Wendy Carrillo was five years old when she came to the US through Tijuana with her grandmother and her aunt. The family was fleeing from civil war in El Salvador and relocated to Southern California, where Carrillo was reunited with her mother and lived as an undocumented immigrant until she was 13. Eventually, she gained legal resident status, became a US citizen, and worked as a human rights journalist. But in the age of Trump, who is targeting undocumented immigrants and people of color, Carrillo has found a new calling: running for Congress.
Carrillo, who has been endorsed by the organizers of the Women’s March, is one of nearly two dozen candidates running in a special election in California’s immigrant-rich 34th District to fill the seat vacated by Democrat Xavier Becerra. If elected, Carrillo would become the first formerly undocumented immigrant woman in Congress (In November, New York Rep. Adriano Espillat and Nevada Rep. Ruben Kihuen became the first formerly undocumented immigrants in Congress). Jezebel talked to Carrillo about why she decided to run, the challenges she’s encountered with her campaign, and how she plans to protect the rights of immigrants.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
As a former undocumented immigration and refugee, what has it been like to watch the rise of Trump?
It’s been incredibly frightening, but also so not necessarily a new phenomenon. The black community is not new to racism and hatred. The immigrant community is not new to the severe anti-immigrant rhetoric that’s seen around the country. So now what we’ve seen with the rise of Donald Trump is that people that feel a certain way, that have hatred in their hearts, that are emboldened and feel like they can be outright racist toward communities of color and towards immigrants. So this isn’t new, it’s just new to people that haven’t experienced this type of rhetoric and hateful rhetoric outright, especially coming from somebody that’s now the President of the United States.
Is there something new about seeing it at that level?
The part that’s new about it is that it is now normalized. It is normalized racism, it is normalized hatred towards communities of color and towards immigrants. Before, you would see it in places like Arizona with Sheriff [Joe] Arpaio and the immigrant community there, and in other pockets around the country. But now it is entirely across the country and people feel emboldened to attack immigrants and people of color.
I personally have been attacked because of my story by David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the KKK, on social media. And with that brings all the hatred and all the misogyny and all the racist anti-immigrant, anti-undocumented people, anti-women rhetoric on social media by the alt-right. I knew that that would eventually happen because my campaign and my story is incredibly unique, especially running for office. It just becomes a completely different thing when you see it and when you experience it and you have to have conversations with your team about safety.
Can you tell me about some of the conversations about safety you’ve had to have with your team?
My team is comprised mostly of women—young women at that. When you run any political campaign, you always have a conversation with your field team about just being safe when you’re walking through a community, having a buddy system, not going into anyone’s homes, when you’re literally going to someone’s house you’ve never met and you’re telling them about a candidate or a campaign.
But this is different. When you are attacked on social media by the alt-right and by somebody like David Duke, you have conversations that are about personal safety, about security, and really not feeding the trolls and keeping our positive campaign going and really just being alert.
If you take a look at the comments that are being left on the video that was created by PopSugar on my campaign, the comments there are just wild. They go from body-shaming to calling me illegal and being deported and having me jailed—it’s almost as if they did not read the story or watch the video and they made conclusions about who I am and what I’m doing based on their own stereotypes of immigrants and based on their own fear of a changing demographic in this country. I try not to pay attention to them, to be honest. I can’t spend time giving them any kind of energy because at the end of the day, if we really want political parity in this nation, we have to focus on winning.
You are running for a seat in an incredibly diverse district. How are Trump’s policies affecting this district, and what would you do to keep that district safe?
District 34 encompasses some of the most multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual communities in the entire county of Los Angeles and I think the country. This is a district that includes a large population of Latinos from all over Latin America, largely Mexican, but also includes the largest Salvadorian-American community in the country outside of El Salvador. It also includes communities of Koreatown, Little Tokyo, Little Bangladesh, historic Filipinotown, Chinatown, so it’s incredibly diverse.
There are four things that this district, and really the country, are seeing as top priorities and they include healthcare, immigration, access to good jobs, and education. But the immigration angle has been very important to this district. In the most recent national story that we saw actually came out of this district. There was a father, his name is Romulo Avelica-Gonzalez, who was dropping off his kids at a school and was detained by ICE and his 13-year-old daughter filmed the entire thing, and you can hear her crying. It’s incredibly heart-wrenching. He’s currently being detained and that happened in the community of Highland Park, where I actually used to live. This young girl just ran the marathon in Los Angeles, and her story hits you in the gut. She was training with her dad before he was detained. At mile 19, it was her father and his resilience that kept her going even though he was not with her at the time and he was detained. But this just happened. So we can talk about being a sanctuary city, but the reality is that ICE came into this community wearing jackets that say “police” on them and they took him when he was dropping his kids off at school. He is not a criminal. He’s a father. And now his children are without their dad. And so this is very real. And it is a threat that not only the Latino community is anxious about, but everyone in this district.
This is a large district for young people who are under DACA, and there’s a large percentage of DACA recipients that are Asian and so the government provided them a security in terms of finding them the ability to work while issues on immigration were being worked on. They trusted in their government to sign up for this program, and now they are under constant threat because DACA recipients have been arrested across the country. But they might be targeted because their names and addresses are on the registry.
So how do I, as a member of Congress, fight this? Be bold and unapologetic about where we stand. Being a formerly undocumented immigrant, being a woman of color, having the privilege of becoming a resident and a citizen of this country knowing first-hand what that experience is like, and being a vocal national member that can speak about these issues, not only locally, but nationally—is incredibly important because we don’t have many voices that are champions of immigration, that are unapologetic about where we stand.
What specific policy proposals would you endorse or try to push through?
Here’s the reality of saying that we would be passing any kind of policy proposals or legislation: that is not going to happen in a Republican-led Congress. And I know that. And as a junior member of Congress, there is very little that can be done in terms of passing policy or proposing legislation. If senior members of Congress can’t do it, then me coming in there as a junior Congressional member would be even harder. My role would be built upon allegiances and alliances with existing members that have been fighting on the issue, hoping to put more pressure on the administration to do the right thing.
What we are entering now is this very special election as we gear up for the 2018 midterms, is to hold the line. Is to draw a line in the sand and the first line of defense for people to feel safe. And so my role in going into Congress in this particular level is to be a fierce champion. To be vocal, to be loud. To ensure that people know that they have a champion in their member of Congress that cares about them. We have to work local and state officials to ensure that a federal agency isn’t violating peoples’ civil rights and human rights.
This is a special election, and all of the candidates have only had a couple of months to prepare for a campaign that usually take more time and resources. What has that process been like?
That process has been intense. I’ve never run for office before. I was the first woman to announce, the third candidate to announce. I don’t have deep pocket donors and the money game in politics is very real, especially for a Congressional race, because there aren’t any matching funds. I launched my campaign in early December and I started fundraising just a week before Christmas, so you can imagine how hard that was, calling everybody you know to fundraise and help you raise the money. My campaign is entirely grassroots, low-dollar donors. I have five people that have maxed out for me. It’s been challenging, but because of my work and people that support what I stand for in the fight for social justice and equity, we’ve been in able to raise some money. Clearly, we’re not going to be able to raise as much money as the establishment candidates, those who have much deeper pockets, but every dollar counts. It makes it incredibly challenging for an everyday person to run, because the system is set is set up so that it’s not inclusive and so there’s a lot of hurdlers that we’ve had to overcome. Our goal is to make the run-off. So after the April 4th election, there is a crowded field. The top two are going to make it to the general election.
Tell me about the exact moment you decided to run.
During the general election, I took on the road and wanted to talk to voters across the country and so I drove from LA to New Orleans and saw nothing but Trump signs. And then from New Orleans, I drove up to North Dakota to Standing Rock. I was going to be at Standing Rock for about a week and a half and I ended up staying there for close to two months. I was there when Trump got elected. I saw the fear in people, in terms of what it meant to protect the natural water resources at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in an incoming Republican administration. This was a president that had campaigned on the backs of immigrants and Mexicans and Muslims and black folks and LGBT communities, and every minority community that you could think of. And now he was going to be the leader of this nation. And I knew what that would mean. And so I kept trying to figure out what I could do. And have experienced some incredible beauty of Standing Rock, in terms of prayer and resilience, and being invited to participate in Native American ceremony, changed my life. But at the same time, I also saw egregious acts of human rights violations when people were being water cannoned in 40-degree-weather and grandmothers and young women were being pepper sprayed and hit by rubber bullets.
When you see that and experience that first hand—I myself was tear gassed at one point—you begin to see the country in a different way. You begin to look at your government in a different way. A government that would prioritize a pipeline over water and over people. And I kept asking the question: Where’s Congress? Where’s Obama? Why is this happening? As a human rights journalist, you think about covering this in other nations around the world, and to experience it here in North Dakota and the US, it is life changing. Because of my experiences there, I became a completely different person, a different woman. I felt like I needed to do more. And a week or so later, after I was tear-gassed, Representative Xavier Becerra announced that he was going to become the new Attorney General. And to me that was the answer to my question.
I found myself in South Dakota the following night and a friend of mine had created a little graphic that said Carrillo for Congress, and I posted it up on Facebook kind of as a joke. I found myself in Mount Rushmore, South Dakota, and I was driving up the mountain and I finally opened up my phone after a friend of mine called me and asked me I had any idea of what was going on on Facebook and I didn’t, because I had no reception. And I saw all the messages from friends, mostly women, who were encouraging me to run for the seat. And so it’s kind of serendipitous that I’m at Mount Rushmore staring at the face of the presidents, wondering about the future of our country, when I made the decision to run. I feel like I’ve been on this journey ever since.
What has the process of being a political refugee to becoming a US citizen been like?
I was born in El Salvador and I was born during the civil war. My mother made a very courageous decision when she was in her early 20s to seek a better life in the US because there were no jobs, no opportunity in a country filled with war and violence. So she came to the US and she saved money and worked all kinds of jobs so that she could send for me, my grandmother, and her sister to the US. And so we were separated for a few years while she did that. We immigrated from El Salvador to Mexico and we crossed the Tijuana/Mexican border in 1986. I specifically remember wearing a Mickey Mouse shirt and my hair was in pigtails. I was told to be quiet and polite and be still we crossed—it was a lot easier back then to come in a car and cross over. Still dangerous, because you just never knew what could happen. But it was the only way.
I came to the US when I was five and between the ages of five and 13, I was without status. I was undocumented. And so my mother, who was living in East LA, she had remarried and had a younger daughter, my little sister, and my father—my father who raised me, who I know as my dad, petitioned for us to become citizens.
I was able to become a resident [at 13] and years later I became a citizen. I went through the process of saving money. [Applying for citizenship] is incredibly expensive. It was about $800. I felt confident that I could actually do the application by myself—that’s the application cost. If I would have gone with an attorney, it would have been thousands of dollars. I felt confident that if I could do the application by myself and I did and it worked out great. I studied for the exam, and I took the exam, passed the interview, which is incredibly nerve-wracking, and then got a date to take my oath. I became a citizen in my early 20s.
There’s not anything unique or different about it — it’s the lived experience of most of the people in my community on the east side of the river. If I were privileged to be elected, I’d be the first formerly undocumented woman who became a citizen to be in Congress, and I’d be the first Salvadorian-American to be in Congress. And I want to be clear in adding something. My family is both Mexican and Salvadorian and that’s important to say in terms of who we are in this country. My biological father was killed during the war, which is one of the reasons why my mother made the courageous decision to try to seek a better life in a new country. When you seek refuge in another country, when you are denied that and you fight for everything that you’ve ever had and gained access to the American dream and now you want to fight for that, which is what this fight is about.
This district, in its first congressional race in this administration is not just simply about what we’ve done for a living and can we pass policy. It is about representation as women, women of color, immigrants, refugees, people with mixed status, and undocumented families. It’s about who we are and who we want to be. It is, I think, a fight for the soul of this nation to be one of promise and opportunity and not one of fear and oppression.
Correction: This post has been updated to include Rep. Ruben Kihuen as one of two lawmakers who made history by becoming the first formerly undocumented immigrants to join Congress.