New Lawmaker Was Once an Undocumented Immigrant

New Lawmaker Was Once an Undocumented Immigrant
AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File
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At the Democratic National Convention in July, Adriano Espaillat, a state senator from New York, introduced himself as someone who could become the first formerly undocumented immigrant to serve in the U.S. Congress. He also took a shot at the Republican presidential nominee: “Take that, Donald Trump!” Espaillat shouted from the stage in Philadelphia.

Months later, Espaillat broke that particular barrier when he was elected in an overwhelmingly Democratic district in Upper Manhattan hours before Trump, just a few miles south, declared victory in the presidential election. But despite Trump’s victory on a platform of aggressive immigration policy, including his infamous wall on the southern border, Espaillat – now both the first Dominican-American and first formerly undocumented immigrant elected to Congress – said his message hasn’t changed.

“This is America. We’re talking about Manhattan, an important part of New York, an important part of our country where people from all over the country come,” he said in an interview this week with RealClearPolitics. “I will be representing that district. Yes, absolutely. Take that, Donald Trump."

Espaillat said he views his election as something of a “silver lining” on a night with few positive takeaways for Democrats. The party lost the White House and failed to capture the Senate or make up any significant ground in the House; right now, Democrats are in turmoil, searching for answers about the direction and leadership of their party, and how to move forward toward the next election.

Espaillat said he sees himself as an important voice for congressional Democrats as they pick up the pieces, particularly on issues of immigration.

"Strong voice,” he said when asked what he saw as his role in Congress. “I will be a strong voice for those people that are in the front lines that could get hit by a tsunami.”

It’s a unique environment for a man who has had Capitol Hill ambitions for years. Espaillat came to the U.S. with his mother and sister when he was 9 years old and stayed without documentation for more than a year after his visa expired. He ultimately became a U.S. citizen in his late 20s. Espaillat worked as a community activist before becoming the first Dominican-American elected to the New York legislature in 1996. He stayed in the General Assembly for more than a decade before moving up to the state Senate in 2010.

Two years later, he mounted his first bid for Congress, an unsuccessful attempt to challenge longtime incumbent Rep. Charlie Rangel in a primary. Rangel won by just over 1,000 votes. In 2014, Espaillat again challenged Rangel and again lost by a slim margin. This year, with Rangel retiring after more than four decades in Congress, Espaillat won a tight primary by fewer than 1,000 votes in a district that includes much of Harlem and was long represented by African-Americans, but now includes a significant Hispanic population, thanks to redistricting and changing demographics. He cruised to victory Tuesday with more than 80 percent of the vote.

But he enters Congress with Democrats in the wilderness, facing four years of a Republican presidency and at least two years in the minority in both congressional chambers. Espaillat said he thought it was healthy for the party to re-evaluate its failed strategy after 2016.

"I think strategically maybe we weren't there,” he said. “We didn't get the messaging right. I think we weren't speaking to everybody, as we should have.”

Rep. Eliot Engel, a longtime New York Democrat whose district neighbors Espaillat’s, called him a “trailblazer.”

“Obviously it shows the tremendous American dream that he has lived and continues to live, and it shows that America is a great place for people to come from all parts of the world,” Engel said. “It’s why immigration is a good thing. We get the best and brightest coming to our country, and he’s a good example."

“The beauty is in the mix,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement. “The first Dominican-American elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, Congressman-elect Espaillat is part of a new and diverse freshman class and a welcome addition to our diverse Democratic caucus. He brings a long record of public service on behalf of his community and will be a strong voice and a steadfast champion for hard-working families everywhere.”

Although Espaillat thinks he can be a powerful player on immigration issues, he also named new infrastructure programs, housing improvement and job creation as some of his top priorities as he enters Congress. He even thinks there is an opening for he and fellow New York Democrats to work with Trump on issues critical to their city and state.

When it comes to immigration, he said there is “legitimacy for being concerned, in some cases afraid,” by Trump’s agenda, but that he has hope for some moderation. He talked about family reunification as a priority that he thinks both parties could share, and said he is hopeful that Trump would not roll back President Obama’s program deferring deportation for undocumented immigrants who arrived as children. 

When it comes to working with his GOP colleagues in Congress, Espaillat still holds out hope that some will shift their thinking on immigration reform. Some Republicans were open to comprehensive immigration reform just three years ago when legislation passed the Senate, but it went nowhere in the House, sunk by overwhelming GOP opposition. Republicans have since tried to block Obama’s executive actions on the issue. Espaillat said he thinks his presence in the Capitol could be a “game changer.”

“People will see me in the hallways pass by them and say, ‘Wow, that guy at one point came here, overstayed his visa, and look at him -- he's one of our colleagues now,’” he said. “I think it's very much an American story and one that I hope resonates across the aisle."

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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