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An Honorable Republican: Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

Illena Ros-Lehtinen

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen fought for immigrants and LGBT people during her historic House career, writes Mary Ann Gomez Orta of the Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute.

As Ileana Ros-Lehtinen nears the end of her 30 years of service as the first Cuban-American and the first Latina elected to Congress, the Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute honors her for standing up for what was right. Her stellar record, whether on foreign or domestic issues, shines because of her fundamental beliefs in human rights and in protecting families. Inside her political soul is a human being who deals with everyone as she wishes all would be treated, with dignity and respect.

CHLI traditionally presents a Leadership in Public Service Award and a Leadership in International Relations Award. CHLI's yearly international award is being renamed the Ileana Ros-Lehtinen International Leadership Award in her honor.

Ileana holds the rank of chairman emeritus on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, heads the subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, and also serves on the House Intelligence Committee. From those panels, she has staunchly stood by Israel, advanced sanctions on human rights violations in Venezuela, and kept a patriotic eye on Islamist extremism.

Cuba, of course, has been the lodestar of her work. Born in Havana, Ileana was 8 years old when her family was forced to flee Castro's tyrannical and violent regime that impoverished the nation. The congresswoman has never let up on the fight for a free Cuba.

Also at the top of Ileana's work on behalf of human rights has been her alliance with the International Campaign for Tibet, chaired by actor Richard Gere, to maintain U.S. support for Tibet and the Dalai Lama. The congresswoman sponsored legislation awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama in the 110th Congress.

On the domestic front, Ileana's leadership on important issues like immigration reform shows why she holds out hope that Congress will enact protections for the Dreamers before her term expires. She has argued for a fair and reasonable immigration system. Again, her persistence is driven by her fundamental beliefs in justice and in the protection of families.

"Family" is at the core of Ileana's universe. She was a lead sponsor of the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act and has voted for family leave legislation, advocated for more Head Start funding for children, and strongly supported antibullying campaigns.

Equal rights for the LGBT community is extremely important to Ileana. She, her husband, Dexter, and their son Rodrigo, who is transgender, recorded a bilingual public-service television campaign encouraging Hispanics to support transgender youth. As the message beautifully noted, "Family is about acceptance and love."

The list of issues on which our friend Ileana has stood up and fought for what's right is even longer than the hundreds of awards she has received from across the world. Even if agreement is difficult to reach, she does not give up, particularly in efforts to advance the Hispanic community.

That spirit of forward movement, even when differences of opinion exist, is what she brought to the table 15 years ago when we founded CHLI to advance the Hispanic community's economic progress centered on social responsibility and global competitiveness. Ileana personifies our vision statement: "Advancing the Hispanic Community's Diversity of Thought."

In announcing her retirement from Congress, Ileana said she should not extend her "season" in the House of Representatives simply because of her undeniable ability to continue to win. "Winning is not everything," she said.

So she will leave Congress but continue fighting for human rights, for equality, for keeping families safe, and for expanding diversity in the ranks of government, education, and corporate America. In other words, for causes that represent the best of what is America.

CHLI will miss Ileana, as will members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. We will lose an extraordinary public servant, but Ileana will still be standing up for justice and decent treatment for all.

MARY ANN GOMEZ ORTA is the president and CEO of the Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute.

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Mary Ann Gomez Orta