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Ari Espinal, the Queens machine-appointed candidate for State Assembly in the 39th District, is running in the Democratic primary against Catalina Cruz, the first DREAMer to run for office in New York, using inflammatory language to delegitimize Cruz and score cheap political points. Espinal is deploying dog whistle terms like “born and raised”, “not one of us,” and “this is our community” as the central theme of her campaign. She is engaging in a strikingly overt form of xenophobic, racist political messaging. This dangerous rhetoric has no place in a democracy, especially when a racist occupies the White House.
Nineteen years ago, I migrated with my family to New York City. I was thirteen years old, with no knowledge of the English language, nor the understanding of the legal ramifications of overstaying in the United States without legal documents. As someone who grew up a DREAMer, the use of such language is not only offensive but it has also brought back memories of being discriminated against because of my immigration status and accent.
It is all the more disturbing when you consider where Espinal is running for office. I live in the Jackson Heights community. It has among the highest foreign-born populations of any area. On every block, there are people just like me – DREAMers, formerly undocumented, and immigrants. Yet we don’t have true political power because many of us can’t vote. I spent many years of my life advocating to advance the rights of immigrants such as myself while encouraging those that have the power to vote to exercise their right because I believe that each voice can make a difference. The argument being used by Espinal appeals to a nativist crowd who wants to exclude those who weren’t “born and bred” in the community.
We are living in a moment when Trump justifies a policy of separating families at the border as a deterrent. Now more than ever, we must not be silent when any candidate uses these types of strategic, coded racist remarks. Candidates that stoke fear and distrust because of a person’s place of birth, language, or country of origin, must be held accountable for their contribution to rising hatred and division. We must confront Ari Espinal on the use of this type of insidious language at this dangerous moment in American history.
There are two competing visions of America: exclusive or inclusive. I believe the fight over who belongs here and who has value as a human being is a false one. The backbone of the history of America is the immigrant experience; people coming here to pursue the American dream and benefiting everyone in the process. We must insist that our elected officials, and those seeking office, use language that embodies inclusion and unity, which are key to healing our broken country.
Veronica Piedra Leon, MSSR, is currently a stay-at-home mom awaiting the imminent birth of her 2nd child. She is a Jackson Heights Resident.