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Congresswoman Norma Torres

Representing the 35th District of California

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POLITICS: Congress' only Guatemalan-American represents Inland district

February 16, 2015
In The News

A large swath of the Inland Empire is represented by the nation’s only member of Congress of Guatemalan descent.

Norma Torres, a former state legislator and Pomona mayor, won election in November to represent a district that includes all or part of Fontana, Ontario, Rialto, Chino, Montclair, Bloomington and Pomona. Torres, 49, was born in Guatemala and arrived in California as a child.

Torres, a Democrat, already has taken a leadership role in the House on issues affecting Central America. Her office is spearheading a drive to establish a working group of members of Congress interested in Central American affairs. She also urged her colleagues to back President Barack Obama’s request for $1 billion in aid to Central America for economic development, enhanced security, improvements in the judicial and law enforcement systems, and other initiatives.

Torres said she hopes the U.S. aid helps stabilize Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras and reduces the extreme violence that has caused tens of thousands of Central American children and adults to cross the U.S. border into Texas. A July protest in Murrieta against the influx of Central American migrants garnered international attention.

“We want to ensure that that money is utilized to address the root of the problem of why these children are fleeing their home countries,” Torres said. “Immigration reform can only address some of it.”

Many of the migrants have applied for asylum, and cases are wending their way through immigrant courts.

“We can’t help every person who wants to come in, but I think those who are most vulnerable and most at risk. We should do everything we can to at least hear their cases, and if we can’t help them here and we’re going to send them back, we need to ensure we’re sending them back to a place where there is (a legal) infrastructure and they’re not going to be further victimized,” Torres said.

Torres arrived in the United States as a 5-year-old who, like many child migrants today, was growing up amid widespread violence.

“I see myself in a lot of what these children are going through,” she said.

Guatemala was in the midst of a civil war then, and Torres’ parents were worried about her safety. They sent her to live with an aunt and uncle in Whittier.

“My mother was very ill and she could no longer take care of me,” Torres said. “And the country was very unstable, very, very violent, and they felt I would have a better opportunity for survival here in the U.S. No parent should have to be in that terrible position to have to send their daughter or their child to another country, when we could try to help in stabilizing these countries and help Guatemalans live better in their homeland -- and not just Guatemalans but Central Americans.”

Torres arrived in the United States on a visa and later obtained legal permanent residency and citizenship. Her mother died within a year of her departure. Her father later moved to California.

The process today for a Central American to obtain a visa and then residency is much more difficult, Torres said.

But the yearning of Central Americans to leave their violent homelands remains.

When Torres returned to Guatemala in 2006 for her first visit since childhood, she was mobbed at some stops by large crowds that both were thrilled that the native of the small southern city of Escuintla was a prominent California politician -- her photo was on Guatemalan magazine covers -- and hopeful that she could help them emigrate to the United States.

“People were really excited about seeing me prosper here in the U.S., that all things are possible through hard work,” Torres recalled. “But they were mostly asking for help. They’ve had a lot of problems there with the violence. Some people were giving me notes asking for help in finding a relative who was missing, finding a relative here in the U.S. or trying to get help... to get to the U.S.”

Three years ago, Torres visited Guatemala again. She was sobered by her meetings with college students. They were pessimistic about their country’s future and their place in it.

“There is no hope in that country if you’re a young person,” she said. “There’s no hope because the violence is so bad that they don’t see themselves as having a future in that country.”