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New York Congressman Hopes To Use His Immigrant Experience To Influence Lawmakers


A new session of Congress got underway this past week. And among the freshmen members settling into their offices was Adriano Espaillat. He represents New York's 13th Congressional District, which includes Harlem and parts of the Bronx. Mr. Espaillat who, by the way, broke into the merengue after his swearing-in is the first ever Dominican-American elected to either the House or the Senate. He's also the first to have immigrated to this country illegally as a child. Elsewhere in the show, we will be talking to a freshman Republican. Congressman Espaillat joins us on the line from his office on Capitol Hill.

Welcome to the program, Congressman.

ADRIANO ESPAILLAT: Thank you, Lourdes. Thank you for having me on your program.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So let's start. You will be dealing with a Republican Congress. This week has been very tumultuous already. What is the plan moving forward - resistance, compromise?

ESPAILLAT: Well, resistance first and foremost for any repeal of the Affordable Care Act. So we're looking to question every single effort to repeal any of the provisions of the health care act.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Looking more broadly, though, it seems already that the lines are being drawn. It seems already that you're going to be facing a Congress which is at each other's throats.

ESPAILLAT: Well, as a Democrat, you know, we believe in the core values of working-class families and middle-class families, that people should get a helping hand to move up. And I'm not willing to sacrifice or compromise those values. I know that there will be room for consensus in other areas. But other areas, you know, we will have to stand up for what we believe in. And this is what our country is based on.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Republicans got a lot of criticism under President Obama for being obstructionist, as some people saw it. Are you worried that the Democrats would get the same reputation, or are you trying to copy that exact plan?

ESPAILLAT: No, that's not the case. In fact, you know, you are an obstructionist when you try to prevent something from happening. But the Affordable Care Act already occurred. This is a repeal of something that was already put in place, approved by Congress, that is benefiting a good sector of the American population.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Clearly, though, premiums have gone up. There's a great deal of dissatisfaction. Is there a way in which it can be improved?

ESPAILLAT: Is it perfect? Absolutely not. Should it have been better? I think so. But is it something that we should dismantle? I don't think so.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you see any room for common ground?

ESPAILLAT: Well, there's room for common ground on infrastructure. I think there will be room for common ground with regards to the Affordable Care Act. I think that there are some provisions there that are important for everybody.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Immigration is certainly an issue that's going to be taken up early in this session. You have said you want to use your own life story to influence lawmakers on the topic. How do you see that happening?

ESPAILLAT: Well, you know, I would think that perhaps another colleague, before he or she makes a very brash statement about undocumented kids, will think twice that someone that was in that same predicament is sitting right next to them. I think that my personal story is one that perhaps if not change their votes could change their hearts.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: My last question - you know, you did bring in some Dominican musical heavyweights to your swearing-in. Was there a message in the music to Latinos?

ESPAILLAT: Well, you know, merengue is a simple dance. It's a two-step dance, you know. Salsa, you have to know the turns and the twirls. You have to rehearse salsa. Merengue is easy for anybody to dance, maybe even you Lourdes. So hopefully, I'll meet you, and then we can put some of that Sergio Vargas and Fefita La Grande stuff that we played during my swearing-in ceremony.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Democratic Congressman Adriano Espaillat, thanks so much for being with us.

ESPAILLAT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.