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Meet the Former Undocumented Immigrant Running for Congress to Fight Trump

In 1985, Wendy Carrillo's mother brought her to the US to escape the Salvadoran Civil War. Now, the human rights journalist is running for office in an attempt to combat both Trump's noxious agenda and the Democratic Party's unwillingness to stand for...

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Jan 19 2017, 7:30pm

Photo courtesy of the subject

Last year, Wendy Carrillo drove from California to Standing Rock to help oppose the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. For two months, the longtime labor activist and former journalist camped out alongside the Sioux tribe and thousands of other people who were mobilized to fight for the environment and for indigenous rights.

As the local police assaulted the encampment and arrested protestors en masse—reportedly shooting them with rubber bullets, mace, and grenades—she couldn't stop thinking about why no one in power was paying attention: Where's Congress? Where's the President? Where are the elected officials who are supposed to stand up for the will of the people?

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Despite every effort to suppress them, the protesters finally won a victory when the Army Corps of Engineers denied Dakota Access an easement to drill underneath the reservation's main source of water right before 2016 came to a close. It was then that Carrillo, 36, realized she no longer wanted to be on the defensive: She had just witnessed how police brutality goes completely unchecked, Donald Trump was officially on his way to becoming the president of the United States, and it was clear that the Democratic Party was imploding in the wake of its defeat. As she headed back home, she made the decision to run for US Congress as representative from California's 34th district, Los Angeles County.

"I saw some of the most egregious violations against native people and Americans and people around the world by a militarized police state. As a human rights journalist who has been covering movements and global conflict and human rights violations in other places in the world, to see them and experience them in America created an incredible radical shift in my thinking about the political process," she told me over phone. "The continued politics-as-usual in Congress and the fact that we put pipelines and profits over people is just disturbing and not the country that I want."

Carrillo says her entry into the California congressional race represents what's desperately needed in American politics right now, as witnessed by Bernie Sanders' ascendent primary run: true progressives stepping up and offering people an alternative to reactionary rhetoric of the right and the centrist policies of establishment Democrats. It was so urgent, in fact, that without any funds raised or campaign infrastructure in place, she immediately announced her candidacy on Medium after returning to LA.

"People are angry, and they're frustrated. There are levels of severe disappointment and apathy. A lot of people want to give up, but this is the exact opposite moment to give up," she said. "We need more young people, more people of color, and more women to step into leadership roles. And we don't need to be tapped on the shoulder or ask for permission—we just need to do it. I think voters want to see someone who is a fighter and is unafraid. Someone who has actually lived the experiences that most politicians just talk about, someone who won't just fall in line with the Democratic Party."

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The seat Carrillo is vying for is wide open: Rep. Xavier Becerra, the current congressman, is awaiting confirmation as California's next attorney general. So far, about a dozen contenders have entered the race, and many of them could be considered good choices. But having grown up in the district she's running to represent, Carrillo knows it well and says that gives her an edge.

An issue that is close to Carrillo's heart and community is immigration reform, especially in light Trump's terrifying promise to gut existing protections for immigrants and to deport hundreds of thousands of people as soon as he is inaugurated. "There's a lot of mixed-status families in the district—a lot of undocumented young people and parents who are incredibly afraid of what the next four years will look like," she said. "They're afraid of having believed in something like DACA, which was the executive order signed by President Obama, and now being on a list, a registry. There are threats of that list being used to target and deport them."

The 34th Congressional District is 65 percent Latino, 49 percent US born, 17 percent naturalized, 33 percent non-citizen. Carrillo says she is tired of politicians who set policy with "very little concern for the people that are actually impacted by the decisions that are made," and believes the conversation around immigration needs to be started by people who have actually gone through the experience. Trump and the Republicans in Congress have portrayed undocumented immigrants from Latin America as criminals and free loaders, and refugees from the Syria as terrorists. Even moderates on the issue have demonized undocumented immigrants for not coming into the country "the right way."

At the end of the day, people want to have lives with dignity.

Carrillo knows the reality is much more complicated than politicians make it seem. She lived in the US as an undocumented youth until she was 13 years old, and her own immigration story illuminates the current hurdles along the pathway to citizenship. After Carrillo's father was killed for his work with the leftist insurgency during the Salvadoran Civil War, her mother tried to seek political asylum as a refugee in the United States and was denied.

"So she came anyway," Carrillo said. "My mother was 22 at the time. Think about what you were doing when you were 22 years old. Would you have done what she did, and what many families did, to survive?"

Her mother worked as a babysitter until she could afford to bring Carrillo, who was five years old at the time, and her grandmother over to the US. She didn't find out about her status until her mother was approved for residency nine years later. "In 1993, when I found out, I was a 13-year-old girl wearing LA Gears in 7th grade, being a kid," Carrillo explained. "So from 1985 until 1993—that's the length of time it took for us to receive residency. That's the theoretical 'line' people talk about when people say, 'Get in the line and fill out your paperwork.' It would have taken nine years. When you're living in a country filled with war, do you wait that long and potentially die, or do you try to escape?"

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When she learned about her status, Carrillo was determined to become a citizen. US policy mandates that residents have to wait five years before they can even apply—and the application is costly—but, when that time came around for Carrillo, she took the exam and became the first voter in her family. Her mom and sisters, who were born in the US, have since become citizens as well.

"The process needs to be reformed," she said. "There are a lot of different disparities that are not fair," she explained, citing, for example, per-country caps and the fact that foreign-trained doctors from Latin American countries have to jump through more hoops than doctors from European countries to continue their practice in the US. "They automatically discriminate against certain people. That needs to change. We have people in power that don't understand these things—or maybe they do, and it's done on purpose."

"And what about the people who are currently here?" she added. "We have Trump talking about deporting 11 million undocumented people that are living in the shadows. The realities of what that looks like, and the costs of what that looks like, are severe. There's no rationale to doing that. How do we fix it? How do we do more on immigration reform than simply expanding guest worker programs? How do we make it truly about empowerment, residency, and a pathway to citizenship?"

That's just one thing on her to-do list if she were to be elected to Congress. She says there's work to be done on a multitude of fronts—both at the district and national level—including police accountability, investing in public schools, and environmental protection.

"What's going to happen if the Affordable Care Act is dismantled? What's going to happen to women's rights and reproductive rights through Planned Parenthood, one of the most affordable clinics that there are?" she said. "At the end of the day, people want to have lives with dignity. They want to be able to go to work and be able to afford their rent and put food on the table for their kids and send their kids to college."

A lot of people want to give up, but this is the exact opposite moment to give up.

The next step for her candidacy is raising the funds to see it through to the end. Carrillo says she's focusing on small, individual contributions and has launched a campaign called "$34 for 34."

"We're the 34th congressional district and a $34 contribution can go a long way," she said. "We truly do have the community and people support, and what we need is to translate that into dollars so we're also able to have a viable campaign to compete. That's the difference between running a people-powered campaign versus running a campaign with deep financial ties."

She's looking forward to beginning the work of both resistance and building a better future, starting with a speech at the Women's March on Washington this weekend. "I am a woman of color. I am an immigrant. I am a formerly undocumented youth that escaped a civil war in her home country to come to the US. I started from nothing with working class parents who worked very hard to provide for us, in one of these communities that is often neglected. I paid my way through college, I became successful in my career, became a citizen, was the only voter in my family for a long time. And now I'm running for Congress because of all these things that I am as an individual," she said. "This congressional race will be the first one in the country, and it will be a response to Trump."