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Economy & Business

From Critic To Helping Trump Shoulder Challenges For Hispanic Businesses


The president of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is a man named Javier Palomarez. He describes himself this way.

JAVIER PALOMAREZ: I'm the son of Mexican immigrants. I'm an English-as-a-second-language kid. I'm a former high school dropout. I was a migrant farm worker. I'm the poster child for the people they want out of this country.

GREENE: So you could understand why Palomarez was critical of Donald Trump's immigration proposals. During the campaign, he called Trump a buffoon and said he was unfit to be president. Then, the morning after the election, Palomarez got a call.

PALOMAREZ: Five-thirty in the morning, a phone rings, and I - and it's my private cell. I picked it up, and it was Michael Cohen.

GREENE: Oh, Trump's lawyer.

PALOMAREZ: Yeah, yeah. We had a chat. And he said, you know, Javier, you're a warrior, and warriors wage war.

GREENE: Yeah, team Trump seemed to forgive him for that clown comment. In fact, they offered him a position as an informal adviser. He is still running the chamber, representing Hispanic-owned businesses, while also advising the White House. I asked Palomarez whether he stands by that criticism of Trump.

Do you still think he's a buffoon?

PALOMAREZ: You know, it's really less about what I think. And it's really less about whether my mind has changed - 'cause people keep asking me that. What has changed is the circumstances. This man is now the president of the United States of America. And as an American, you got to shoulder the burden. And I did not anticipate being called upon, but I was. And so I'm going to do everything I can to help.

GREENE: I have to say, you didn't totally answer my question about whether you still think he's a buffoon.

PALOMAREZ: (Laughter) You know, I think that there's room for improvement. Certainly, the speech I saw a couple of evenings ago gave me hope. At the end of the day, I'm not going to agree with everything Donald Trump says and does. That's just not going to happen. But I didn't agree with everything President Obama said or did.

GREENE: Is there something in the president's agenda that you can point to for me and say, that is really good for...


GREENE: ...Hispanic-owned businesses?

PALOMAREZ: Oh, yeah, absolutely. You look at people like Steven Mnuchin. You know, I sat down with Secretary Mnuchin...

GREENE: The treasury secretary, you're talking about.

PALOMAREZ: Yeah, yeah, before he was voted upon. And it was very clear to me that Steven Mnuchin understood the challenges of American small business. We talked about the criticality of access to capital and credit. He understood that. He talked about lowering the corporate tax rate. You know, you see people like Rex Tillerson.

GREENE: Secretary of state, yeah.

PALOMAREZ: His understanding of the critical relationship between us and Mexico - I mean, every day in this relationship, $1.5 billion of bilateral trade on a daily basis - more than 585 billion on an annual basis - depend on Mexico. Rex Tillerson understands that having grown up in Texas and run Exxon. And having that kind of keen business understanding makes him that much better a choice to go out and create better relationships all over the world for our nation.

GREENE: I can't help, as I listen to you, think about - you know, you talk about the benefits of foreign trade and Cabinet secretaries understanding that. But Donald Trump has been out telling the country that, you know, free and open trade can be really bad for the American worker.

I think about Mexico, you saying that Rex Tillerson appreciates that relationship. And Donald Trump got into a fight with Mexico's president over who's going to pay for a wall that led to the president of Mexico not coming to the United States. I mean, it's - it sounds like you like some things you're hearing from Cabinet secretaries. But do you like what you're hearing from Donald Trump himself?

PALOMAREZ: Well, no. You know, some of the things I hear from the president is very concerning. But therein lies, I think, the challenge and the opportunity. He has illustrated to me and my association that he can put together a really great team. The question now is, will he allow this top-notch team to deliver?

GREENE: What would you tell a Hispanic business owner who says, look, you called out this person, Donald Trump, as a candidate for his immigration policies, for building the wall. What if this person says - I don't want to work with this guy; I don't want you to work with this president - what are you doing?

PALOMAREZ: You know, again, we've got to deal with the reality that the American people have spoken. Some 30 percent of the Hispanic electorate actually voted for Donald Trump. They voted for him, I think, because they were hearing things from him that they weren't hearing from Secretary Clinton. The encouraging part of this is that as we have been talking to this team - a great example is DACA.

GREENE: Yeah, we should remind people that this is the law from under President Obama that allowed the children of people who are undocumented...


GREENE: ...To stay in the United States.

PALOMAREZ: Correct, correct.


PALOMAREZ: And we saw a softening first, and now he's declared that he's going to leave the kids alone. And to me, that is a huge step forward. That illustrates that they are willing to listen. Is it going exactly the way I would like personally? No, absolutely not. But they haven't slammed the door closed on me yet.

You know, I'm reminded often these days of the challenges that Dr. Martin Luther King had when he was sitting down with LBJ. I won't use the word, but it begins with an N, and it rhymes with bigger. That was a term that LBJ actually used. Imagine the elegance of Martin Luther King to swallow his pride and stay resolute, stay focused on moving forward. Ultimately, it was Dr. King who won out. His challenge was a million times bigger than mine. And if he could do it, I've got to be able to at least try to do my part.

GREENE: Javier Palomarez is the president and CEO of the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Thanks so much for coming in. We appreciate it.

PALOMAREZ: Thanks, my friend. Appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.