WASHINGTON (AP) — A record 43 Latinos elected to Congress are set to take the oath of office in January, including the youngest woman ever elected, two Latinas from Texas, the first Latino to represent Ohio and a woman born in Ecuador.
A few are ascending to leadership roles, demonstrating the growing clout of the 57 million Latinos who live in the United States. New Mexico Rep. Ben Ray Lujan will move into the fourth-highest position in Democratic leadership, becoming the highest-ranking Latino in the history of the House. In the Senate, Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto will become the first Latina ever in charge of the Democratic Party's campaign arm for Senate races.
Francisco Pedraza, a political scientist at University of California, Riverside, attributed the largest Latino representation ever to a larger turnout propelled by rhetoric from President Donald Trump about immigrants, but he said much more needs to be done to bring out the Latino vote. Latinos are the nation's largest minority and constitute 18 percent of the total population, yet their political impact is diluted due to their low electoral turnout.
"Just being annoyed is not enough," Pedraza said.
One of the power centers for Latinos in Congress is the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, where Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas is set to serve as chairman. Castro said the caucus will pursue a long list of priorities next year, including comprehensive immigration reform, reconstruction in parts of Puerto Rico affected by Hurricane Maria, raising minimum wages, lowering the cost of health care and dealing with climate change.
Ten of the Latinos coming to Congress are incoming freshmen. As such, they will be relegated to the lower rungs of committees, yet faced with the challenge of keeping their promises to voters back home. The task will be made even tougher by divided government, with Democrats set to control the House but Republicans holding power in the Senate and White House.
Among the newcomers is California Democratic Rep. Gil Cisneros, a former naval officer and 2010 Mega Millions lottery winner whose great-grandmother was born in Los Angeles when it was still part of Mexico. He expressed optimism that Congress can come up with the first immigration reform in 30 years to define the status of 11 million immigrants, mostly from Latin America, who are living in the country illegally.
Rep. Mike Levin, another newly elected California Democrat, also thinks there are some on the Republican side of the aisle who want to see "common-sense" immigration reform.
"We have to get past the toxic anti-immigrant rhetoric, and we have to work together to try to create an immigration system that is humane and that keeps our border secure. We can do both and we must," said Levin, an environmental lawyer whose maternal grandparents migrated as children from Mexico to Los Angeles.
Yet the politics of immigration have grown more polarized, with Trump making his call for a border wall with Mexico one of his signature issues and his administration pursuing polices aimed at limiting entry to the United States.
House Republicans made a stab at passing an immigration bill in the summer, but the effort ended in failure. Two of the leading Republican advocates for action on immigration — Reps. Carlos Curbelo of Florida and Jeff Denham of California — lost their re-election races.
Newly elected Democratic Rep. Xochitl Torres Small of New Mexico said lawmakers have to try to find bipartisan consensus on immigration.
"I was elected with a real clear interest in problem solving and working past party lines in working to identify opportunities to get things done," said Torres Small, a Georgetown University-trained lawyer.
She, Cisneros and Levin were among five Latino Democratic first-time candidates who defeated Republican incumbents in November.
Other members of the largest Hispanic class ever include Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 29-year-old Puerto Rican New Yorker who is the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, and Veronica Escobar and Silvia Garcia, who will the first Latinas to represent Texas in the House, while Debbie Mucarsel-Powell will be the first native of Ecuador.
Among the 43 members are 35 Democrats and eight Republicans. The only newly elected Latino on the Republican side is Anthony Gonzalez, who was an Ohio State University football star and became a businessman.
He agrees with his Democratic counterparts that a first step in the immigration debate should be a permanent legislative solution for the young immigrants who were brought into the country illegally as children, but he is pessimistic about the prospect of reaching bipartisan agreement.
Gonzalez —whose grandmother left Cuba in 1960 — said he will take seriously the responsibility of being the first Latino from Ohio ever elected to Congress, though the Hispanic electorate in his district is just 2 percent.
He acknowledged that being the only winner out of eight first-time Republican Latino candidates in eight states could be a sign of the challenge the GOP faces on engaging conservative Latinos, given the harsh rhetoric from Trump has kept about that group since his campaign.
According to AP VoteCast, The Associated Press' nationwide survey of the electorate in the November midterms, 67 percent of Hispanic voters said they disapprove of how Trump is handling the presidency, while about one-third approve.
"One thing that I want to do is take a conservative message to communities where we typically have not had success and at least sit down, understand people," Gonzales said. "The Republican Party has to look more like America. It just does."