Latino representation in Congress at record high, but far from parity

Latino representation in Congress at record high, but far from parity
© Greg Nash

Hispanic legislative representation has grown consistently over the past 40 years but still remains far from proportional to the Hispanic share of the United States population.

The 115th Congress has a record 45 Hispanic members. Between the Democratic Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s (CHC) 31 members and the 14 Republicans with a Hispanic background, that’s 8.4 percent of Congress.

It’s an all-time high but still falls far short of the general population, where about 57 million Hispanic people make up 17 percent of the country as the nation’s largest minority group.

“The Hispanic Caucus has made incremental progress in its growth, but statistically we still lag way behind what our representation should be proportionately,” said Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Texas).

Vela, who at one point resigned from the CHC, said it’s “exciting” to have fresh, young faces in the group. Still, Vela says upcoming challenges will define whether the CHC represents its community. One of the biggest challenges looms in December, when Congress will respond to President Trump’s decision to reverse the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which provided work permits for immigrants brought illegally to the U.S. as children.

“I think December is gonna tell a lot, as Congress veers towards reversing the president’s decision on DACA and ensuring that not a penny is spent on the border wall,” Vela said.

“Clearly, if the CHC does not stand on both those issues,” he added, “then there’s no reason for a Hispanic Caucus to exist.”

Still, despite its current challenges, the CHC has grown aggressively, selecting and recruiting candidates in vulnerable districts. In the 2016 elections, the caucus added five members, growing to 31 lawmakers.

“If you look at the last presidential election, despite flawed exit polls, what we know from the actual data [is that] Latino turnout increased substantially,” said Cristóbal Alex, president of Latino Victory, a progressive group that’s trying to grow Latino political participation.

“The most important data point is that 28 percent of Latino voters were first-time voters,” said Alex.

According to Alex, only 15 percent of African-American voters and 16 percent of white voters were first-time voters in 2016.

“These young first-time voters are the future of the country, and Congress needs to look like them,” he said.

On the Republican side, growth has been slower — in part because of Trump’s contentious relationship with Hispanic groups.

“There’s a little bit of a mixed bag,” said Mario Lopez, president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund, a conservative advocacy group.

Lopez pointed to young leaders like Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), who’s taken on difficult causes like immigration.

Still, Curbelo now ranks as one of House Democrats’ top targets in 2018. And Trump’s pardon of controversial former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona once again roiled relations with Hispanic voters.

“On the flip side, there have been things like giving amnesty to Joe Arpaio — I think that flies in the face of the legal issues, logic, common sense and the mountain of evidence presented against him for abusing the rights of American citizens,” said Lopez.

“Not everyone in the right is interested in having more Latinos in the base. In fact, some are hostile to it,” he added.

Lopez added that Latino Republicans have lost powerful leaders, like former Rep. Lincoln Díaz-Balart (Fla.) and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), who will retire at the end of her current term.

Still, Lopez is optimistic that as the second-fastest-growing demographic group — after only Asian-Americans — Latinos will have enough space for a healthy conservative representation.

Much of that demographic growth has yet to be reflected in the polls, since more Latinos reach voting age each year than any other group.

“I think we will [achieve representational parity] eventually, but you have to remember that 17 percent of the population, not even half of them are voting age yet,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.).

“Our numbers are coming later, not right now,” he said.