Portraits by Matt McClain

Originally published by The Washington Post 

For many Hispanic members of Congress, President Trump’s immigration policies serve as both an agenda to be opposed and a throwback to their personal experiences.

Many of the record number of Hispanic lawmakers this year – 45, from both parties – are first-generation Americans whose parents came to the United States from places such as Mexico and Cuba, as low-skilled workers, some speaking only Spanish.

For some of them, Trump’s immigration crackdown raises old fears from their childhoods growing up in the United States with parents from somewhere else.

Their families could be affected if parts of Trump’s policies become law – Rep. Henry Cuellar (D) is from the border town of Laredo, Tex., which could be impacted by a border wall between the United States and Mexico. Others, such as Rep. Grace F. Napolitano (D-Calif.), were often targeted for questioning by immigration officers as children. Napolitano said she carried her birth certificate in her back pocket because those encounters were so frequent.

Those lawmakers whose parents did not speak English might not have been able to enter the country under a recent proposal to slash legal immigration from two Republican senators whom Trump threw his weight behind.

The Washington Post sat down with five Hispanic members of the House who have at least one parent who immigrated to the United States. The lawmakers spoke candidly about their experiences as first-generation Americans, their encounters with immigration officials and their parents’ paths toward assimilation.

Growing up, Henry Cuellar couldn’t understand why his father didn’t want to become a U.S. citizen.

Martn Cuellar was born just across the Mexican border from Laredo, Tex., in Guerrero, Tamaulipas. He had spent years crisscrossing the American West with his U.S.-born wife, Odilia, seeking farm work in states as far away as Utah and Idaho. Henry spent some of his earliest years in a red wagon at their side, moving slowly up and down the rows of crops.

The couple eventually settled down and raised a large family in Laredo. But even though he had earned legal residency, Martn was still not interested in becoming a citizen.

My father said: ‘I was born a Mexican. I’m going to die a Mexican,’  Henry Cuellar said in a recent interview. As I grew up, I gathered what my father was saying. Giving up the mantle of your country is a hard thing to do, and my father did not want to give up Mexico.

Laredo, then and now almost completely Spanish-speaking, was a comfortable place for the growing family. There was virtually no discrimination or friction with immigration officials, Cuellar said, and from their house, all 10 family members could easily drive across the border to visit relatives in Guerrero.

The contrast was stark. They had dirt streets, Cuellar said. My grandmother had a house with dirt floors. . . . She would water the floor before we got there so there would be no dust.

Cuellar and several of his siblings have achieved notable success. He holds three graduate degrees, making him one of the most academically credentialed members of the House, and served as Texas secretary of state before he came to Capitol Hill in 2005. A brother is a sheriff and a sister is a municipal judge.

This is perhaps what eventually caused their father to change his mind about becoming a citizen.

One day, he said, ‘This country has been very good to my kids,’  Cuellar said.  ‘I want to become a U.S. citizen, and that’s my way of saying thank you.’ 

Cuellar’s father was naturalized on Oct. 8, 1993.

Two decades had passed since their families left Cuba, but when it came to their son, Carlos and Teresita Curbelo were clear about one thing: He must have a Cuban upbringing.

They raised the younger Carlos in the city of Hialeah, the most highly concentrated Cuban community in the United States. He enrolled at Belen Jesuit Preparatory School, an all-boys academy that was founded in Havana in 1854 and attended by Fidel Castro before it moved into exile. After school, young Carlos spent considerable time with his grandmother and her sister, absorbing their stories and attitudes. His family members were less assimilated than those of his friends, he said.

I grew up with that Cuban culture but then with this reverence, and I would say adoration, for the United States, Curbelo said in a recent interview. The culture was Cuban, but the patriotism was decidedly American.

The environment came with unique pressures. Maybe it’s true of all immigrant families, but there is this paranoia that you have to succeed. It’s fear of loss, right? he said.

Curbelo’s father was part of the anti-Castro resistance, motivated in part by the imprisonment of young Carlos’s grandfather, a career military officer who was released later when he developed Parkinson’s disease. When the Bay of Pigs invasion failed, the elder Carlos left for the United States, where he struggled to find work in Miami and to eat when he moved for a time to New Orleans.

He experienced hunger, legitimate hunger, there. When he got a job as a busboy, he took leftovers from people’s plates to eat, Curbelo said.

The family was haunted by stories of the grandfather’s experience in prison, where the guards would simulate executions and watch the frightened captives soil themselves.

 ‘The greatest thing in the world,’ ‘a gift from God’ – those are the kinds of descriptions I became accustomed to hearing about the United States, Curbelo said.

If it was Sunday morning, young Graciela Flores knew to expect a knock at the apartment door.

Visits from immigration officers were part of the routine living in Brownsville, Tex., right along the U.S.-Mexico border, at least in her neighborhood. And no matter how many times it happened, it was important to be prepared.

Her parents were divorced, and sometimes, her mother would be asleep, exhausted from working multiple jobs, when the officers came. Graciela and her brother were citizens, born in Brownsville. Their mother had a green card. But every time, the officers still asked for proof.

That young woman is now Grace F. Napolitano, an 18-year member of the House. Amid the increase in immigration arrests, she recalls her own encounters with Immigration and Naturalization Service agents in the streets of Brownsville.

I learned early on that I had to carry my birth certificate with me, Napolitano said in a recent interview. Wherever I went, it was in my back pocket.

Napolitano left Texas for east Los Angeles at age 18. The newlywed drove across the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona with her husband and their infant daughter. Once, the staff at a restaurant refused to rinse the baby’s bottle and fill it with water when her husband asked – an experience of discrimination Napolitano says she remembers vividly.

Some people’s minds are set against any changes. Different people, different cultures, different ideas – they’re against it, she said. Why did they refuse us? Who knows. You take it in stride. You don’t battle it.

For young Ileana Ros y Adato, Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba was supposed to blow over quickly, like a tropical afternoon storm.

So the 8-year-old departed Havana for Miami in August 1960 without fear. She, her mother and her brother had round-trip tickets on Pan-American. They took only a small overnight bag. Her father was still in Havana, fighting Castro as a coordinator for the Christian Democratic Movement. She thought her father’s side would win, Castro would be gone and they would go back soon.

More than five decades later, not only did Ileana Ros-Lehtinen never go back, but she is now about to retire after spending nearly 36 years establishing herself as one of the best-known Cuban Americans in U.S. politics.

Under the tutelage of her late father, a prominent Cuba historian and anti-Castro activist, Ros-Lehtinen became the first Hispanic woman elected to Congress, in 1989. She is a political centrist, although strongly opposed to the Cuban regime, and readily criticizes President Trump, steering clear of Miami during his recent visit to announce a more confrontational approach to Cuba policy.

In a recent interview, Ros-Lehtinen described her early memories of the United States as a wash of Technicolor dreamscapes: classic cars tooling around Miami’s Little Havana, lavish desserts from the beach hotel where her mother worked, the thrill of a first Halloween.

Her Pan-Am flight from Havana to Miami had been full of celebration. Some passengers kissed the tarmac upon arrival. But her mother quietly cried.

We never felt the pangs of what the anxiety was all about, Ros-Lehtinen said. My brother and I thought, ‘What a great country this is.’ It was like a motion picture before our eyes.

Juan Vargas was a kid the first time he saw an immigration raid.

It took place at a plant nursery near his home in the San Diego suburb of National City. In his memory, an immigration officer discovered a family living without papers and was literally ripping the mother away from the child.

As a kid, I was horrified, Vargas said in a recent interview. The child is screaming. The mother is screaming. I’m like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ I thought police were supposed to help. It was traumatizing, really.

Vargas had been raised to trust the police by his father and mother, an illiterate laborer and wealthy cosmopolitan, who forged an unlikely marriage through the bonds of their Catholic faith and the rigor of raising 10 children in poverty on a chicken farm.

My mother would always bang it into our heads how lucky we were to be American citizens, he said.  ‘God gave you this special gift,’ she’d say. ‘Most people in the world would want to be American citizens. You happened to have been born American citizens.’ 

Vargas’s parents, both from the state of Jalisco, Mexico, met at a Catholic parish near San Diego. His father first came to California as a 17-year-old guest farmworker. His mother, whose relatives owned large properties in the state, had come to learn English.

Once married – over her family’s objections – the two set up house in a shack on the chicken farm where Vargas’s father worked. Both were legal residents of the United States.

We were extremely, extremely poor, Vargas said. I saw this one picture where my brothers and I are in underwear with no shoes. I must have been 11. I asked my mom about it. She said, ‘Because you only had a couple of pairs of pants, you couldn’t get them dirty, so you just wore your underwear. And we couldn’t afford to buy you guys shoes.’ 

Despite occasional slurs from his peers – including dirty Mexican and wetback – Vargas was elected homecoming king his senior year in high school, becoming the first Latino to hold the title.

Later, he spent five years on the path to becoming a Jesuit priest before deciding it was not his calling. He says he never asked parishioners about their immigration status. That was up to Jesus, not me, he said.

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