When Mayra Flores made history this June as the first Mexican-born member of the US Congress, the Republican seized her south Texas seat from the Democrats by courting Latinos with strident calls to close the border.
That apparent paradox has made the 36-year-old -- whose campaign slogan is "God, family, country" -- one of the faces of the Republican Party's new push in the border region for the November midterm elections.
She is bidding to repeat her victory next month, when fellow Latina Republicans Monica de la Cruz, Cassy Garcia and Carmen Maria Montiel will also vie for nearby congressional seats that for decades have remained Democratic.
The group hope to appeal directly to a community made up largely of immigrants and children of immigrants, who are increasingly calling to expand the wall that separates their adopted home country from Latin America.
Sara Rodriguez, a resident of Edinburg, 20 miles (32 kilometers) from the Mexico border, plans to vote for Flores because she "represents our views as far as immigration goes."
"There's an influx of a lot of people coming through the valley, especially here at the south border... I feel like it's very unsafe right now."
Flores won her seat in a special poll this summer after the Democratic incumbent resigned.
Campaigning for re-election in the border city of McAllen, she won raucous applause from a crowd wearing boots and wide-brimmed hats during a speech peppered with fierce anti-immigrant rhetoric.
"Red wave! Red wave!" supporters chanted, referencing the Republican Party's color, as a mariachi band played traditional Mexican music.
"The Democratic Party has walked away from the Hispanic community. They just take us for granted every election year," she told AFP after her rally.
'My hard work'
Democrats in various US states have for years benefited from the traditional support of Latino voters, which in the 1990s played a key role in transforming California into a solidly blue state.
But in south Texas, where Hispanics or Latinos (40.2 percent) outnumbered non-Latino or Hispanic whites (39.4 percent) for the first time this year, the Democrats' lead has gradually shrunk.
In 2020, Donald Trump's hardline immigration stance was widely credited with helping to slash the Democratic lead over Republican voters along the Texas border to 17 percent, from 33 percent four years earlier.
While they rarely mention the former president by name in speeches, local Republican candidates have adopted his nationalist and pro-wall rhetoric, while highlighting their community roots.
"It's so important that you have people who live on the border, who understand the border, representing the border," said de la Cruz, who hopes to win a seat held by Democrats for more than a century.
Jesus Contreras, a Mexican who became a naturalized US citizen in the 1990s, plans to vote for her after decades of supporting the Democrats.
"My parents, everybody, taught me, 'Oh the Republicans are bad,'" he said, switching between English and Spanish. "But they're not."
Contreras blames the Democrats for the border situation, and for the rising cost of living.
"The folks that are coming across are helping the economy in which way? Do they pay taxes?" he asked.
"As far as I know, I've been paying taxes all my life. But yeah, they come over here and... get to reap the benefits of my hard work.
"I don't think so."
Between last October and this August, US authorities reported more than two million "border encounters" -- a record.
The figure does not directly translate into the number of migrants, as many people try several times to cross.
Many are seeking asylum, claiming to be fleeing dangerous situations in countries such as Guatemala, Cuba, and Nicaragua.
Venezuela has seen an explosion in cases, with more than 180,000 of its citizens intercepted at the US southern border in one year.
For Montiel, an ex-beauty queen who is running in Houston to become the first Venezuelan in US Congress, the situation is "unacceptable."
"My constituents want the border to be closed, for there to be legal migration," she told AFP.
"Even if they are Venezuelans, I do not agree with someone entering this country breaking the law," she added, although her former country has no diplomatic relations with Washington and no functioning US embassy.
'Coming from poverty'
Still, in the border city of Laredo, multiple Latino voters told AFP they defined themselves as Democrats because of the party's humanitarian position on immigration.
"It is not dangerous here -- migrants come to work," says Gustavo Hernandez, a taxi driver who arrived 25 years ago from Mexico.
"They are just coming from poverty," he added.
Sandra Ibarra, who spoke to AFP on her way to attend noon Mass at Laredo's cathedral, said it was "necessary for everyone to get out and vote."
"I think (President Joe) Biden has done a lot of good things and he is trying to do everything he can to help immigrants, but the governor [Republican Greg Abbott] puts a lot of restrictions on us," she said.
"We are at a crossroads."
© Agence France-Presse