MIAMI – U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Florida, announced Sunday that she will retire at the end of her term next year.
She has been serving in public office for 38 years and was the first Hispanic woman in Congress.
"I have been honored and humbled to serve our South Florida community for almost four decades," Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement. "From helping everyday people with constituent cases to standing up to dictators around the world, I am proud of the work we have accomplished over the years. However, it is now time to take a new step. With the support of my husband, Dexter, and my children, I have decided I will not seek re-election in 2018."
Ros-Lehtinen was born in Havana and fled the communist island-nation at the age of 8, when Fidel Castro came to power.
Her family settled in Miami, where she attended Southside Elementary School in Little Havana. She would later earn an associate of arts degree from Miami Dade College, and then a bachelor's degree and a master's degree from Florida International University. She later attended the University of Miami, where she earned a doctorate in education.
With her education, Ros-Lehtinen worked as a teacher and principal at a private school in Hialeah. Then, in 1982, she was elected to the Florida House of Representatives and then to the Florida Senate in 1986 -- moves that made her the first Hispanic woman to serve in each body.
In 1989, she was elected to Congress, becoming the first Hispanic woman to hold a congressional seat.
"I've been honored to help lead the way for young women who want to make a difference in their community while honoring some of our nation's heroes, such as World War II-era WASP pilots," Ros-Lehtinen said. "I am also proud that our office has hosted interns from all over the world, from all walks of life who continue to keep in contact with me and who make me proud every day of the work they are doing to help our community."
Ros-Lehtinen worked on legislation that created the Florida College Program, which helps make higher education more affordable for students.
She has served as the chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and is currently chair of the Subcommittee on Middle East and North Africa.
"I have stood with the oppressed around the world and fervently against the dictatorial regimes that abuse and attempt to silence the brave men and women who seek their God-given human rights," Ros-Lehtinen said. "I am proud of my record as a staunch supporter of human rights and democracy in my native homeland of Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and other corners of the world. I authored the strongest sanctions legislation on the Iranian regime to keep our nation safe from their rogue nuclear program."
Ros-Lehtinen is married to Dexter Lehtinen, and the couple have four children and four grandchildren.
"My inspiration for years of public service comes from my parents, Enrique and Amanda Ros, who instilled in my brother and me a deep love for this country, respect and hard work along with my rock and loving husband, Dexter, as well as our children and grandchildren," she said.
In a statement, the congresswoman wrote that she wants to spend more time with her grandchildren in her retirement.
"I am confident that my constituents would extend my term of service further should I seek to do so," she wrote in the statement. "But we must recall that 'to everything there is a season, and time to every purpose under the heaven.' The most difficult challenge is not to simply keep winning elections; but rather the more difficult challenge is to not let the ability to win define my seasons. This is a personal decision based on personal considerations; I will not allow my season in elected office be extended beyond my personal view of its season, simply because I have a continuing ability to win."
Ros-Lehtinen said she plans to continue to work for the people of South Florida over the next 20 months with the "same fervor" that she has always done.
"I look forward to continuing to work for the betterment of our community and I will always be a voice for issues that impact South Florida," she said. "I am grateful to the United States for embracing me and affording me the opportunity of attaining a blessed life: full of love, purpose and achievement. I can never repay what this country has given me, and I'm honored to have been South Florida's voice in Congress for so many years."
Upon learning of her retirement announcement, U.S. Rep.Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Florida, issued a statement that said, in part: "To say Ileana is a trusted friend and mentor to me is an understatement; she is a part of my family, and I will dearly miss 'mi hermana legislativa' in the halls of Congress. I wish nothing but the best for Ileana, her husband Dexter, their children and their grandchildren as she begins this next chapter in her life."
U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Florida, also released a statement that said, in part: "Ileana broke barriers as the first Hispanic woman elected to Congress and the first female chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. She has been a stalwart champion for human rights around the world, a voice for the oppressed, an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ equality, and one of the most steadfast defenders of Israel. Her legislative contributions have led to some of the toughest international sanctions against Iran, North Korea and Venezuela, and the promotion of democracy worldwide."