Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus were — like many others Tuesday night as the results of the race for New York’s 14th Congressional District came in — surprised but excited that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was one step closer to becoming the youngest female member of Congress in history.
But that was followed by another thought: We need to speak with her. Anybody have her number?
“That’s a solidly Democratic seat, so I believe she’ll be the next congresswoman from the 14th District of New York, and we look forward to enthusiastically welcoming her to the Hispanic Caucus,” Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas told The Intercept. “The nation was impressed by how she ran a campaign that was true to herself, emblematic of the place that she comes from, and powered by grassroots energy.”
In 1992, Rep. Nydia Velázquez was also a young Puerto Rican woman who unseated an incumbent in New York City. She said she’s always pleased to see more Latinas in public office.
“As always, those of us who come from more humble backgrounds, particularly women and people of color, have to work a little more and fight a little harder — but Alexandria has clearly shown she’s got the spirit and the energy to make her voice heard,” she said.
Arizona Rep. Ruben Gallego added that he was excited to welcome someone “young” and “dynamic” to the Hispanic Caucus.
But while Democrats enthusiastically welcome Ocasio-Cortez, embracing the particulars of the platform that fueled her win is a bit of a different story. “We are going to rock the world in the next two years,” Ocasio-Cortez said during her victory speech, standing on the bar in a Bronx pool hall. “We’ve got a whole bunch of primaries to go. When we get to November, we should be electing a caucus.”
She was out early calling to “abolish ICE,” which many feel has become a brutal, unchecked agency with little oversight. Many Hispanic Caucus members, like others Democrats, including progressives, have stopped short of embracing abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement due to lack of clarity over what would replace it, as well as fears that Republicans would use it to accuse them of not wanting immigration enforcement at all and supporting “open borders.”
“ICE is rogue and it should be targeting criminals, instead of breaking up families, and that’s why it needs to go back to what the core mission was under INS,” Gallego said, noting that he doesn’t believe Ocasio-Cortez’s support of dissolving ICE is a negative for Democrats. “Clearly it’s been abused, it was abused under President Obama, and now it’s being abused under President Trump.”
While Ocasio-Cortez insisted during the campaign that she did not simply support going back to the days of Immigration and Naturalization Services that Gallego cited, she did speak at length about her preference that the Department of Justice oversee enforcement matters related to immigration.
“I’m always glad to have more Boricuas in Congress.”
Velázquez said that while she’s agreed to co-sponsor the legislation to abolish ICE introduced by Wisconsin Rep. Mark Pocan and Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal, she said “abolish ICE” cannot merely become a rallying cry or a slogan.
“We need to actively change this administration’s anti-immigrant policies – from reversing ‘zero tolerance’ to protecting Dreamers. This administration is attacking our immigrant neighbors on a multitude of fronts, and we need to fight back on every front,” she told The Intercept.
A source close to the Hispanic Caucus asked for anonymity in order to lay out the landscape on abolishing ICE as they see it, ahead of Ocasio-Cortez’s arrival.
“It will be interesting to see how much steam the abolish ICE movement picks up, it’s a tricky one,” the source said, describing the general line of thought within the CHC. “There’s a lot of fucking racism out there. If a bunch of Hispanics start supporting abolishing ICE, white people are going to read it as they don’t want to enforce shit at all.”
Reached by phone in the midst of a 48-hour whirlwind media tour that has included speaking with Democratic leaders calling to congratulate her, from Sen. Bernie Sanders to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Ocasio-Cortez told The Intercept that the welcome from the Hispanic Caucus members was “really awesome” and said she hopes they can together channel this moment into a jolt of exciting and bold legislation.
“As a caucus, we should be championing the Puerto Rico ‘Marshall Plan.’ In my opinion, we should be championing the abolishment of ICE and if not that, focusing on broad-based immigration justice,” she said in a car after filming the Late Show With Stephen Colbert on Thursday.
The Puerto Rico “Marshall Plan” is a $146 million legislative package unveiled by Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren in November that would provide financial relief for the government, and billions for economic development, renewable energy, and Medicaid and Medicare parity.
Velázquez, who introduced an identical bill in the House, said that she’s looking forward to helping not just New Yorkers, but also the people of Puerto Rico with Ocasio-Cortez. “I’ll look forward to working with her to aid our brothers and sisters on the island. This has been a major priority and passion of mine – before and after Maria – and, of course, I’m always glad to have more Boricuas in Congress.”
Asked about the hesitance or refusal she may come across from caucus members to support abolishing ICE, Ocasio-Cortez predicted her stance will create the space to negotiate.
“What we can do is — I’m unafraid to champion a really bold and strong stance in the sand, and what that does is give us an anchor, a negotiating point,” she said. “I think the abolishment of ICE makes a lot of sense, and I’m willing to have those conversations and figure out how we get that done as a caucus.”
“I think the abolishment of ICE makes a lot of sense, and I’m willing to have those conversations and figure out how we get that done as a caucus.”
Cristina Jimenez, executive director of United We Dream, a major immigrant advocacy organization for undocumented immigrants, was flying high after Ocasio-Cortez’s win Tuesday, posting a picture of them together on Facebook from the victory party and writing that she was crying of joy. Jimenez, who hails from Jackson Heights in Queens, New York, said her family mobilized for the race, regardless of immigration status.
“Four of my family members who are citizens voted for her,” she said. “The noncitizens took fliers to my cousin’s restaurant, which is a fast-food arepas place.” Jimenez saw firsthand that Ocasio-Cortez inspired the immigrant community, calling her unapologetic and a visionary.
“She wasn’t one of those candidates that was pushed to respond to something,” she said. “She was talking about the issues of the people she was running to represent.”
But asked about the hesitance from Democrats to embrace fully abolishing ICE, Jimenez lost her jubilant tone.
“That’s exactly the problem the Democratic Party has,” she shot back. “This moment is very clear that Republicans and conservatives are unapologetic about their ideology and their policies. They’re racist and have been very clear how their agenda is shaped in very anti-immigrant ways.” She said Democrats need to take stock of the kind of opposition they’re facing and return in kind with a message that is “unapologetic about their values.”
“It has been because of not wanting to lean into these issues that we are where we are,” she continued. “This is what the party is going to have to grapple with. The people are being clear what they want and what they stand for and that’s why they came out for Alexandria.”
But while many congressional districts across America are not heavily Latino like Ocasio-Cortez’s, Indivisible Political Director Maria Urbina said the party apparatus needs to be responsive to their shifting and growing base, and the CHC should be excited about embracing a young Latina who displays clarity in how she defends immigrant justice and calls for abolishing ICE.
“Ocasio-Cortez has approached this in just the right way,” Urbina said. “She’s reframing the argument, taking it out of the criminalization frame, which is the way the Republican Party scapegoats immigrants. She rejects a defensive posture, and we need candidates talking with clarity and conviction around human rights, justice, and keeping families together — which is a pillar of our values, and we should be doing that from a position of strength.”
And if Democrats aren’t ready for her brand of politics?
“If she walks into Congress and they’re not ready for her, she should look at redefining what the next generation expects from its leaders,” Urbina said.
Chuck Rocha, a senior adviser to the Sanders campaign in 2016 and founder of Solidarity Strategies, a firm that works with CHC members, said that people always ask him what was special about Sanders, and he tells them it had nothing to do with the man — it was his message.
“If you take Bernie’s message and wrap it in cultural competence and her connection and understanding of the community and drop it in Queens, that’s how you win,” he said. “So the bottom line is she’s proved what is possible. People will tell her she can’t come to Congress and enact her agenda, but they also told her she couldn’t win the election.”
Ocasio-Cortez has already had an impact. Asked by the Washington Post whether she would support Pelosi in a leadership contest next Congress, she asked if Barbara Lee, the outspoken Oakland progressive, was running. The next day, Lee said she was considering it.
In the coming weeks, CHC leadership will connect with Ocasio-Cortez, but for now they were like the Democratic leaders who had trouble getting in touch with her the day after her big win.
“We’re all excited to have her,” Gallego said. Before getting off the phone, he added: “Tell her to call us — we would love to meet with her.”