In honor of Women's History Month, CHLI is proud to spotlight one of our Founding Board Members, our Madrina, and a great source of inspiration, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the first Hispanic woman elected to Congress.
Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and her family were forced to flee from their home in Cuba when she was just eight years old, following Fidel Castro's communist takeover. In the classic American immigrant spirit, she and her family settled into their new home in Miami, Florida and set out to create a new life for themselves, filled with opportunity and hope for the future.
She earned an Associate of Arts degree from Miami-Dade Community College in 1972, a Bachelor's and Master's Degree in Education from Florida International University in 1975 and 1985 respectively, and a Doctorate in Education from the University of Miami in 2004. She considers education to be an ongoing, life-long journey.
Ileana began her career teaching at an elementary school. As she got to know her students' parents, their everyday struggles, and because of the guidance and mentorship of her admirable father, the late Cuban historian Enrique Ros, Ileana began a career in public service.
In 1982, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen was elected to the Florida State House of Representatives and the Florida Senate in 1986, becoming the first Hispanic woman to serve in either body. In the state legislature she authored the Florida Prepaid College Plan, which is now the largest prepaid college tuition program in the nation. More than one million Florida families have used this program to send their children to college.
Following the death of legendary Florida Congressman Claude Pepper in 1989, Ileana won a special-election to fill the vacancy he left in the U.S. House of Representatives, becoming the first Hispanic woman elected to Congress. Her campaign manager for that historic election would later be elected Governor of the State of Florida in 1998; Jeb Bush.
During her tenure in Congress, Ileana has worked to make student financial aid more widely available. She has also been a leader on women's issues, voting to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, which increases resources for the prosecution of domestic violence and sexual assault. She authored legislation awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to Women Air Force Service Pilots, in a long overdue recognition to trailblazing female pioneers for their service during World War II. In addition, Ileana has been a longtime advocate of immigration reform. She co-authored legislation that was passed into U.S. law to grant legal status to thousands of immigrants.
In foreign policy, Ileana has also left her mark on the world. As the Chairman Emeritus of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and current Chair of the Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, she has courageously shined a spotlight on human rights abuses around the globe and helped to pass sanctions on the worst abusers. She is an unwavering advocate for Israel's security and for a free and democratic Cuba. Her guidance and leadership was critical in securing passage of free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea. She has recently strongly condemned the violent crackdown by the Venezuelan government on peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators.
Her greatest legacy as a public servant is perhaps the many, many young people she has mentored and molded into future leaders via internships in her office. Ever the educator, she is known to have some of the largest intern classes each summer; so much so that close friends affectionately call them "Ileana's Bodyguards." Senator Marco Rubio, Florida State Representative Rene Garcia, countless Congressional staffers, and over a dozen CHLI Future Leaders Program participants are listed as honored alumni of her internship program.
"Ileana is more than a former colleague; she is a sister-in-arms in the fight for human rights," said CHLI Chairman, former Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart. "South Florida, the nation, and the world are better places because of Ileana's public service. She is an example, to women and men alike, of integrity, courage, idealism, and perseverance in the struggle for justice and democracy."