This Formerly Undocumented Immigrant Is Running For Congress

by John Haltiwanger
Wendy Carrillo

Wendy Carrillo, 36, was born in El Salvador but was forced to flee to the US when she was just 5 years old due to a bloody and lengthy civil war.

She was undocumented from the ages of 5 to 13, until she eventually gained residency and ultimately became a US citizen.

Today, she's running for Congress in California's 34th Congressional District in Los Angeles to replace former Rep. Xavier Bacerra, who's now the state's attorney general.

The election, which is on April 4, is the first congressional election since President Donald Trump's inauguration.

"This election is incredibly significant because it's one of the first since the new administration took power, and it not only sets the tone on what can LA do in terms of the resistance," said Carrillo, "but it also sets the tone for the 2018 midterms."

Carrillo is one of 23 candidates.

If one candidate doesn't receive more than 50 percent of the vote, a general election runoff is scheduled for June 6.

Carrillo, who's an experienced journalist and activist, is hoping to be a voice for undocumented people, women of color and women in general.

I don't need to wait for anyone to tap me on the shoulder and tell me it's my turn.

In her view, we still have a long way to go when it comes to proper representation in Congress:

I was inspired to run for many, many reasons. One of them being that we often talk about women, and women of color and Latinas specifically rising to the occasion to run for office, and what we've seen in Los Angeles is we often have musical chairs of elected officials... I saw the same group of people that were thinking about running and I said, 'Nope, I don't need to wait for anyone to tap me on the shoulder and tell me it's my turn.' This is the district where I grew up in, where I live, where I have roots, where my parents live...If not now, when?

In the wake of the election of Donald Trump, who's promised to deport millions of people and build a wall along the US-Mexico border, and who has a very troubled relationship with women, Carrillo's campaign stands as a direct challenge to the rhetoric and policies of America's new president.

Wendy Carrillo

In this heated political climate, where xenophobia is running rampant in many parts of the country, Carrillo has faced backlash over running for office as a formerly undocumented immigrant, including from David Duke, the former head of the KKK.

Carrillo explains,

Here's the thing about being formerly undocumented and gaining citizenship, is that people fail to see the latter part. They have categorized me as the word 'illegal,' and clearly no human being is illegal. People like David Duke and his cohort of alt-right, just frankly haters, will refuse to see that this is a country of opportunity. For people like him, to folks who are very anti-immigrant in general, they refuse to believe we have a place in this country.

Beyond dealing with white nationalists, Carrillo has also been subjected to body-shaming and the extreme levels of sexism political campaigns headed by women too often face.

But Carrillo won't apologize for who she is, and sees her candidacy as a way to push back against such views, saying,

I refuse to let that get to me. There are millions of people across this country that believe in what we're trying to do, and want this country to be one of opportunity and not one of fear and oppression.

Carrillo's story is quintessentially American.

She may not have been born here, but this country is her home:

My story is the American journey. This country was here for me and my family when we needed it. And, now, I get to be there for it in a very big way. My journey, like many other people that flee war and violence, that simply want a better life, is not unique -- it is the experience of millions of people that come to this country. It is embedded in this nation's history, and we get to continue that incredible condition in a very bold, new, unapologetic way.

Carrillo believes that the US is "by no means done or defined," and that it's up to all of us to continue the fight to "create the kind of country that we want."

Simply put, she wants to be an active part of building a "more perfect union," and there's probably nothing more American than that.