“First of all, I think we should make [the census] a fun process, where people, families engage in it [together], particularly in hard to count districts and communities.”
driano Espaillat (D) represents New York’s 13th congressional district, which covers parts of Upper Manhattan and the Bronx. Mr. Espaillat was elected in 2016, following the retirement of longtime Congressman Charles Rangel, and, upon taking office, Mr. Espaillat became the first Dominican-American to serve in Congress. While in Congress, Rep. Espaillat has served on the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Committee on Education and the Workforce, and he has prioritized issues such as housing and immigration. He joins Merion West and John George to discuss the current status of the immigration debates on Capitol Hill, the 2020 census, and his thoughts on National Hispanic Heritage Month.
Congressman, good afternoon. Your office just released a statement in recognition of National Hispanic Heritage Month. What does this mean for you?
It’s a month where we highlight our contributions to the nation, our strengths as a community: Central [American], South American, the Caribbean, and we’re spread out all over the country in many different ways. And I think this month highlights our contributions to the nation, our history, our legacy: our art, our culture, and all the good things that we have to share with the rest of the world.
The citizens of New York City understand that housing is always a contentious issue which affects many people. Can you speak about some of your efforts with the Inwood rezoning [a proposal to rezone the neighborhood at the Northern tip of Manhattan for greater real estate development] and the potential impact it would have to the community there?
Yes, I helped do an amicus brief; I joined the law students who tried to stop the zoning. I think it could dramatically change the makeup of the neighborhood, the history of the neighborhood, the legacy of the neighborhood. So I went with the courts to bring relief to the thousands of tenants that are affected by this issue.
You recently appeared on CNN to discuss the Trump administration’s response to the Saudi oil attack. You criticized the President’s response, in particular the phrase “locked and loaded.” You also criticized his making this statement via Twitter. What are your thoughts on the communication style of the Trump administration—and how would you want a future President to perhaps communicate differently?
I think—in this particular case—that it’s somewhat lazy and dangerous because it goes around the usual diplomatic routes, and there must be peaceful solutions to every conflict we may have around the world. I don’t think you can take any conflict lightly, and it should not be handled through a midnight tweet —but rather, through a well-qualified, diplomatic thought.
And how you want another president—down the line—to communicate differently?
I think they have to be deliberate, conscientious, [and] think before they speak. Words matter—whether they’re good or bad—and I think the next president should do that.
What have you heard from your constituents about this administration?
I think everybody’s upset about how he [President Trump] handles himself, the lack of decorum, and the demeaning way he’s often treated communities across the country.
Moving onto a similar topic: the 2020 census is on the horizon, and it’s a contentious issue in national politics. But it’s also a concern for many in your congressional district and throughout New York City. Does your office have a plan for the census—and how do you plan to make sure that everyone is counted?
First of all, I think we should make it a fun process, where people, families engage in it [together], particularly in hard to count districts and communities. We’re going to be meeting with pediatricians to push for them to encourage moms and families who have children [to be sure they respond]. We’re also going to include housing experts to encourage tenants to include folks who they may be renting a room to—or maybe doubling up with. So the non-traditional. It’s important to push into these hard-to-count districts.
Do you have any plans to work with other politicians?
We’re working with Julie Menin, who is the city’s person in charge of the census.
How do you anticipate that the 2020 census will affect New York City?
It’s very important for New York City; it can bring money in, if we have an accurate count, for many much-needed services. It’s also a way of averting losing one, perhaps two congressional [districts]. Not only does it give you political power to count accurately, it provides the opportunity for the City to get the amount of funding it needs for different programs.
Do you think this administration’s attempts to include a citizenship question are an attempt to reduce the accurate count of people living in certain cities?
Certainly it was an attempt, but we were able to win that victory. And we have that behind us. I’ll avoid speaking on it further, but now we have to concentrate on getting people counted.
Immigration, judging by your record in Congress, is a major issue for you. Also, you are the first formerly undocumented immigrant to serve in Congress. Can you speak about your own experiences with American immigration policy?
My family came in the ‘60s, and my grandparents were already here. And we pretty much had to go through a process of going back to the island and getting our green cards to then reunify with the family. And that was our process. When the president or anybody talks about family reunification and efforts to prevent that, that hits home because it was very important for us to be together as a family. I think that made us stronger and that made this country stronger.
I think America continues to be a nation of immigrants, and so immigration continues to be right at the center of what we are as a nation right now and what we will be as a nation tomorrow. So that’s a tremendously important issue for all of us in the country and one that we should continue to support. I hope that we address the immigration issues widely supported by the American people, and those are the Dreamers and the TPS recipients. Everybody agrees that Dreamers—well, at least 80% of Americans from red states and blue states agree—that [Dreamers] should stay and that TPS recipients should be protected. But I also think it’s important that we end the initiatives that splits families up and rips children away from mom’s arms the way it’s happened at the border.
Thank you for your time today, Congressman.