EL PASO — When El Paso voters elected Robert “Beto” O’Rourke to Congress last year, his supporters said they chose a fresh and progressive voice to champion issues critical to the border community.
But what they lost was a seat on an influential caucus whose members have recently met with President Obama on issues like immigration reform, border security and health care.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, a 26-member group established in 1976 and currently chaired by U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Edinburg, includes as its goals “voicing and advancing, through the legislative process, issues affecting Hispanics in the United States, Puerto Rico and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands,” according to the organization’s mission statement. It also includes task forces on civil rights, education and labor, and diversity and inclusion.
O’Rourke, whose nickname is popular among Latinos, is not a member because he lacks Hispanic heritage. The exclusion comes despite the fact that O’Rourke — who beat eight-term House member and former CHC Chairman Silvestre Reyes — represents a district that is 80 percent Hispanic and whose voting-age population is 77.6 Hispanic, according to 2010 U.S. census figures.
Asked what he thought about the caucus’s rules, O’Rourke said he respected its bylaws and declined to comment any further.
But others say it only makes sense to allow O’Rourke membership.
“I would like to see him in there because there is strength in numbers,” said David M. Austin, the El Paso-based border representative for the U.S./Mexico Border Counties Coalition, which lobbies Congress on issues that affect the border regions. “I think it’s less important as to whom the person is compared to whom they represent. Given the makeup of his district, his membership in the caucus would be important.”
By 2050, about 133 million Hispanics will call the U.S. home, making up about 30 percent of the country’s population, according to the CHC’s website. Advocates say that demographic should be accordingly represented on the local, state and national levels.
Kristian Ramos, the CHC's communications director, said he couldn’t speak to the growing demographics and how it relates to CHC membership. He said instead that the rules are what they are.
“For us, we have to have Hispanic descent to be in the caucus,” he said. “This is a simple case of the bylaws are what the bylaws are.” Ramos added that he had no knowledge of any previous or current attempts by lawmakers to change the requirements for admission. He said he could also not speak to what would happen if someone asked to change the requirements until that happened and the members were consulted.
Not every congressional caucus is as stringent, however. The Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus allows members who are not of Asian or Pacific Islander descent, including U.S. Rep. Al Green, D-Houston.
“Our caucus is not based on a certain racial background,” said an aide to a Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus member who asked not to be named. “We’ve always welcomed allies in Congress. I can’t speak to the politics of other caucuses.”
At the state level, the Texas House’s Mexican American Legislative Caucus admits white and black members provided their districts include a voting-age population that is at least 50 percent Mexican-American. Its current list of members includes state Reps. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio; Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin; Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth; Joe Pickett, D-El Paso; Garnet Coleman, D-Houston; and Tracy King, D-Batesville. The changes in bylaws that allows members who are not Mexican-American to join occurred under the leadership of former state Rep. and current Congressman and CHC member Pete Gallego, D-Alpine. Gallego's office declined to comment for this story.
Current MALC Chairman Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, said the MALC policy is easy to understand.
“You either have to be brown or be brown at heart,” he said. Sometimes a majority of Latinos elect someone who is of a different ethnicity, he added, but that shouldn't prevent them from having all of their concerns addressed.
“We want to make sure those Latino voices are still heard,” he said. “And we want to make sure non-Latino [elected officials] understand Latino issues.”