By Suzanne Gamboa and Sandra Lilley
The youngest woman ever elected to Congress, first South American and first two Latinas from Texas: With their inauguration on Thursday, a group of Hispanic women made history in the 116th Congress.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., enters the Congress as its youngest woman elected and its current youngest member. Ocasio-Corterz, 29, of Puerto Rican descent, beat a veteran Democratic incumbent in the primaries with a grassroots campaign focusing on progressive policies such as “Medicare for all” as well as free higher education or trade school for all. She has publicly said she will oppose her own party’s rules against deficit spending if it takes money away from areas such as health care.
On Wednesday, Ocasio-Cortez tweeted out a picture of her and other incoming women legislators with the phrase “Si, se puede,” (Yes, we can), the words that were coined by labor activist and United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta and then immortalized by President Barack Obama during his campaign.
Another women in the picture is Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, one of two Latinas who are the first to represent Texas in Congress.
Escobar takes the place of Beto O’Rourke, also a Democrat, in representing Texas’ 16th Congressional District, which includes the heavily Latino border area of El Paso. She was previously a county commissioner and county judge.
On Twitter, Escobar took on Trump’s insistence on $5 billion for a border wall — which has led to the current government shutdown — by writing that “the border has never been more secure” and “immigration is lower today than it was a decade ago.” Escobar instead argued for the need to work with Central American countries to address the root causes of migration.
Escobar has also pledged to expand access to health care — Texas blocked expanding Medicaid access and other mechanisms under Obama’s Affordable Care Act — as well as improving veterans’ services.
Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas, is the other Latina making history as a Texas congresswoman. A former state senator and city controller in Houston, she will be representing the areas of Houston and Pasadena.
Garcia reminded Twitter users of Thursday’s significance and wrote as one of her hashtags, #LaCongresista. Under her signature issues, she lists advocating for women, touting her support for health and abortion access and her work to pass a state bill making revenge porn a crime.
Both Escobar and Garcia are Mexican-American.
Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-Fla., won a race against Republican Cuban-American congressman Carlos Curbelo and is making history as the first member of Congress of South American descent, as she wrote on Twitter shortly after her election. She came to the U.S. as a young girl from Ecuador and started her career working at nonprofits; she’s also a former associate dean at Florida International University.
One of Mucarsel-Powell’s main campaign themes is access to health care. “I started working at the [Florida Atlantic University] College of Health and I understood the issues that our community was facing here in South Florida, which is lack of access, a shortage of doctors and nurses because they can’t pay for their education,” Mucarsel-Powell told NBC News during her campaign.
She said then she would propose increasing funding for community health care programs.
Another Latina entering the Congress is Rep. Xochitl Torres-Small, D-N.M., a water-rights attorney who developed connections in rural communities when she helped design a water plan while working for Sen. Tom Udall, also a New Mexico Democrat.
She previously told NBC News her skills as a water attorney would help her transcend partisanship in Congress. With water issues, “you have to accept science and look at every situation,” she said. “Some things you have to take as facts and work with them.”
Torres-Small says in her bio that one of her grandmothers emigrated from Mexico and worked in the fields “to build her American dream.”
Latinos also had some ‘firsts’
Republicans made history with the election of GOP congressman Anthony Gonzalez, who is of Cuban descent and the first Hispanic elected to Congress from Ohio.
Another new face is Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia of Illinois, who is taking over for Luis Gutierrez, a fellow Democrat who is of Puerto Rican descent and is retiring. Garcia is the first Mexican-American to represent Illinois in Congress.
The new Congress will include at least 38 House members and four senators who are Latino — including a few others who are newcomers — according to the official count of the National Association of Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund. NALEO still is working to confirm the tally.
Carmen Sesin contributed.
ACLU sues U.S. border agencies over targeting of activists, lawyers at border
WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union has sued three government agencies on behalf of immigration activists who were allegedly surveilled and flagged for questioning when crossing the U.S.-Mexico border because of their work with immigrants, according to court documents filed in the Central District of California.
The complaint alleges that the three plaintiffs — activists Nora Elizabeth Phillips, Erika Da Cruz Pinheiro and Nathaniel Garrett Dennison — were targeted for “detention and interrogation” under a “secret investigative program designed to monitor these humanitarian workers … and impede their ability to travel.” The suit names Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection and the FBI as defendants, as well as FBI Director Christopher Wray and Acting ICE Director Matthew Albence.
In March, NBC News and NBC 7 San Diego uncovered details of the program after obtaining a CBP list of names of journalists, activists and lawyers who were to be stopped by CBP agents when crossing the border. The ACLU cited the reporting as the impetus for the lawsuit.
“The disclosure of the secret program spurred outrage from civil society organizations, prompted members of Congress to call for an inquiry into the agencies’ actions, and led Customs and Border Protection’s Inspector General to initiate its own investigation into surveillance,” the lawsuit said.
The list obtained in March targeted only immigration workers in the San Diego area, but an NBC News report later found that activists and lawyers in other areas, such as El Paso, were also targeted.
Two immigration lawyers stopped in El Paso said they were held for hours and asked to hand their cell phones over to immigration agents so that they could obtain their contacts.
In the complaint, the ACLU said the “plaintiffs have been singled out and targeted solely because of their protected speech and association, including their provision of legal counsel to asylum seekers, their association with others providing humanitarian aid, and the assistance they provided to clients seeking to redress or to express themselves publicly.”
When the first report was published in March, the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees CBP and ICE, said the individuals were targeted as part of an investigation into violence that erupted at the San Diego-Tijuana border in late 2018 when a so-called migrant caravan arrived. But many of those targeted have said they were nowhere near San Diego at the time and had no involvement with the caravan.
John Sandweg, former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told NBC News in March that border agents should never target people at the border for inspection based on their profession, including their work with asylum seekers.
The ACLU is asking the court to issue an injunction that would declare the activity of the border agents unlawful under the First Amendment and award damages.
Plaintiff Nora Phillips is the co-founder of Al Otro Lado, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that provides legal and mental health services to migrants. Pinheiro is a co-founder of the same group and organizes legal clinics inside Mexico. Dennison is a documentary filmmaker and shelter volunteer.
DHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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Mueller makes last-minute request for aide to appear with him during his testimony
One of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s longtime aides will appear alongside him during his highly-anticipated testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, a spokesperson said Tuesday, but is not expected to be sworn in.
Mueller’s team made a last-minute request that Aaron Zebley be sworn in and testify with him during his scheduled hearings before Congress on Wednesday, a congressional source familiar with the request told NBC News.
Mueller is slated to testify on his report into Russian interference in the 2016 election and the country’s influence on President Donald Trump for three hours before the House Judiciary Committee, take a break, then appear for at least two additional hours before the House Intelligence Committee.
For the first hearing, Zebley will sit alongside Mueller as his counsel, according to the Judiciary Committee spokesperson. The committee, however, is not updating its guidance to include Zebley as a witness. This means that Zebley will not be sworn in. Mueller can confer with him as he is questioned by the panel, according to committee rules, but cannot answer questions.
The ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, said Tuesday that GOP members had “not gotten assurances from the House Democrats on the committee that he [Zebley] will not speak.”
“He’s not supposed to speak in that role to anyone on the committee or asked questions. And we’re asking, and, frankly, that that be confirmed before the hearing. So we don’t have to waste time with it tomorrow,” Collins said.
Jim Popkin, Mueller’s spokesperson, disputed the idea that Zebley’s presence at the hearings amounted to an 11th-hour addition.
“Aaron Zebley was the Deputy Special Counsel and had day-to-day oversight of the investigations conducted by the Office,” Popkin said in a statement Tuesday. “He will accompany Special Counsel Mueller to the Wednesday hearings, as was discussed with the committees more than a week ago.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Tuesday during a conversation at the Center for American Progress that his panel was still working out what Zebley’s function might be.
Trump lashed out about Zebley’s role in Mueller’s testimony, tweeting Tuesday night that the decision “very unfair.”
“Just got back only to hear of a last minute change allowing a Never Trumper attorney to help Robert Mueller with his testimony before Congress tomorrow,” Trump said. “What a disgrace to our system. Never heard of this before.”
Zebley is especially close to Mueller, serving as his chief of staff at the FBI when Mueller was the director. Zebley is also an alumnus of the law firm WilmerHale, where Mueller worked after leaving the FBI.
Zebley followed Mueller to the Justice Department when he was tapped to be special counsel in 2017. Zebley is also a former FBI agent who was involved in an international hunt for al Qaeda terrorists before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
In June, Mueller agreed to testify before Congress about his Russia investigation after he was subpoenaed by Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., the chairman of the House Judiciary, and Schiff.
Popkin said Monday that the former special counsel will make a brief opening statement when he testifies about his 22-month investigation, and will offer his 448-page report as his full statement for the record.
In May, Mueller stressed at a press conference that if he were called to testify he would stick closely to his written report. “Any testimony from this office would not go beyond our report. It contains our findings and analysis, and the reasons for the decisions we made,” he said.
“We chose those words carefully, and the work speaks for itself. The report is my testimony. I would not provide information beyond that which is already public in any appearance before Congress.”
In a letter on Monday, the Justice Department also issued stern guidance to Mueller, stating that “any testimony must remain within the boundaries of your public report because matters within the scope of your investigation were covered by executive privilege.”
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