A few weeks after Donald Trump launched his campaign for the presidency, a friend asked Ricardo Aca a question: “How would you feel about making a short documentary and risking your job?”
Aca, 24, had come to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 14. Now he lived in Brooklyn and worked as a busboy at an upscale sushi restaurant on the ground floor of the Trump SoHo condo tower.
Aca was angry about Trump’s pronouncements that Mexico was sending rapists and criminals to the U.S. An aspiring photographer, he had recently started taking pictures of fellow immigrants holding signs that said, “I am not a rapist” and “I am not a criminal.”
He said yes to the friend who asked to film him, and they got to work on a short video with a provocative title: “Meet the Undocumented Immigrant Who Works in a Trump Hotel.”
In a testimony to the fascination with all things Trump in the 2016 presidential race, the video has been viewed more than 1.5 million times. Aca, who has always been more interested in cameras than politics, has found himself on the front lines of the immigration debate.
He has been flooded with emails and hounded by journalists, with Spanish-language news crews even descending on his family home in Mexico. He has been stopped on the subway by other immigrants who praise his bravery for standing up to a billionaire bully and criticized by thousands of YouTube commenters as a criminal who should be deported.
“It’s been pretty crazy,” Aca said last week. He was having tacos with a friend, Hugo Segura, outside a Mexican restaurant in Bushwick, the neighborhood where Aca grew up. The pair once worked together at a Manhattan nightclub but had fallen out of touch. When Segura, 29, saw Aca’s video, he reached out.
“I’m so used to people discriminating against Mexicans,” Segura said to Aca. But something about Trump’s comments hit a nerve, he said. “The way he said it, just standing there saying it, it just fueled me. I was just so upset. I mean, why do you have to go so far to try to get recognition?”
“Yeah, at first we thought it was just, like, entertainment,” Aca said. “You laugh. And then a few weeks go by and you start to see that he’s up there in the polls and people are supporting him and it just kind of becomes really scary. Because you find out that there are people out there who feel this way.”
The video was directed by Chase Whiteside, a young filmmaker with a left-leaning bent who has gained a sizable Internet following for his short films documenting tea party gatherings. In the video, Aca is seen taking photographs of immigrants at a soccer game and making his long subway commute to Koi, the sushi restaurant at Trump SoHo. Aca works two other jobs — as a food runner at another restaurant and as an assistant in the photo studio at La Guardia Community College, his alma mater.
“Trump keeps pointing out these immigrants that have done these terrible things,” Aca says in the video. “But those are not the immigrants I know. That’s not what we’re like. It doesn’t make me proud to go to work every day under his name.”
Aca was 14 when he crossed the Arizona border with his sister to join their mother in New York.
In 2012, he received a temporary work permit and protection from deportation under President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which was available to certain immigrants who came to the U.S. as children.
Some Trump supporters have criticized Aca for misrepresenting his immigration status in the video. They also point out that Koi leases space at the condo tower and is not owned by Trump.
Aca says that even though he has a work permit, he still considers himself undocumented because the work permit program could be terminated by the next president. “Trump has said he wants to end this program,” Aca said.
Trump’s plan to curb illegal immigration includes proposals to ramp up deportations, build a massive border fence and end automatic citizenship for children born to immigrants in the country illegally. “They have to go,” Trump has repeatedly said.
The Republican front-runner was asked about Aca after the video came out.
“He’s got a legal work permit. I’ve heard he does a good job,” Trump told journalists. “We thought he was an illegal immigrant at first.”
Although multiple people have angrily called Koi’s managers to say they should hire only native-born workers, Aca hasn’t been fired. He’s glad for that, but says he isn’t going to let up on Trump. He has been invited to speak about his advocacy by immigrant activists, and he hopes to publish his photos of immigrants in a book.
“It’s like, ‘OK, I still have my job,’” Aca said. “But you still want to deport me and 11 million other immigrants.”