One of the first things New York State Sen. Adriano Espaillat remembers from coming to America at 9 years old was the lights. He, his brother and his mother landed in New York from Santiago, Dominican Republic, at night and they were mesmerized by the December snow and the lights.
“What was really impressive for me as a young boy was driving across the Triborough Bridge, seeing the city lit up,” Espaillat told me recently. “That was just an amazing sight. I still today remember what it looked like.”
When long-time Democratic Rep. Charlie Rangel announced he wouldn’t seek reelection in the House’s 13th District of New York, Espaillat knew there would be an opening in the fight for the seat he originally sought in 2014. Now, after a hard-fought Democratic primary victory—which, in his overwhelmingly blue district, is widely expected to make for a general election shoo-in—I was visiting Espaillat’s Inwood, Manhattan office to meet the man who is poised to be the first previously undocumented member of Congress.
If he’s elected, Espaillat will also be the first afro-Latino and Dominican in Congress. He hopes to use that platform to open up government to all Latinx people—and show that Latinx people are a part of every facet of American life.
“It shows that we’re not all shortstops. We’re not pitchers,” he said. “I mean it because people perceive ethnic groups, racial groups in these very traditional stereotypes. We have a Pulitzer Prize winner, now we’re going to have a member of Congress. We have doctors and lawyers and we are one out of eight New Yorkers.”
Espaillat and his immediate family came to America on tourist visas, and when the visas expired, they stayed. (Just like so many immigrants in this country.) They were very aware of the risks. “We knew, we knew,” he quickly replied when asked about it. “My grandmother reminded us when we went out: Be careful. If any strangers come near you, don’t approach them. Not just so much because they would harm you but maybe, she thought, they would take you away.”
They were here for a little less than two years without documentation, he said, before returning to the Dominican Republic in the middle of the civil war for new visas. When his family returned to America, there was a feeling of relief.
Espaillat’s grandmother was the first in the family to become a U.S. citizen. “She bragged about it all the time—how she didn’t speak any English and here we were going to college and we weren’t even citizens yet,” he told me. “She was very proud of her citizenship and what the U.S. did for us.”
Espaillat was the last, in his late 20s. “I underestimated the feeling I would get when I became a U.S. citizen. I’ll never forget it. The judge asks you to pledge to this nation and relinquish any rights or privileges of your home nation. And it’s a serious moment. I felt—I felt moved by it,” he told me.
Because Espaillat will be the first previously undocumented member of Congress, he wants to champion immigration.
“I think Congress should concentrate on legalizing the status of those 12 million folks who are in the shadows and allow the rightful ability to work legally first and foremost without any hassles from the police or ICE,” he said, referring to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. “Let them work! Give them a green card or some level of assurance they can work and that they can take care of their children.”
He wants people to remember that Latinx people have been in America since before it was America.
“San Antonio, Colorado, Los Angeles, La Florida. Those names did not just pop up all of the sudden. Latinos have been here for a very, very long time,” he said. “We are a part of this experiment called America, and we are an integral part of it. I think that those forces that try to expel us or besmirch us or demonize us are on the wrong side of history. They will be exposed.”