By Edward-Isaac Dovere
March 13, 2017
Adriano Espaillat remembers hearing gunfire nearby when he was 10 years old, back in the Dominican Republic. But that, he says, wasn’t as scary as the men in trench coats and glasses his grandmother warned him to look out for during the months he spent living in New York on an expired visa.
“I guess that’s the description of a spy or a detective,” Espailllat told me, as we met at Bullfeathers to speak for POLITICO’s “Off Message” podcast. “Or an immigration officer.”
Now Espaillat, a freshman Democrat who’s the first former undocumented immigrant elected to Congress, represents the Washington Heights neighborhood where he and his family lived with his grandparents 50 years ago. And he calls President Donald Trump’s attacks on immigrants who came to the U.S. as children like he did “a disservice to our nation.”
He remembers his own boyhood paranoia. “I felt kind of strange if I saw folks that fit that description that my grandmother gave,” Espaillat said.
With the immigration debate bubbling over, that’s led to some difficult moments dealing with colleagues in the House—or watching President Donald Trump speak to a joint session in the chamber two weeks ago, an experience he calls “extremely weird.”
Most focused on Trump’s unusually presidential tone. Espaillat says he was listening to Trump’s words, particularly those that he heard equating immigrants to criminals, and he was offended. “For him to go up there and tout and peddle this cheap speech about unity, and then go at heavy-handedly, punitively against immigrants, I thought it was a farce,” Espaillat said.
I asked him whether he thinks Trump, a fellow New Yorker, understands the immigrant experience. “He doesn’t seem to,” Espaillat said. “He may have exploited workers and hired folks that were undocumented and maybe a bunch of immigrants still are porters and doormen in his building. But I think, you know, he came down from the penthouse. We have to come up from the basement, and that’s a different experience.”
Men work on the excavation of a sprawling 2,600-year-old Buddhist monastery in Mes Aynak, south of Kabul, Afghanistan on Oct. 12, 2010. The archaeological dig is located at the world’s second-biggest unexploited copper mine.
“I don’t think he has hands-on ability to—not only experience that, but to appreciate that,” Espaillat added. “Maybe he got everything on a silver platter.”
Espaillat’s own experience involved a lucky turn of events. After spending a year living in fear of the men in trench coats in New York, his father brought the family back to the Dominican Republic so they could start the immigration process legally.
He and his brother used to sneak into a swimming pool near where they were staying, using the English they’d picked up to befriend American children they met—as well as their parents. Turns out that one of those parents was the consul general, who recognized them when they finally got in for their visa interview and made sure they got back to New York.
As a teenager, he was picketing supermarkets and getting out the vote for Adam Clayton Powell. The mentor who taught him to get active, he said, is the man who helped make him at home in this country. “He taught us our rights, and he made us feel proud. He made us feel like Americans,” Espaillat said.
Out of college, where his father mocked him for studying political science, he was soon running for office. Eventually Espaillat won an Assembly seat, and spent 20 years in Albany—and still got stopped by police in the state capitol building, “and then when I showed them the ID, they would, like, very meticulously look into it.”
Talking to his constituents in the months since the election, Espaillat said, that has gotten worse: “People are scared. Even people that have their documents, that are here legally, are scared.”
Trump, he said, “has permeated this toxic environment out there where some folks may feel that they can do something bad and get away with it, because if the president is talking—speaking in those terms and those tones, ‘Why can’t I just act out some of the things that he’s saying?’”
Espaillat said he only met Trump once in New York, in passing. But he feels the president is betraying his hometown: “He hasn’t represented us well yet,” the congressman said, brushing aside a question of whether he feels any pride in having a New Yorker in the White House. “Don’t be punitive. Don’t beat up on the little guy. Don’t kick them when they’re down,” Espaillat said. “That’s not being a New Yorker.”
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