WASHINGTON -- San Joaquin Valley lawmakers love the Azores Islands. Evidently, the feeling is mutual.
On Monday, prompted by the Valley's congressional delegation, the House approved a resolution honoring a 50-year-old immigration law that helped bring many Portuguese residents to the United States. The resolution reflects a blend of warm feelings and political calculations found on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
"These Portuguese immigrants have contributed greatly to the fabric of our nation," said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno.
As Costa spoke on the House floor, the visiting president of the Portuguese Assembly and other parliamentary leaders looked on from a Capitol visitors' gallery. In the evening, the Portuguese Embassy encouraged the mutual admiration society with a cocktail reception and dinner, which was to be followed with a lunch Tuesday inside the Capitol.
Costa is a member of the House Portuguese Caucus. So are Reps. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, and Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced. All three co-sponsored the resolution commemorating the 1958 Azorean Refugee Act. All three have parents or grandparents who emigrated from the Azores Islands. Not least, all three represent a sizable number of Portuguese-American voters.
An estimated 1.1 million Portuguese-Americans now live in the United States, including about 330,000 in California. Other large populations are found in states including Rhode Island and Massachusetts, whose House members likewise backed the commemorative resolution.
"The Portuguese-Americans have been dominant in the San Joaquin Valley," said Costa, the only California lawmaker to speak Monday about the resolution. "They have become teachers and doctors and farmers; and, yes, even members of Congress."
Thousands arrived in the United States in flight from the Capelhinos volcano, which erupted on the island of Faial between September 1957 and October 1958. The resolution approved Monday notes more than 175,000 Azoreans emigrated between 1960 and 1980, in large part thanks to the provisions of the 1958 Azorean Refugee Act.
The 1958 law, authored by lawmakers from Rhode Island and Massachusetts, opened up more visas for Azores Island residents. The law was later extended and, in time, all national quotas were abolished. By the mid-1970s, the new resolution avers, half of the San Joaquin Valley's dairy farms were owned by Portuguese-Americans.
"This resolution means a lot, about the relations between Portugal and the United States," said Nelia Alves, a Portuguese journalist and graduate student now interning in Nunes' office. "We still have a lot of emigrants coming to this country."
Commemorative resolutions like this are coin of the realm on Capitol Hill. In a similar vein, the House on Monday considered resolutions commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Grand Coulee Dam, the 50th anniversary of the founding of the retired-persons organization now called AARP and the 25th anniversary of the first space flight by an African-American astronaut.
The commemorative resolutions are usually non-controversial, and they come up under procedures allowing quick approval on voice vote. Even so, they can excite international attention and require backstage maneuvering.
The resolution approved Monday, for instance, was initially authored by Nunes. Costa introduced it as the original chief sponsor, because lawmakers thought his membership on the House Foreign Relations Committee made him the logical leader. Then, after lawmakers learned the bill would first go through another committee, the chief sponsorship had shifted to Nunes.
The resolution itself was the stated reason for the Portuguese parliamentary delegation to choose this week for its Washington visit. The latest visit repays previous times when the Valley's House members have converged on the Azores Islands, for both official and family reasons.
In turn, Alves has been observing the turn of the congressional wheel in Nunes' office, and will soon visit the Visalia and Stockton areas for a close-up look at Azorean emigrants and U.S. politics.