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Diverse freshman class will bolster record number of Latinos in Congress

Midterms lead to most diverse Congress ever
Midterm elections result in most diverse Congress ever 02:00

WASHINGTON — Xochitl Torres Small and Jesús "Chuy" García are two of ten Latinos — nine Democrats and one Republican — who will join the freshman class of the 116th U.S. Congress and bolster the ranks of Latino lawmakers to a record high of 42. 

From metropolitan districts in New York City and Houston, to affluent suburban districts in south Florida and California's south coast, diverse constituencies elected 38 Latinos during the midterm elections to represent them in the House of Representatives and join the four Hispanic members of the Senate. 

"It's about time that this occurs," Rep.-elect García told CBS News. "Reaching a level of parity — especially in electoral politics — is very important. It's good for the country."

While this is a notable milestone, the percentage of Hispanics in Congress will be just shy of 8 percent, still not close to matching the share of Latinos in the total U.S. population, which is estimated to be approximately 18 percent — or nearly 58 million people. About 78 lawmakers in the House and 18 in the Senate would need to be Latino to roughly equal their percentage of the population. 

Other minority communities in the U.S. are also underrepresented. Asian Americans, the fastest growing ethnic group in the country, make up nearly 6 percent of the American population, but only 3.3 percent of the members of the current 115th Congress are Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, according to the Congressional Research Service. Andy Kim, who will become New Jersey's first Asian American congressman, will slightly increase this percentage.

African Americans make up 13.4 percent of the total population. With eight African American representatives poised to join the freshman class next January, approximately 10.6 percent of members of the 116th Congress will be African Americans. 

Apart from García and Torres Small, the Latino Democrats who will be taking the congressional oath of office in January include the first Latinas to represent Texas in Congress, Sylvia Garcia and Veronica Escobar; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Antonio Delgado from New York; Mike Levin and Gil Cisneros from California; and Debbie Murcasel-Powell from Florida. Additionally, Republican Anthony Gonzalez will represent Ohio's 16th Congressional District.   

Although nearly all are Democrats, the Latino freshman class is far from monolithic. And Torres Small and García represent the group's diverse politics. 

Torres Small, 34, a water rights lawyer who touted her rifle marksmanship on the campaign trail, pulled off a major upset in New Mexico's 2nd, a sprawling Republican-leaning district that stretches across the southern part of the state and its border with Mexico.

García, 62, a veteran lawmaker in Chicago politics, will represent Illinois' 4th, a deep-blue district carved out to include the Windy City's predominantly Mexican-American and Puerto Rican neighborhoods. 

Although both Democrats from predominantly Hispanic congressional districts support legislative protections for DACA recipients and comprehensive immigration reform, their policy stances on immigration have some distinctions. 

"I'm one of the few Democrats who ran on a border security and immigration message — and won," Torres Small, a third generation Mexican-American, told CBS News. "It's because I know my district. I know my home. I know that we want a border that is both strong and vibrant."

In her hotly-contested race, Torres Small, who worked as a field representative for Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, pledged to increase funding for border security to curtail illicit drug trade and human smuggling. "We need to support a highly-skilled and accountable law enforcement. We need to make sure they have the technology they need to enforce the line," she said.

Although her messaging on immigration stands in stark contrast to the demands to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) made by some in her party — including her soon-to-be colleague, progressive firebrand Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — the future New Mexico representative doesn't consider her position to be a moderate one.

"I think it's a position of someone who knows the ground," said Torres Small, who grew up in Las Cruces, a city close to the U.S.-Mexico frontier. Her personal experience in a border community, she stressed, is what has shaped her immigration agenda, one which prioritizes both border security and a "clear and moral immigration system."

García, who will be representing a district with nearly 250,000 foreign-born residents, is more outspoken about his progressive immigration platform and his opposition to the "wasteful and insulting" idea of erecting a border wall.

And he's well aware of the expectations of his new post.

The Cook County commissioner will be succeeding Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, D-Illinois, an outspoken advocate for immigration reform during his nearly 25-year-long tenure in Congress. "I'm going to be a fearless fighter for the immigrant community," he said. "I will build on the work that Luis Gutiérrez has laid down."

García immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico when he was nine years old, so that he could live with his father, who was working in the U.S. as an undocumented bracero laborer.

He has vowed to fight President Donald Trump's "shameful" immigration policies and proposals, including the termination of TPS programs for El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras and Sudan, the administration's attempt to include a citizenship question in the 2020 Census and a pending White House "public charge" rule that would prevent many low-income immigrants who use public benefits from obtaining U.S. permanent residency.

The future of ICE should also be discussed, García argued. "I've understood the role of ICE in separating families, in trampling peoples' rights. In the community here where I live, I've seen many abuses," he said. "We have to rethink entirely what an agency that is charged with that responsibility should be about."

Neither García nor Torres Small has decided whether to back California Rep. Nancy Pelosi's bid to become House speaker. García, however, said he could see himself supporting Pelosi and praised the self-described "master legislator" from San Francisco.

"I think she has a wealth of experience and can guide Democrats in the next two years," he said. "It's a very crucial time for the country."

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