Photo courtesy of Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus

Photo courtesy of Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus

Why I Spoke Up

By Ju Hong

Last November, President Barack Obama visited the Betty Ong Center in San Francisco to discuss immigration reform. I was formally invited by the White House to hear the President’s remarks and, as I stood in the stands behind him, was hoping to hear about how his administration would address the 11.7 million undocumented people living in this country—people like me and my family.

Although it is often thought of as only a Latino issue, immigration is also an Asian Pacific Islander issue, an African American issue, a human rights issue.

While the president expressed support for comprehensive immigration reform, he failed to talk about how his administration has deported more immigrants than any other in U.S. history. Though I was extremely nervous, I drew upon the power of other courageous undocumented immigrant youth who inspire me to speak out, and I raised my voice. I interrupted President Obama’s speech and asked that he stop deportations for undocumented immigrants and families living in communities throughout this country.

My decision to speak out came from a deeply personal place. My own family moved to the United States from South Korea when I was 11 years old. Although it is often thought of as only a Latino issue, immigration is also an Asian Pacific Islander issue, an African American issue, a human rights issue. Currently, 1.3 million undocumented immigrants in our country come from Asia.

Like many immigrants, my mother came to America to seek a better life for her children. Life as a single parent in a new country was not easy for her. She had two jobs and worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, to support my education and put food on our table.

She impressed upon me the importance of education. So, I turned to higher education in hopes of relieving my mother from her hardships. I spent many hours in libraries and after-school programs, studying and preparing to go to college. During my senior year in high school, however, I learned that I might not be able to realize my dream.

I found out then that the tourist visa my family had used to come to the U.S. had expired, and we had been living in this country without proper documentation ever since. As an undocumented student, I was unable to get a job, obtain a driver’s license, or receive financial aid. Worst of all, I could face deportation at any time.

I was not only disappointed, but also afraid of my uncertain future. As I thought about my mother’s hard work and sacrifice, though, I knew I couldn’t simply give up.

With the help of my family and nonprofit organizations, I attended Laney College in Oakland, where I was elected as the first Asian American and youngest student body president before transferring to UC Berkeley. At the university, I was an elected senator in student government, becoming the very first undocumented senator in UC Berkeley history.

In 2011, six other undocumented students and I conducted a civil disobedience action to protest against unjust immigration deportation programs like “Secure Communities.” This was one of the first times that undocumented youth had participated in nonviolent civil disobedience in California.

I graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in political science in 2012, but I couldn’t use my degree to work in a professional setting because of my immigration status. Instead, I worked in a Japanese restaurant as a waiter, getting paid below minimum wage under the table.

In college, I learned that I could obtain a driver’s license in the state of Washington, where they did not require a social security number to get one. Given that I have an expired Korean passport, I was afraid to fly. So, I embarked on a 48-hour journey to Washington State just to apply for the driver’s license. In the end, my attempt was not successful. It was the most painful, and lowest, point of my life.

Worst of all, though, was the constant fear—of being deported, of being forced to permanently leave the country I have called home for so long, of being separated from my friends, my family and my community.

Then, in 2012, President Obama announced a new policy known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which provides limited and temporary relief for many undocumented young people in this country who meet certain requirements. DACA recipients receive permission to remain in the United States for two years along with work authorization.

Because of DACA, I am pursuing my Master’s degree in Public Administration at San Francisco State University. I now have a driver’s license and can drive anywhere without fear of being stopped by police.

I am also using my degree to work and contribute to society. I am currently a research assistant at Harvard University, working on the National UnDACAmented Research Project (NURP), which seeks to understand the effects of DACA on the everyday lives of young, undocumented immigrants receiving or wishing to receive its benefits.

On August 15, 2013, exactly one year after the announcement of DACA, our team published our preliminary findings based on the responses of more than 2,000 DACA-eligible young adults who have taken the survey across the country. Our findings suggest that approximately 65 percent of the DACA recipients surveyed have obtained a new job since receiving DACA, and 24 percent have received an internship. Over half have opened their first bank account, and one-third have obtained their first credit card. Additionally, 56 percent have obtained driver’s licenses, and 44 percent report increased earnings since receiving DACA.

Clearly, DACA has dramatically changed the lives of many undocumented immigrant youth and young adults.

But, DACA is temporary, and it ignores the reality that DACA recipients are connected to families and communities. Most of our respondents expressed fear that a close friend or family member will be deported. There are thousands of undocumented immigrant families being torn apart every single day.

These are the reasons I felt compelled to speak up during President Obama’s speech. The pain and suffering of our families and our communities must end now. We can expand DACA for all and must strive to pass a fair and humane comprehensive immigration reform to protect the dignity and respect of all people—regardless of their immigration status.