Republican Whittney Williams said living as an undocumented migrant for most of her life gave her a unique view on why Congress should adopt pro-Trump immigration policies.
The 36-year-old Canton resident lived in the United States illegally after being brought from Taiwan at age 10. Williams said supporting stricter immigration policies like building a wall on the southern border will be a central part of her campaign to unseat a freshman Democrat who flipped counties Trump won in 2016.
“I think my story can help,” Williams said in an interview with MLive. “My story of believing in the American dream and wanting to give people hope and optimism. As an illegal immigrant, I came from nothing, and for me to to be where I am today, I’m just so grateful.”
Williams said her family legally entered the U.S. on a tourist visa in 1992 but remained in the country after it expired. Williams grew up as a non-citizen and remained an unlawful resident until marrying her husband Brian in 2009 and gaining citizenship in 2013.
Williams declined to answer whether her parents intended to permanently stay in the U.S. when they received a tourist visa.
“I was basically just put in a situation that I had no control over,” Williams said.
People who overstay their visa face a steep path to obtaining legal residency, said Genevive Billa, public affairs officer for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. People who live in the U.S. illegally for more than a year are barred from applying for a green card or citizenship for 10 years, according to federal law, starting from when they willingly leave or are deported.
The first-time politician said she grew up in the shadows, fearing deportation could come from minor police interactions like a traffic stop.
“If someone knew (about your immigration status), if you told somebody, they could take advantage of you,” Williams said. “It’s a constant fear. And you’re constantly told, ‘oh you’re an illegal immigrant,’ not you know, human. That takes a toll on you as you hear that constantly.”
Growing up in a conservative household helped Williams develop a deep love for America. She even expressed interest in serving in the U.S. Navy but was rejected due to her immigration status.
Williams spent the last several years traveling the country working as an auto show product specialist. She earned an undergraduate degree in ballet and has also worked as a professional actor and model.
Williams said she is driven to run for office to make a positive impact on her community and be a voice for other people brought to the U.S. as children.
Gary Yang, president of the Michigan Chinese Conservatives Alliance, said Williams could be an important candidate for a growing but “invisible” Asian American voting bloc. Yang said new immigrants from Asia align with GOP values but often vote with Democrats and he’s pushing the state party to do more to court voters in his community.
“We want a small government and lower taxes, we want more fairness in the college admission system and workplace as well,” Yang said. “We want legal immigrants, not open border policies.”
Democrats believe Williams’ political inexperience bodes well for the reelection campaign of U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills.
Stevens earned her seat in Congress during a statewide swing toward Democratic candidates in the 2018 midterm elections. She beat her Republican opponent, who worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign, by nearly 7 percentage points.
Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes said Michigan’s 11th District made it clear in 2018 that they aren’t interested in a representative who “blindly follows” Trump.
Williams on border security
Trump made illegal immigration the centerpiece of his 2016 campaign, promising to build a “big beautiful wall” on the southern border with Mexico. Progress on the wall and initiatives to ban travel from Muslim-majority countries and separate families as part of a “zero-tolerance” border policy faced harsh opposition from Congress and the courts.
Williams said the president is standing up for the American people and remains a supporter despite his divisive stances on immigration.
“We to be protected and for Trump to stand up for America; it’s a great thing,” she said. “I’m glad that he is wanting to solve this immigration problem.”
Williams said building a border wall is an important first step to “stop the flow” of illegal immigration. She didn’t commit to opening a path to citizenship for undocumented migrants already living in the country but expressed the need to find a “permanent solution” for them.
Williams acknowledged a wall wouldn’t stop families like her own from overstaying visas they obtained legally. However, she said a border wall would reduce the number of illegal immigrants who enter the country each year.
“When you look at a problem, of course, you want to stop it first so you can resolve what’s in here, because if you keep having this flow … this number here is just going to get bigger and bigger,” she said.
Visa overstays outnumbered people who entered the country illegally through the southern border every year since 2007, according to a report by the Center for Migration Studies.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security estimated 666,582 people overstayed their visa in 2018, while an estimated 557,000 people entered the country through the southwest border in 2017. DHS apprehended 303,916 people trying to enter the country through Mexico in 2017, the most recent year data is available for.
The number of people apprehended at the southern border and slip by border patrol undetected has been on a sharp decline since 2006, according to DHS.
Williams was in the process of obtaining her citizenship in 2012 when then-President Barack Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Obama issued an executive order to offer people brought illegally to the U.S. as children temporary protection from deportation.
Trump announced he would end the policy after taking office, calling on Congress to replace it with legislation. The Supreme Court is set to consider whether Trump’s decision to end DACA is legal.
People brought to the U.S. illegally as children are often referred to as “DREAMers,” in reference to another bill that did not pass in Congress. Williams used the term to describe herself during the interview with MLive but did not express a commitment to reviving DACA.
Williams said politicians essentially accomplished nothing to solve the country’s immigration issues. Meanwhile, she said Democrats incentivize illegal immigration with offers of “free stuff.”
Democratic primary candidates embraced providing health care for undocumented immigrants. Several of the top candidates also supported decriminalizing illegal border crossings.
Williams said her hardships growing up inspired her to support stricter immigration policies.
“They don’t understand how hard it is to live as an illegal immigrant, so you can’t come and tell me ‘oh, well it’s OK, just come and live here illegally,’” Williams said.
© 2019 MLive.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.