A child of Guatemala seeks a seat in Congress

Updated: 2014-09-07 03:15


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WASHINGTON - Norma Torres sees herself in some of the Central American children who have flooded into the United States in recent months.

More than four decades ago in Guatemala, Torres' parents told her she was going to the United States on a vacation. They declined to tell her she would not be coming back. Now 49, Torres is the favorite in a race between two Democratic candidates to represent a Los Angeles-area district in the House of Representatives.

"In many ways, I see the decision these children have made ... like the decision my parents made for me,'' Torres said in a recent telephone interview. "They wanted an opportunity for me to grow up and be a successful person.''

Torres' candidacy takes place as Hispanics gain increasing political influence in the United States and as Congress struggles over how to proceed on immigration policy. Hispanics make up nearly 70 percent of the district that she seeks to represent, and nationally, Latinos overwhelmingly support Democrats. But in the House, Democrats are expected to remain in the minority after the November midterm elections.

Like others flowing north to the US, Torres' family had abundant reasons to leave their home in Escuintla, a medium-size city in southern Guatemala. Her father, an electrician, already had brothers living in the US Her mother was gravely ill with a heart condition. The country was also in the midst of a civil war that would kill an estimated 200,000 people. Thousands more disappeared and authorities were cracking down on union activity.

"We had the idea to emigrate to improve our situation, and also the political situation there was not very clear. I was a union leader,'' Torres' father, Samuel Barillas, now living in California, said in Spanish.

At the time, Barillas said, children had little trouble traveling to the United States. Torres received a temporary visa and lived with her uncle in Whittier, California. She overstayed that visa, but her family helped her obtain legal residency while she was in her teens. She became an American citizen in the months leading up to the 1992 presidential election.

After sending her to the US, Torres' parents planned for the rest of the family to join her. But Torres' mother passed away about a year after her daughter left. Her father eventually traveled to the US with a second daughter after he was offered a job by a cousin who had a workshop in Los Angeles.

Torres worked for 18 years as a dispatcher for the Los Angeles Police Department and ran for local office in 2000, serving first as a councilmember and then as mayor of the city of Pomona before moving on to the California Legislature. She's running for the congressional seat being vacated by Democratic freshman Gloria Negrete McLeod and gained nearly two-thirds of the vote in the state's June primary. Four other candidates divided the rest of the vote. The top two candidates face off in the November election _ and in this district Torres and another Democrat finished in the top two spots.

During her service in the California Senate, colleagues gave Torres the nickname "Little Monster'' for her fierce style.

Her approach to the more than 66,000 unaccompanied children, mostly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, who have been caught crossing the border since October, is molded in part by her own experiences.

Torres says she agrees that the US cannot take in all people suffering from hardships. But she believes the children are entitled to certain legal protections as they seek asylum.

Under existing law, youths who come without authorization into the US, except from Mexico or Canada, are turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services, and then are generally placed with family members or others while awaiting an asylum hearing.

Democrat Christina Gagnier, Torres' longshot opponent in the general election, also supports the 2008 protections.

"It was an example of a bipartisan effort rooted in what America is all about, being a global leader not just for power, but on the humanitarian front,'' Gagnier said.

Some lawmakers are skeptical that the children are fleeing persecution or torture. As Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, put it during a June hearing: "Apparently, word has gotten out that once encountered by Border Patrol agents and processed, thanks to this administration's lax enforcement policies, one will likely never be removed.''

President Barack Obama says the problem stems from a broken immigration system and from dangerous conditions in the children's home countries.

Torres has met with some of the children who have crossed the border. "Turning them back,'' she said, "you are sending them back to a death sentence.''