"I came here at the age of 9 with my parents and my brother and sister. We were here on a visa and overstayed," he told CNN's Alisyn Camerota Wednesday on "New Day." "I was a young boy but I remember my grandparents talking to us about being careful where we went, not approaching any strangers."
"It sent a chilling effect to anybody who doesn't have any documents," the New York Democrat said. "How do you move around? How do you go to school? How do you go to a store?"
Those days of living in fear of being deported shape his view of how children of undocumented parents must be processing President Donald Trump's immigration proposals, Espaillat said.
On Tuesday, the Department of Homeland Security presented memos detailing the administration's plan to aggressively enforce immigration laws. Trump's proposal could include a potentially massive expansion of the number of people detained and deported.
The White House did not immediately return CNN's request for comment.
But DHS officials repeatedly pushed back on the idea that the policies are an expansion of existing law.
"We're just simply trying to execute what Congress and the President has asked us to do," a DHS official told CNN
. "We're going to do so professionally (and) humanely ... but we are going to execute the laws of the United States."
Because of US immigration laws, Espaillat and his family had to return to the Dominican Republic before re-entering the United States legally. But he said some of his constituents aren't confident that if they leave America they'll be able to return.
DHS officials acknowledge that the guidance memos expand the federal government's ability to empower state and local law enforcement agencies to perform the functions of immigration officers. But they said no National Guard troops will be deployed to round up immigrants.
However, the changes suggest a fundamental shift in US policy that seem to be causing fear in immigrant communities.
"What I find is many people are afraid. I hear in my district office people calling in concerned," Espaillat said. "They don't know how these new guidelines will apply to them. People are afraid to go out during the daytime. I heard of folks that only go out at nighttime."
A DHS fact sheet said rules keeping churches and schools off-limits from enforcement actions remain in operation. But questions about how the Trump administration will enforce the immigration order have led some to believe that families could be separated in the process. And Espaillat wonders about the fate of the children born in the US but left behind as their parents are sent back to their native countries.
"It fractures families," he said. "Removal is not a straight and narrow procedure."
The lawmaker said he is not asking that undocumented immigrants who have broken the law be allowed to remain in the US. But he does have questions about how Trump's policies could reshape the nation.
"Are we a country of deportation or a country of aspirations? I think that's what's on the table right now," Espaillat said. "Have we changed the course of America?"
CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to more accurately reflect Espaillat's immigration status when he was a boy.