WASHINGTON, D.C. — Patricia Ordaz was smuggled across the U.S.-Mexico border when she was just six years old.
“I was born in Mexico City,” Ordaz, the new president of the Congressional Hispanic Staff Association (CHSA), told Latino Rebels. “I knew I was undocumented because I had to learn someone’s name. I had to say the name when I came across the border. I had to say that I was a United States citizen and I would be able to see my mom on the other side.”
Ordaz grew up poor in Colorado.
“There were four of us in my family, including my two younger brothers, plus a cousin—all supported by my single mother,” Ordaz recalled. “We went from an apartment that was infested with rodents with two bedrooms to a larger, three-bedroom apartment that was rent-controlled when my mother finally got status.
“Looking back, it was a huge difference that life with a Social Security number makes for a family. We didn’t have to be on food stamps anymore or go to the food pantries.”
In middle school, Ordaz became more aware of her immigration status. “People started making comments,” she said.
Nevertheless, Ordaz persisted, graduating from high school and earning admission to Metropolitan State University in Denver, where she paid out-of-pocket for tuition because, as a non-citizen, she was ineligible for financial aid.
Things started looking up during her senior year of college when Ordaz finally found a pathway to permanent residency through the U Visa program.
“I was student body president my senior year,” said Ordaz. “My school was one of the schools in the state that didn’t allow for state funding to go to undocumented students. I was involved in changing that. My school became one of the first to allow in-state tuition for undocumented students. I testified before the state assembly to make that change through student government.”
Ordaz’s advocacy for in-state tuition earned her an invitation to attend the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI) conference in Washington, D.C. When she returned to Denver, her academic advisors suggested she apply for a CHCI internship. Ordaz applied for the spring semester but was rejected.
“They called me and said apply for the fall if you’re able to work it out with your school,” said Ordaz. “Thankfully my school was flexible enough to allow me to do my remaining courses virtually.”
Now a green card holder, Ordaz applied and was accepted to intern in the office of Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), an opportunity which led to a job in Bennet’s office as a staff assistant.
“I worked for Sen. Bennett’s office for 3 and a half years on healthcare issues,” said Ordaz. “Then I got to take up some of the issues I’m passionate about in the judiciary portfolio, including immigration.”
Bennet recalls his former staffer fondly.
“Patricia is a gifted leader with a deep commitment to increasing diversity in the halls of Congress, including when she worked in my office,” Bennet said in a statement to Latino Rebels. “She represents the very best of Colorado, and I’m confident she will excel as the Congressional Hispanic Staff Association’s new president.”
The work Ordaz did on the immigration portfolio caught the eye of then-Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA).
“When an opportunity came up in Sen. Harris’s office, I took the opportunity because she was on the judiciary committee,” said Ordaz. “It was an amazing experience. I learned a lot from my time in her office. The way she championed immigration issues on both committees of jurisdiction, especially in the judiciary committee—it was inspiring.”
Being formerly undocumented makes Ordaz acutely aware of the barriers there are for some immigrants to serve as Congressional staffers.
“One of things I had been tracking in the government funding bill was the ability of DACA recipients to be able to be employed in the House and Senate,” Ordaz said. “It didn’t make it to the final text. For immigrants to be represented in Congress, one of the things we could do is provide for that pathway. We get approached a lot by interns and fellows who have DACA who want to serve as full-time employees, and we have to tell them they are unable to do that. So we present them with other opportunities in fellowships and things like that. DACA recipients can be interns and fellows; they just can’t be paid by government money. It bars their ability to be employed.”
Despite the legislative setbacks to level the playing field for undocumented immigrants, Ordaz remains committed to empowering staffers in any way she can. It was to this end that last month she was elected president of the CHSA.
“I have been on the CHSA board for a couple of years now,” said Ordaz. “As a staff association recognized by the House Administration Committee, one of the things I’d like to be involved in is when it comes to pay and resources. I want all member offices —House and Senate, including committees— to take our members into consideration. The visibility of CHSA within these spaces needs to increase so our members know we’re doing things to help them get a better workplace environment and more pay. I would also like to increase our partnerships with other staff associations and other partner organizations when it comes to advocating for Latino staffers on the Hill and in the district offices across the country.”
Ordaz and the new CHSA board see an opportunity to increase Latino representation beyond Capitol Hill.
“When we got together as a board on our first day, we really agreed that we need to increase the representation of the Latinos in district offices, not just on the Hill,” said Ordaz
The new CHSA board has nothing but high praise for Ordaz’s leadership ability and experience.
“Patricia is an outstanding leader and someone who fights from the heart for the advancement of our Latino community,” said Ruby Robles, vice president of the board. “It is an honor to serve as CHSA’s vice president by her side, and I’m confident that CHSA’s board will accomplish our goals with her leadership, guidance, and expertise.”
“Part of what makes Patricia such an adept leader of CHSA is her dexterity in working with different kinds of people, organizations, and political realities,” said Christine Godinez, a member of CHSA’s advisory board. “I’ve watched her put that dexterity to work when we served together on the CHSA Executive Board and now in her role as president, and it’s impressive and effective. She understands the times to listen and the times to make decisions. She is dedicated to CHSA and her work ethic as its leader makes that clear.”
Latino Rebels asked what advice Ordaz has for young people of color looking to work in Congress.
“Come to CHSA!” she said. “We are a great resource for any Latino looking to get on the Hill. We are in constant communication with people looking to serve here. There are plenty of opportunities to not be intimidated by not having years of experience and fancy degrees. You can be a public servant without those things. We want to make that clear to Latinos looking for opportunities to give your expertise, your skills, your time, to produce change and to really have a meaningful impact in our community by being a voice for Latinos in our offices.
“A lot of offices don’t have those voices and they should.”
Pablo Manríquez is the Washington correspondent for Latino Rebels. Twitter: @PabloReports