WASHINGTON, D.C. — For the first time in American history, a formerly undocumented immigrant is serving in Congress. In fact, there are two.
Whether a historical coincidence or political fate, the same election that brought Donald Trump — the most nativist national political candidate since perhaps the “Know-Nothing” party ran Millard Fillmore in 1856 — to the White House also brought two formerly undocumented immigrants to the Capitol Building.
“Take that, Donald Trump!” Rep. Adriano Espaillat of New York told the Democratic National Convention last summer in a reference to his former undocumented status, a line he repeated with glee in person last week.
“I’m the first Dreamer ever elected to Congress,” Rep. Ruben Kihuen of Nevada added, a title he has recently embraced after Trump ended the DACA program protecting the 800,000 undocumented immigrants brought here as children from deportation.
Both congressmen have been busy this week addressing tragedies. Kihuen, whose district covers part of Las Vegas, rushed to Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center at 3 a.m. Monday morning after a 64-year-old man opened fire on a music festival crowd, killing 58 and injuring 527. He spent this week meeting with survivors, attending church services, and briefing the press along with local officials.
Espaillat flew to Puerto Rico this past weekend to survey the damage and relief efforts in response to the devastating hurricanes that have left most of the island without electricity and killed at least 30 people. Espaillat’s New York City district includes many Puerto Ricans and Espaillat himself used the chair the New York State Senate’s Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and Asian Legislative caucus.
Both Democratic congressmen have now been in Trump’s Washington for nine months, a place increasingly hostile to the more than 10 million people living in this country without proper paperwork. There’s the repeal of DACA, the ramped-up raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and, of course, the border wall Mexico is supposed to pay for.
“I’m the first Dreamer ever elected to Congress”
Espaillat and Kihuen’s illegal immigration paths have made them the de facto representatives in Congress for the millions of undocumented, a role that has thrust both of them to the forefront of the debate in a way that’s unusual for any freshman congressman in the minority, let alone two.
Adriano and Ruben
For their first-ever joint interview, the congressmen joined VICE News last week at the Hawk ‘n’ Dove restaurant near Capitol Hill between meetings and press conferences. Espaillat immediately ordered a cheeseburger and fries, and Kihuen (pronounced kee-win) inquired about a dessert that he never ended up getting.
While they are separated by a generation (Kihuen is 37 and Espaillat is 63), the countries they emigrated from (Kihuen from Mexico and Espaillat from the Dominican Republican), and style (Kihuen is more polished and Espaillat is more loose), the men chose to sit side by side and refer to each other as “Adriano” and “Ruben” rather than the more formal “Congressman” title that some members use when talking about colleagues to reporters.
President Trump had just spent the weekend attacking NFL players who kneel during the national anthem in protest of police violence, the latest in a series of racially divisive episodes that made both congressmen furious.
“The Klan!” Espaillat exclaimed when asked about Trump and race. “The Klan used to wear a hood. Now they don’t; they openly come out and spill their venom out there for everybody to see their identity.”
“Is Trump himself a racist?,” I asked.
“Not all Trump supporters are racists, but all racists voted for Donald Trump”
“Not all Trump supporters are racists, but all racists voted for Donald Trump,” Espaillat said, dodging the question a bit.
“I would agree with that,” Kihuen added.
Despite the racially toxic swamp they see consuming the White House, however, both congressmen said they’re optimistic about the future of undocumented immigrants in America.
“I think this is a bump in the road that’s been generated by the administration, which seems to feed on these divisions,” Espaillat said.
“We did things right”
They both point to the fact that the 31-member Congressional Hispanic Caucus gained seven new members this past November and is at its highest membership level ever, the first Latina senator in history was also elected — Catherine Cortez Masto, a Nevada Democrat — and Kihuen notes that he is Nevada’s first Latino congressman and won a district that is majority white.
Kihuen argued that Trump is the product of “a small minority who is very loud, who has felt emboldened,” and portrayed this moment more as a short-lived racist roar rather than the beginnings of another nativist pendulum swing in American history. “I believe the majority of the people are willing to accept undocumented immigrants becoming citizens,” he said (polls have consistently shown a majority of Americans believe that, even now).
The two are unapologetic about coming to America illegally. “We did things right,” Kihuen insisted. “We stayed out of trouble. We worked hard and we got an opportunity at the American dream and we achieved the American dream.”
The 37-year-old Kihuen came to the U.S. from Mexico with his family when he was 8. Like Espaillat and the majority of undocumented immigrants in the U.S., he entered legally on a visitor’s visa and then didn’t leave. He was told to hide whenever any big green trucks appeared — the color of the immigration enforcement vehicles back then — and was ultimately able to become a citizen because of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act signed by Ronald Reagan (“A president who actually had compassion and empathy for immigrants,” Kihuen said).
Becoming a citizen at age 23, he didn’t waste much time and won a seat in the Nevada State Assembly just three years later in 2006, the first Hispanic immigrant in the state to do so. Seen as an ambassador to both the Hispanic community and the Nevada’s powerful Culinary Union his mother belongs to, Kihuen was soon personally courted by seemingly every Democrat running for president in 2008 (he endorsed Hillary Clinton, who also narrowly won the state’s caucuses).
Path to citizenship
Espaillat, an energetic 63-year-old who dances bachata and merengue, was born in the Dominican Republican and came to New York at age 9, also on a visitor’s visa. He overstayed and did not have legal status for over a year until the opportunity came for a green card and he briefly returned to the DR.
He was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1996 and the state Senate in 2010. He twice challenged the powerful former Rep. Charlie Rangel in his Harlem district while the congressman faced ethics investigations, but he lost both times in 2012 and 2014. When Rangel did not run for reelection in 2016, Espaillat won, becoming the first Dominican-American member of Congress.
Espaillat and Kihuen’s stories no doubt inspire some people but stir resentment in others. The latter group made their resentments clear in 2016 through their votes in the GOP presidential primary and then in the general election.
What would these congressmen tell the people who are upset that they came to the country illegally and used taxpayer-funded services like public schools?
“I would ask them the question, ‘If you and your family were struggling to make ends meet, were unemployed, didn’t have food at the table, wouldn’t you do what you needed to do, including migrating to another country, so that you and your family could succeed?’” Kihuen said.
“Hate is not a good feeling. Don’t hate. Be part of the solution.”
Espaillat chimed in: “Hate is not a good feeling. Don’t hate. Be part of the solution.”
At least one Republican member of Congress agrees with them. Rep. Scott Taylor of Virginia, a former Navy SEAL who votes in line with Trump 97 percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight, has been working with Espaillat on protecting Dreamers through legislation.
“Having spent years overseas, I understand why my colleague Congressman Espaillat and his family would want to come to this country, even illegally,” Taylor said in a statement to VICE News. “A solution must and can be found to deal with the DACA population and the millions who remain undocumented inside of our borders, many striving to be part of their adopted country.”
Espaillat and Kihuen’s very presence in Congress is also a rebuke to some of the most virulent critics of illegal immigration who say the undocumented cannot successfully assimilate. The most outspoken and racially incendiary of them, Rep. Steve King of Iowa — who recently said of immigrants that “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies” — did not return several requests to comment for this story. Neither did several of the other immigration hawks in Congress.
And the Federation for American Immigration Reform, one of the most anti–illegal immigrant groups in the country that has also helped staff the Trump administration, also moderated their usually hot rhetoric when discussing the two congressmen.
“Illegal aliens are a broad group of people: There are exceptional people, there are bad people,” said FAIR spokesman Ira Mehlman. “It’s not about them; it’s about us. It’s about the impact illegal immigration has on America.”