Claudia Yoli Ferlas came to El Paso as an 8-year-old when she fled her native Venezuela with her mother. She has dedicated her life to encouraging other young adults to engage in politics, even though the failures of politics have prevented her and other Dreamers from being full participants in U.S. society.
“In Texas, young people comprise the largest, most diverse piece of the electorate, and we shattered turnout records in the most recent election. And these numbers are not only unapologetic, but they really show that young people are fed up and desire policy solutions,” she said.
Yoli, 28, was named Friday as the new executive director of MOVE Texas, the largest youth voter mobilization organization in Texas and one of the largest in the country.
Less than a decade ago, she was in a removal process that could have led to her deportation. Yoli was among more than 600,000 people protected from deportation under a 2012 executive order from President Barack Obama called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
Obama issued the executive order after repeated failures by Congress to pass the DREAM Act, which would have normalized the status of people who immigrated to the United States without authorization when they were children. The Trump administration’s efforts to end DACA were blocked by the Supreme Court, but recipients remain in a perilous state unless Congress passes a law to make protections permanent.
Yoli’s mother, Angela Ferla, was a lawyer in Venezuela prior to moving the family to the United States. They fled amid growing political instability in Venezuela and the death of Yoli’s younger sister.
“Here in El Paso, she was a waitress, a cook, a dishwasher. She was literally everything and anything she needed to be so that I could be provided with a normal childhood despite being undocumented,” Yoli said.
After graduating from Coronado High School, Yoli attended the University of Texas at El Paso and was an intern for U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, during his 2013-14 freshman term in Congress. She went on to work for state Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso.
She most recently served as co-executive director of Deeds Not Words, a nonprofit organization based in Austin that helps prepare student leaders for work on issues such as reproductive rights, economic opportunity and justice.
“Claudia has always been a catalyst for social change and passionate for the rights of young people. While we are sad to see her go, we are looking forward to working with her as the new executive director of MOVE Texas,” said Amber Davis, Yoli’s co-executive director at Deeds Not Words.
Yoli will continue to be based in Austin, but she still considers El Paso and the border to be home. She wants to use her new role to alter the political conversation about the U.S.-Mexico border.
“I believe it’s an opportunity to change the narrative and to say that there’s a story of hope, there’s a story of dreams, there’s a story of opportunity,” she said.
Yoli said Texas is at a critical juncture.
“We are ground zero for the fight for voting rights because we are seeing some of the most anti-voting, anti-democratic voting rights legislation filed in the country,” she said, adding that young people are positioned to play a major role in reshaping the state.
“Even though I’m not eligible to vote, being a part of this movement and ensuring that young people, particularly those that are young voters of color, have the right to vote and are able to exercise their civic duty is how I give my community, immigrants like me, a voice.”
Yoli’s mother, who brought her to the United States and imbued her with the values that guided her life, died in 2015. Her daughter didn’t see her for the last four years of her life.
“Right before DACA was rolled out by President Obama, she got sick and had to go back to Venezuela to access health care. And I think that’s the reality that a lot of us live, not being able to afford the health care that we need to thrive,” Yoli said.
She has no doubt how her mother would feel about what she’s done with her life.
“I think she would be very proud, because I think that so many of us who are young dreamers and who are maybe coming from mixed-status families like mine, we are their dream,” Yoli said. “They are the original dreamers. They are the ones that made that difficult decision to come to this country, to give up so many pieces of their identity, to give us a better future.”