Viridiana Chabolla was only a few days into her first year at the UCI School of Law when that helpless feeling she had first experienced as a child welled up once again. Walking to class on the morning of Sept. 5, 2017, she watched a livestreamed video on her cellphone of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions declaring a phaseout of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that allows most immigrants brought to the country illegally as children to obtain work permits and protects them against deportation.
One of those so-called dreamers, Chabolla walked into her classroom and slumped into a chair.
“I felt resignation; I felt incredibly powerless again,” she recalls. Later that day, the UCI School of Law’s dean, L. Song Richardson, announced that the school would stand by all DACA students, and Chabolla started thinking that she needed to fight, not sulk: “I felt that I had to figure out what I could do to make sure people know this is not OK.”
She has done just that. A few weeks later, she joined a landmark lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s plan to end DACA. Chabolla is one of six plaintiffs in Garcia et al. v. United States of America et al., which charges that the repeal is biased against Latinos and violates DACA recipients’ rights to due process and liberty. The case is pending, but the plaintiffs have already won an injunction against the rollback, allowing the almost 700,000 current DACA beneficiaries to continue renewing their two-year eligibility for the program – for now.
“I’m hopeful,” Chabolla says of the suit, which has thrust the soft-spoken, unassuming woman into a spotlight she had long avoided. “I trust the justice system.”
“I felt that I had to figure out what I could do to make sure people know this is not OK.”
As an undocumented immigrant, the 27-year-old had to learn about trust – who to give it to, who not to give it to – at an early age. She doesn’t know how she entered the country. Her single mother, she believes, was already living in the United States when, at 2, Chabolla was brought across the border. She and her sister ended up in the Boyle Heights section of East Los Angeles with their mother, who supported the family by working in warehouses or factories. She never pressed her mother for details of their journey, knowing it was “a painful story to tell.”
Chabolla excelled in school and envisioned becoming a competent, in-charge adult. As a child, she loved to fill out forms. “It would make me feel grown-up,” she says, with a laugh. But as Chabolla matured, joined clubs and sought out opportunities to travel with other students, her immigration status became a seemingly insurmountable barrier – a big, red stop sign in her promising trajectory. No Social Security number. No trips abroad with the high school Rotary Club. No government financial aid. No summer job.
“I became increasingly sad and angry about the situation, but I didn’t know who to be angry with,” she says.
When DACA was enacted under President Barack Obama, Chabolla, then a junior at Pomona College, joined the ranks of hundreds of thousands of excited, young dreamers.
“It started hitting us that this might be a way for us to work,” she says of DACA. “Just to be able to work was a big deal. But I think I remember being a little bit suspicious too, because I had been let down before.”
Chabolla, who double-majored in sociology and Chicano studies, graduated from Pomona College in 2013 and was hired as a community organizer for a Los Angeles public interest law firm, focusing on cases involving education inequity. During college, she had volunteered for mentoring programs for Latino students and longed to help other immigrants who hadn’t received the opportunities she had, such as going to college.
Working for the law firm illuminated her career path. “It led me to see how the law could impact change,” she says.
Chabolla had met UCI adjunct professor of law Mark Rosenbaum while working as a community organizer and applied to the UCI School of Law because of its emphasis on public service. She was scared to the core, however, when Rosenbaum approached her in the fall of 2017 about joining the DACA lawsuit.
“As a community organizer, my job was to identify possible plaintiffs and help them take part in litigation that would, hopefully, solve their issue and promote change,” Chabolla says. “I understood how hard it was to be asked – I thought I did anyway. But I didn’t really understand until it was me being asked.”
Her family and new husband, Francisco Barcena, embraced her decision to join the suit. And the UCI law school faculty and staff have provided unwavering support, she says. Still, since entering the fray, Chabolla keeps a Post-it Note on her computer with the reminder “Don’t read the comments.”
Media coverage of Garcia et al. v. United States of America et al. generates both encouraging and hateful responses. A reader’s comment on one online story about Chabolla suggested: “Move her on the deportation list.”
So perhaps it’s not surprising that this young woman’s hopes for the future don’t hinge on being a successful lawyer – although she’s excited to become one and vows to pursue advocacy work on behalf of people who are powerless. No, Viridiana Chabolla’s one true dream is to call the United States – the only country she has ever known – home.
“Being an immigrant, I never felt that I belonged somewhere for sure,” she says. “Growing up, I knew how easily home could be ripped from me. I think I mostly want stability. I want to be safe. I want my family to be safe. I’m thinking of what I have to do to get that.”
Originally published in the Fall 2018 issue of UCI Magazine.