed interest in joining the caucus, which the El Paso Democrat understands only admits members of Hispanic heritage.”

On the same day the Tribune published its story, Newspaper Tree contacted the Hispanic Caucus to request copies of their bylaws and to learn how the group defines the term “Hispanic.”

Caucus spokesman Kristian Ramos declined to provide the bylaws, saying it was not public information, and had no further comment.

Less than two months later, Politico reported that House Minority Leader and former Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, had hosted an invitation-only dinner reception and discussion on immigration reform at her Washington, D.C. home. The invited guests were members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC).

El Paso’s congressman was not invited to participate.

Ashley Etienne, Pelosi’s Deputy Communications Director, said the September 9 immigration discussion was organized by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the Steering and Policy Committee of the House Democratic Caucus and the Tri-Caucus, which is made up of Caucus, CAPAC and the Congressional Black Caucus.

The DCCC did not respond to questions regarding its invitation list.

“It was part of (Pelosi’s) ongoing efforts to foster a dialogue with members of the caucuses and discuss issues that are important to those members. It was an informal way to continue those dialogues,” Etienne said.

O’Rourke minimized his exclusion from the dinner, explaining that he has had other meetings with Pelosi, one individually and one as a member of the Congressional Border Caucus. He added that he and Pelosi also held a press conference, earlier this summer, denouncing the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border.

“I’ve not been left out of any significant conversation,” he said.

Nevertheless, O’Rourke’s exclusion from the dinner is further evidence that his exclusion from the Hispanic Caucus results in less political access for his 560,806 Hispanic constituents, on Hispanic issues.

Some, like Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa, believe that O’Rourke should have been given the opportunity to attend the event and that his exclusion from the Hispanic Caucus could lead to him being left out of similar discussions on national policy issues.

“Congressman O’Rourke obviously has a major interest in the ultimate outcome of this immigration reform debate and legislation,” said Gilberto Hinojosa.

He said it’s important for the House and Democratic leadership to hear from representatives who represent border communities, especially on the issue of immigration reform.

“I also believe Congressman O’Rourke understands this issue well and could provide valuable information to the Democratic leadership,” Gilberto Hinojosa added.

Crowder said he thought the Hispanic Caucus’ decision to exclude O’Rourke was a mistake that they will regret.

“I think the Caucus shot themselves in the foot by keeping him out. I think it was very embarrassing for them,” Crowder said. Though O’Rourke is not Hispanic, Crowder described him as having “feet in both cultures.”

No one from the Hispanic Caucus responded to questions about O’Rourke’s exclusion from the group or whether they thought he should be allowed to join.

The offices of caucus chairman Hinojosa, caucus first vice chair, Ben Ray Lujan (NM-3) and second vice chair, Linda Sanchez (CA-38), did not return phone calls.

In addition, Texas Congressmen Joaquin Castro (TX-20) and Henry Cuellar (TX-28) did not respond to questions. Castro’s San Antonio district is 66.31 percent Hispanic and Cuellar’s district, which stretches from Laredo to Seguin, is 78.39 percent Hispanic.

Daniel Herrera, spokesman for California Congressman Xavier Becerra (CA-34), said Becerra was not available for an interview when contacted on September 18. Herrera said that priority is given to local or national media outlets. Becerra did not respond to questions sent via email either.

When contacted, the office of Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham (NM-1) referred all questions to the caucus. Lujan Grisham is the caucus Whip.

On September 10, Newspaper Tree contacted the Hispanic Caucus to request again a copy of their membership rules and bylaws. Again, the caucus declined to provide a copy.

Newspaper Tree was unable to submit a request for the documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a law similar to the Texas Public Information Act (TPIA), because the caucus, as an entity of the House of Representatives, is exempt from the act.

George Washington University’s National Security Archive notes that, “Congress, the federal courts, and parts of the Executive Office of the President that function solely to advise and assist the President, are not subject to the FOIA.”

In lieu of an open records request, Newspaper Tree requested a copy of the caucus’ bylaws from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). NARA is the federal agency charged with preserving historic federal documents, including the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

On September 17, NARA provided Newspaper Tree with the Hispanic Caucus’ November 30, 1994 bylaws.

The following day, on September 18, Newspaper Tree again contacted the Hispanic Caucus to request a copy of its current bylaws and explained that by declining to provide an alternate document, Newspaper Tree understands that the 1994 bylaws have not been substantially changed and reflect the language of the current bylaws.

Caucus spokesman Ramos responded by phone, “I am not going to comment on the bylaws.”

The 1994 bylaws lay out the caucus’ goal of improving “the conditions of Hispanics through legislative initiatives benefiting the Hispanic community.” The caucus tracks and researches legislation, as well as monitors the policies of the judicial and executive branches of government.

Under Article 2, “character of organization,” the bylaws state: “All Hispanic Members of the United States Congress are eligible for regular membership. Non-Hispanic Members of Congress are eligible for Associate Membership.”

The term “Hispanic” is not defined in the document.

Mattie Muñoz, O’Rourke’s communications director, said that the caucus has not extended O’Rourke an offer of associate membership.

In an addendum to the bylaws, the caucus explains, “Today, there are twelve members at the caucus and over sixty associate members.” Today, the caucus’ website lists 26 regular members, but makes no mention of associate membership.

Ramos said, by telephone, that he believes O’Rourke is a member of the caucus’ related 501(c)(3) organization, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, and BOLD PAC, their political action committee, but not a member of the caucus itself.

“For associate membership (today), that’s as good as it gets,” he said.

Muñoz said O’Rourke is not a member of the caucus’s institute or the PAC.

According to the bylaws, associate members are not eligible to become officers of the organization.

Border Caucus holds a hearing and town hall in El Paso on immigration

On September 16, Congressman O’Rourke hosted a hearing and town hall meeting, without the support of the Hispanic Caucus or Democratic leadership.

The hearing was organized by the Congressional Border Caucus, of which O’Rourke is a member. The Border Caucus is a 12-member group of House representatives from states that border Mexico.

In addition to O’Rourke, Congressman Filemon Vela (TX-34) and Congressman Raul Grijalva (AZ-3) participated in the hearing.

Vela made headlines when he resigned from the Hispanic Caucus in early July over what he believed was the House Democratic leadership’s insistence that the caucus endorse the Senate immigration bill. The Senate bill includes a provision that would add 20,000 Border Patrol agents along the U.S.-Mexico border and would build 700 miles of additional fencing along the U.S. southern border. Vela said he is adamantly opposed to that provision and resigned in protest.

Grijalva, a Hispanic Caucus and Border Caucus member, declined to comment on O’Rourke’s exclusion and Vela’s resignation from the Hispanic Caucus or on the differences between the Hispanic Caucus and the Border Caucus.

“I’m not going to bite on that one,” Grijalva said as he walked away to smoke a cigarette.

Fernando Garcia, director of the Border Network for Human Rights, a nonprofit organization serving West Texas and Southern New Mexico, announced in Spanish at the town hall meeting that he would petition the Hispanic Caucus to allow O’Rourke to join the group of Hispanic lawmakers.

“He represents a community (that is) 80 percent Hispanic,” Garcia said. “A congressman is what his community is, isn’t that true?” he asked a crowd of about 300 residents at the town hall. The crowd responded with a loud “Yes.”

Garcia told Newspaper Tree that O’Rourke’s exclusion from the Hispanic Caucus was unacceptable.

“By not having Congressman O’Rourke in those meetings, they are lacking the important voice not only of O’Rourke, but of the people of the border. If someone knows firsthand of the border, of the issues of the border, it is especially Congressman O’Rourke,” Garcia said.

Garcia told the town hall crowd that he will start his petition by lobbying the business community and local municipal governments to garner support for O’Rourke’s inclusion in the Hispanic Caucus.

“That is going to be our commitment because our voice is represented through him,” said Garcia. “And they can’t exclude us.”

O’Rourke said he respected the Hispanic Caucus’ decision not to include him, but given the opportunity, he would join.

“Frankly, we are where we are today with immigration reform, in part, because, they (the caucus members) have labored on this issue for so long. So I have tremendous respect for them and that respect needs to extend to their rules and their bylaws, which currently do not permit me to seek membership,” O’Rourke said.

He continued, “Would I like to be a member? Definitely. As Fernando (Garcia) pointed out earlier, I represent a district that’s more than 80 percent Hispanic. I’d hope that ultimately, that the caucus can look past my ethnicity and see the people I represent and the fact that they need, they should have a voice in those meetings.”

Garcia thinks the debate over immigration reform is one of identity and integration, and who has the power to assign that identity. He said 11 million “undocumented Americans” live in the shadows and have absolutely no rights because of their identity as “undocumented” peoples.

“So immigration reform, at the end of the day, is about bringing them out of the shadows and recognizing their contribution and recognizing them as human beings. So it is a right to identity. The system denies their rights and their identity,” Garcia said.

Garcia said O’Rourke’s exclusion from the Hispanic Caucus is similar in that a group has chosen to exclude an individual from participation based on their view of identity.

“By denying him a space in the caucus, they’re denying Hispanic representation. It doesn’t matter whether Beto is Hispanic or not. That’s a very old political concept of race. You cannot divide politics by race,” Garcia said.

Pablo Vila, a sociology professor at Temple University and former UTEP professor, explained that the U.S. Census Bureau defines “Hispanic” as anyone whose heritage is from Latin America or Spain.

He explained that the Census Bureau provides four races from which Census takers can choose: White, Black, American Indian or Asian. Hispanics, Vila said, can be of any race. Villa said the issue of defining “Hispanic” is complex and goes beyond the Census definition.

Another label that is often confused with “Hispanic” is the term “Latino.” Vila said the term “Latino” includes Brazilians, but not Spaniards, whereas the term “Hispanic” includes Spaniards, but not Brazilians. He added that there is no legal definition for “Latino.”

Vila said the 1960s and 1970s saw the Puerto Rican and Mexican communities in the United States fight to be included in the Hispanic label. He said those communities at the time thought the label would give them greater political strength.

“You had a political battle for the label. It was about who to include in the label,” Vila said.

While Vila concedes that O’Rourke is not Hispanic, he found it interesting that his constituency would push for him to be a member of the Hispanic Caucus. He said the El Paso situation may be a harbinger of future politics, as other parts of the U.S. with large Hispanic populations, like New York City and Chicago, elect non-Hispanic officials, but wish to continue their representation on Hispanic issues.

Vila added that assigning a label such as “Hispanic” or “Latino” varies and depends heavily on context.

“The problem is that those labels are labels that people give meaning to for what they want,” Vila said. “People in El Paso may say ‘we are Hispanic’ and want (O’Rourke) in the Hispanic Caucus. It depends on the connotation that you put the label on.”

This past Saturday, NPR correspondent Kat Chow reported on a recent study in which law professor Osagie Obasogie asked blind people how they perceive race. “Race factors into so much of our everyday lives, but as the professor discovered, it can mean even more to those for whom skin color isn’t readily apparent,” reported Chow.

Race matters, even to those who cannot see, because race is less about skin color and more a social phenomena, according to the study.

“What matters are the social practices that train us to see and experience race in certain ways, regardless of whether we are sighted or not,” professor Obasogie told NPR.

Ultimately, identity and labels can change over time, Vila said.

“It’s politics. Who has power to define whom?”

Andrés Rodríguez contributed to this story from Washington, D.C.

Additional sources: “Two groups walk from Burges to join protest,” Adriana M. Chavez and Zahira Torres, El Paso Times, March 30, 2006; “Students stage more walkouts,” El Paso Times, March 30, 2006; “Ysleta students march to Zaragoza Bridge,” Darren Meritz, El Paso Times, March 30, 2006; “About 125 stage walkout at Riverside,” Ramon Bracamontes, El Paso Times, March 30, 2006; “Hispanic congressmen demand corporate action against CNN host,” Elana Schor, The Guardian, April 28, 2008; “Reyes the Rainmaker: Building the Paso del Norte security system, from academics to economics,” Tom Barry, Newspaper Tree, Sept. 8, 2009; “Reyes the Rainmaker: Contributions and contracts,” Tom Barry, Newspaper Tree, Sept. 9, 2013; “Reyes the Rainmaker: Electronics and earmarks on the border,” Tom Barry, Newspaper Tree, Sept. 17, 2009; “Studying How The Blind Perceive Race”, Kat Chow, NPR (Code Switch), Sept. 29, 2013.

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