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The Right to Have a Home

With the Trump administration putting her immigration status back in jeopardy, Catalina Corvalan chose to fight back

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Whitworth University sophomores Catalina Corvalan (left) and Sara Trujillo advocate for the undocumented community as members of the Spokane Dream Project. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Whitworth University sophomores Catalina Corvalan (left) and Sara Trujillo advocate for the undocumented community as members of the Spokane Dream Project.

Greeted by the clicking of dozens of cameras, a smiling Attorney General Jeff Sessions buttoned up his suit as he walked toward the podium on Sept. 5. He was there to confirm the rumors: The Trump administration would end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which shielded undocumented immigrants from deportation.

On the opposite side of the country, in her Anatomy and Physiology lab at Whitworth University, Catalina Corvalan's phone blew up with news alerts. Corvalan is a Whitworth sophomore, an aspiring doctor and a DACA recipient.

Immediately, she started to worry, doubting everything she had worked for. Why was she even going to school, if she can't work when it's over? Why continue building a life in this country if she may get deported any day?

"It was a very depressing thing to open my phone that day," she tells the Inlander. "It's reality crashing with your student life. And it's very overwhelming."

Similar thoughts ran through the minds of 800,000 undocumented young adults across the country that day after Sessions' 10-minute press conference. They were recipients of DACA, an Obama-era program that allowed them to live and work legally in the United States. Unless Congress acts, all that can be taken away in six months, starting April 5.

It's left undocumented immigrants living under a cloud of uncertainty, knowing that their entire future can be swept away at the discretion of the government. That reality forces many undocumented immigrants and DACA recipients to live in the shadows, hiding their immigration status from others, even close friends, out of fear that the wrong person will find out.

Others, like Corvalan, have gone in the opposite direction. After Sessions' Sept. 5 press conference, her initial doubts transformed into plans of action. She organized rallies at Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers' office. And she ramped up efforts to recruit members to the Spokane Dream Project, a student organization she leads that pushes for rights of undocumented students — all in between classes.

As Corvalan builds her future in America, she fights for the right to have one at all.

Speaking out, she says, is worth the risk.

"I think the urgency that this issue has escalated to just calls for undocumented students who do feel comfortable sharing their story to do so," she says.

Corvalan, 20, was born in Valparaíso, Chile, a coastal city an hour away from the country's capital, Santiago. She lived in an apartment with her family, and on weekends she went to visit her aunts and uncles and grandparents.

For various reasons, including increasing medical bills for her grandfather diagnosed with cancer, her parents entered into a period of financial distress. Both were well-educated and had good jobs, but when her dad was laid off from his job, they ran out of options. They applied for a work visa in the U.S. in 2003, she says, but years had passed with no response.

One day, when Corvalan was 10, her mom had her pack a suitcase and get on a plane. Corvalan thought it was a vacation, an exciting trip to a different country and different culture. Besides the one suitcase, she left all her other belongings behind.

"I always thought we were gonna come back and it was only temporary," she says.

For Corvalan, the transition was easy. They lived in the Seattle area with their grandma, a legal U.S. citizen, and Corvalan quickly adjusted to the American culture. By fourth grade, she spoke fluent English.

She was in high school when President Obama established DACA in 2012. She broke into tears when she heard.

"I remember being able to imagine the opportunities I could tap into," she says.

She received DACA status in her sophomore year, and in the ensuing summer she applied for an internship at a cancer research center, one of many steps on her plan to become a doctor and then pursue something in health care policy. She received a scholarship through the Act Six Leadership & Scholarship Initiative. Whitworth allowed her to explore her faith as a Christian.

Still, she knew that DACA wasn't a permanent solution. She calls it a "Band-Aid on a surgical wound."

As a freshman at Whitworth last year, she joined the Spokane Dream Project. In January, they marched on the office of Whitworth President Beck Taylor to make the college a "sanctuary campus," fearing President Trump's policies on immigration before he even took office.

Corvalan recently turned 20. She's lived half her life in Washington. She sees a future here and doesn't want to leave.

"I can't imagine what my future would be like in Chile," she says.

It's a rainy Wednesday afternoon, 15 days after Sessions announced the end of DACA. The crowd of more than 100 people is wet after the mile-long march from Gonzaga's campus. Someone holds a sign that says "Undocumented and Unafraid" as the crowd waits in the building outside McMorris Rodgers' Spokane office.

Corvalan speaks up.

"Y'all are students, educators and, very obviously, concerned community members," she says. "But today, most importantly, you're a voice."

They want McMorris Rodgers to sponsor a "clean" Dream Act, one that would provide citizenship to DACA youth, without providing more funding for U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to detain their families while they're off at school. Corvalan criticizes McMorris Rodgers for her past "lukewarm" and "vague" statements on the Dream Act.

"We don't want a political tool, we don't want an eye for an eye. We want a comprehensive and clean Dream Act," Corvalan says.

DACA recipients, or Dreamers, have received mixed messages in recent weeks from President Trump and members of Congress. Most lawmakers, and even Trump, have expressed interest in protecting young, undocumented immigrants from deportation, but it often comes with extra baggage for Dreamers.

This week, Trump released a list of demands needed in order for him to back a deal that would shield Dreamers from deportation. Among them: A wall across the southern border, 10,000 new immigration agents, and the denial of federal grants to so-called "sanctuary cities." It's precisely the sort of compromised Dream Act that Dreamers don't want.

On Sept. 5, Washington Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell both signed a letter sent to Trump condemning his decision to rescind DACA, saying that ending the program will hurt more than 17,500 DACA recipients in Washington. McMorris Rodgers, who has said she wants to protect Dreamers, doesn't appear ready to support a clean Dream Act. Jared Powell, her spokesman, tells the Inlander she supports a solution for Dreamers, yet also supports Trump's request for border security funding.

McMorris Rodgers wasn't there last month when members of the Spokane Dream Project and students from Gonzaga and Eastern Washington University packed the hallways to her office.

Kamau Chege, a Whitworth student and Spokane Dream Project member, says that recently undocumented citizens have become less outspoken about their immigration status, yet more organized in speaking out for protection. The Spokane Dream Project has surged from 20 members to more than 100 in the past year, he says. Not all of them are undocumented.

Chege says it's not enough for local leaders to refuse to collaborate with immigration officials. He argues that only protecting youth, and not their families, isn't enough.

"For you to put the lives of their family in danger, by taking and stripping their protections and expelling them from the only country they've ever called home, is probably the most un-American thing I can think of," Chege says.

Sara Trujillo, another member of the Spokane Dream Project, says it was terrifying as a kid to tell people she was born in Mexico. Trujillo, who moved with her family to Tacoma when she was 7, has since earned her U.S. residency, after her mom married an American citizen. But she remembers the conversations she had when she first met other undocumented students, and how they would work up the courage to tell each other "the biggest secret ever": that they were born somewhere else.

"Everyone has to hide that part of themselves," Trujillo says.

Rooming in a dorm with Corvalan last year, the two stayed up at night sharing their experiences, looking to be involved somehow in fighting for their communities. When an undocumented student like Corvalan speaks out, Trujillo says, it empowers other people.

"I don't think living in the shadows is the best thing," Trujillo says. "It's very oppressing."

From a small, quiet conference room at Whitworth, Corvalan discusses the next move for the Spokane Dream Project — a forum for undocumented students, perhaps another rally at McMorris Rodgers' office. Only four other members are there, delegating tasks for each to handle in between classes.

For Corvalan, a clean Dream Act would mean validation. She could sleep easier at night, without imagining what it will be like to feel hunted by ICE once DACA ends.

"This clean Dream Act is, right now, the clearest and most bipartisan and tangible thing that we can see," she says.

It's hard for her not to get cynical sometimes. She started seeing a counselor at Whitworth soon after the announcement to rescind DACA. The undocumented community, she says, has become used to a rush of hope followed by despair, corresponding with each time in the past two decades that the Dream Act looked like it would pass, before it failed.

As she's been more involved with advocacy, she's come to share a bond with the undocumented community. She's met people whose parents were deported, who stayed in a detention center for months, or who came back from deportation.

"It's a bond that, ironically, empowers us to continue our fight for permanent security and stability here in the States," she says. "And for us to give a voice for the ones we know are not willing to speak out." ♦

wilsonc@inlander.com