Quick Take:

Consuelo Vidal-Perez experienced the callousness of immigration law firsthand when her grandparents were barred from visiting her dying mother. Now she’s heading to USC to chase her dream of returning to Watsonville as an immigration attorney to help families like hers.

Consuelo Vidal-Perez was still a freshman at Watsonville High School when her mother was diagnosed with stomach cancer.

By the next year, it became clear the disease would prove fatal. But despite the family going to great lengths to secure letters from doctors and lawmakers, immigration policy stopped Vidal-Perez’s grandparents in Mexico from seeing their daughter one last time.

Her grandparents were literally stopped at the border. They were “told there was no reason to go and visit my mom because she wasn’t their daughter anymore after not seeing her for so long,” Vidal-Perez recalled.

It was a sense of injustice she said she will never forget. And the experience redoubled her commitment to what was already her dream: becoming an immigration attorney and returning to her hometown to help families like her own.

“Families should not have to live in the shadows for wanting a better life,” Vidal-Perez said. “I think that’s like the biggest thing for me. They should not have to live in fear for wanting to give their children a better life, or for just wanting to have a better life in general. That’s something that really needs to be said.”

Consuelo Vidal-Perez is headed to college at USC and hopes to become an immigration attorney.
“Families should not have to live in the shadows for wanting a better life,” said Consuelo Vidal-Perez, who is headed to college at USC and hopes to become an immigration attorney. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Vidal-Perez, now 18, graduated from Watsonville High this spring. Her dream is already inching closer. She’s starting her freshman year at USC this fall as a law, history and culture major with a pre-law focus, working to set herself up for success at law school.

Losing her mother during her sophomore year rocked her family to its core. “My mom has always been the foundation of our family,” Vidal-Perez said. “She was everything to all of us.”

But with support from her family and Watsonville High’s teachers and staff, Vidal-Perez was able to stay committed to her school work. “Instead of discouraging me and making me give up, I saw the strength that my mom had to fight on every single day,” she said.

More than staying committed, Vidal-Perez has excelled. She graduated as Watsonville High’s student of the year, an honor she said felt like a cathartic completion to her high school journey. She’s also one of eight students to earn a Burton Scholarship from the Santa Cruz County Community Foundation, a $5,000 financial boost that’s renewable for up to four years.

Vidal-Perez recalled the wave of emotion that washed over her when she was awarded the student of the year honor at a virtual school board meeting this spring. Her father had just come home from work when the ceremony began. And as soon as she saw her own picture on the screen, Vidal-Perez was moved to tears.

“It was a demonstration of, ‘Look, Mom, I did this for you,’ you know,” she said. “I was filled with unexplainable joy.”

Follow Nick Ibarra on: Twitter. Ibarra has a track record of reporting that has shone light into almost every corner of Santa Cruz County. Raised in the Santa Cruz Mountains, he came to journalism from...