I was born in Incheon, South Korea, in 1990 and was brought to the US at the age of 3. The earliest memory I can recall as a child is playing with snail shells at a creek in Santa Rosa, California. In fact, the entirety of my living memory is centered in America. We came to this country without much and although both of my parents held college degrees, like many first-generation Korean immigrants, they had service jobs that “Americans wouldn’t do.” I remember my father working night shifts at a deli while pursuing another degree and my mother painted nails, washed dirty feet, and breathed in toxic fumes as a nail specialist. Both of my parents made do with the situation they had, trying to make a life in America.
My father was an archetypal baby boomer Korean man: stubborn, rigid, proud to a fault, and driven by a bootstrapping mentality to be the master of his own destiny. With his career dreams hindered by the beginning stages of the International Monetary Fund recession crisis in Korea and intoxicated with the possibilities of Clinton-era America, my father uprooted our family to a country completely alien to us. When I was a child, my father would break character occasionally and excitedly share his dreams with me about opening a successful business. To be his own boss was the goal that pushed him to endure the hardships he faced.
My mother, on the other hand, was the pragmatist in the family. Quick-witted and mentally sharp, she wasn’t beholden to what she would call my father’s “delusions.” Her modus operandi revolved around finding the best methods for our family to adapt and thrive in a country unfamiliar to her. If one path closed before us, she was willing to find other avenues for us to make a life here. She would prepare and plan so that we had enough money to pay the bills and keep food on the table. She also made sure we lived in mostly English-speaking areas so that we could become familiar with the language and assimilate. And foremost, she made sure we moved to areas where I could get the best education possible for what we could afford. What connected my father’s idealism to my mother’s pragmatism was the drive to make a life for ourselves in this country.
It’s difficult for immigrants to gain legal status in the US and it’s easy for them to lose it. For my family, we lost status and a pathway to legal permanent residency when our sponsors scammed us. Without family members to sponsor us, my parents went to an employer. Despite being referred by a family friend, the employer demanded my parents pay monthly “commission fees” for the sponsorship. Although the employer filed the paperwork as promised, she soon stopped returning our calls after receiving our money. She disappeared without a trace with my family’s life savings. As a child, I didn’t understand the full gravity of the situation. I remember struggling to understand why my mother was crying in the kitchen that night. With tears streaming down her face, she whispered to me that everything is going to be alright. But without the money for attorneys or the legal expertise to navigate the byzantine web that is the US immigration system, we suddenly found ourselves without the means to have legal status.
It’s difficult for immigrants to gain legal status in the US and it’s easy for them to lose it.
Losing our status changed everything within our family. With his dreams crushed, my father sunk into depression and my mother doubled down on her pragmatic approach to life. Relations between my parents became tense. Their lives together became joyless as their raison d’etre crystallized into survival in America and caring for my well-being. Before losing our status, my parents told me that anything was possible for me if I were willing to fight for it. Afterward, I was told to keep my head down, keep quiet, and work hard. Everything will work out in the end.
I didn’t find out we were undocumented until I was in middle school. The subject came up when I asked my mother if she would help me apply for my driver’s learner permit in the future. I remember the guilty expression on her face. She sat me down to explain that we didn’t have status in this country. The admission was shocking. Questions flooded my preteen mind: “What about my job prospects? Will I be able to go to college?” I felt nothing but betrayal and resentment toward my parents for placing such a heavy burden on me. I had been brought up to believe that all I had to do was work hard and then I would have a successful life. My life became a dance around everyday landmines as I worried I might inadvertently reveal my status to my friends and teachers.
Why my parents didn’t leave when we lost our status is a question I’m not sure I can answer for them. But I understand what was going through their minds. When we lost our status, my parents lost everything. They lost their life savings and lost hope in building a better life. In the end, there was one factor that motivated them to stay. Me. My parents focused all of their remaining resources on my success and stuck through a harsh and difficult life just to get me an American education. If that wasn’t enough sacrifice, my parents even paid for my college education. While I was lucky to go to a state school in New York, which allowed for in-state tuition for all residents regardless of legal status, I wasn’t eligible for scholarships or federal aid. My parents scrimped and saved and even begged family members in Korea to borrow money so that I could continue my college education. My parents tried their best to protect me from the realities at hand, the difficult path of being undocumented in this country.
I didn’t find out we were undocumented until I was in middle school.
My middle school Spanish teacher was the first person to ask me about my status during an assignment about our origin stories. What’s considered a simple question to many felt like a stressful interrogation to me. A white American woman asked if I was a naturalized citizen and I sat there struggling to find an answer to the question. All I could do was blurt out a vague “I think so?” The answer clearly dissatisfied her and she continued to press, “If you’ve been in this country for some time, then surely your parents are here legally.” I sat there with my chest pounding, wanting to leave the classroom. After a series of I don’t knows and awkward silences, she moved on with suspicion. This experience would shape my understanding of my status in America.
Being East Asian, there were advantages and privileges ill afforded to other groups in the US’s heavily racialized society. While undocumented, my skin color shielded me from suspicion regarding my immigration status from authority figures. I was never stopped and asked about my immigration status. In fact, in my experience, I wasn’t stopped by any law enforcement officials at all. How many of my fellow black and brown DREAMers and undocumented peers can say the same? Out of 12,404 New Yorkers stopped by law enforcement officials in 2016, 52% of them were black and 29% Latinx. With every arrest cross-referenced to FBI and ICE databases, what are the chances that my undocumented black and brown peers are being racially profiled by the Joe Arpaio’s of the world?
I learned about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, in June 2012. I was working on my master’s in political science at the time. The tumultuous struggle for the DREAM Act and immigration reform leading up to the announcement of DACA was largely in the background while I was in academia. After many years of hiding my status from my friends and peers, I avoided anything that might have risked exposing my status. Growing up with an uncertain future, I didn’t care much about being Korean or American for that matter. I just wanted to be normal, unhindered with the gravity of the conditions set before me. To escape, I buried myself in philosophy. In a country that negated my personhood, academia was one of the few avenues of normalcy I had in my life. Deep down, however, I understood this identity was temporary, because sooner or later, the question of my status would arise again. I only started paying serious attention to the immigrant rights movement when I started the process of applying for DACA.
While undocumented, my skin color shielded me from suspicion regarding my immigration status from authority figures.
Applying for or renewing one’s DACA status is a nerve-wracking and grueling affair. It is an astringent process filled with many restrictions and background checks for applicants who are at the mercy of a faceless bureaucracy. Not only did we have to pay a $495 fee for the first initial application and every subsequent renewal after 2 years, but a misdemeanor or some minor technicalities with a few missing documents can hamper your chances from qualifying for the program. Luckily for me, my mother was a hoarder and we were able to compile all the necessary documents to apply for the program. To make sure we had a watertight case to qualify, we scoured through birth certificates, old utility bills, school records, diplomas, and medical records spanning two decades. But applying for DACA made me realize that despite making relatively few sacrifices compared to my parents, I was one of the lucky ones who could enjoy the benefits of this program. Make no mistake, DACA provided a lifeline for thousands including myself. The program helped me come out of the shadows by shielding me from the threat of deportation. It also meant I could have a work permit in order to find the means to legally support myself. But what was entailed in the program itself was a Faustian bargain. By uplifting the few that qualified for the program as the standard of what immigrants should be, it meant demonizing the millions that were left out of the program.
The current focus on DACA is its repeal, announced in September by the Trump administration. It leaves nearly 800,000 young immigrants like myself at risk for deportation. After yesterday, October 5, 2017, the program will no longer accept renewals. The renewal qualifications were only for applicants whose DACA permits expire before March 5, 2018, within a window of September 5 to October 5. This means thousands including myself that couldn’t qualify under those restrictions will lose their protective statuses on a daily basis after March 5. Having the only means for me to live a normal life in the US wiped away with a single stroke of a pen felt like a cruel joke. But let’s not pretend that DACA’s demise was inconceivable. The Trump administration campaigned on ending DACA and rode a wave of anti-immigrant nationalism into office. DACA, at the end of the day, was a compromise between the immigrant rights movement and the Obama administration until legislative immigration reform became more politically viable. The effect of lifting DREAMers as the golden standard for immigrants had the unintended consequence of dividing our community and enabling the Trump administration to set the narrative on immigration. The narratives used by the Trump administration arbitrarily and simplistically divide the immigrant community into “innocent, hardworking children” and “criminals,” pitting those like myself who were lucky to qualify for the program against people who were unfortunate to miss out due to infractions as minor as arriving in this country a day after the time limit or aging out by a year.
The effect of lifting DREAMers as the golden standard for immigrants had the unintended consequence of dividing our community and enabling the Trump administration to set the narrative on immigration.
Within the scope of the good and bad immigrant binary that has become central to the debate around DACA and DREAMers, we seem to forget one thing. DREAMers like myself and others left out of the program, such as my family, played the good immigrant game and still lost. I’m American in every way except my status. I followed the rules, English is my mother tongue, I pursued degrees in higher education, pay my taxes, and fit the profile of what a “good” immigrant should be. However DACA’s repeal and the series of anti-immigrant policies — from the travel bans to the attack on sanctuary cities — enacted in the past nine months make clear how in the eyes of the Trump administration, we are viewed not only as the absence of American values but also the negation of it. With DACA’s death, it no longer matters who the good immigrants or bad immigrants are anymore. We are all now under the threat of deportation.
Donald Trump has given Congress a total of six months to pass legislation regarding DACA. And ever a glutton for controversy, he recently tweeted his support of DREAMers despite continuing to push his nationalist agenda. But we can’t rely on the unstable, wish-washy temperament of the Trump administration or one of the most dysfunctional congresses in history to get their act together. There have been efforts to pass meaningful and lasting legislation since 2001. Even when the Democrats held majority government in 2010, the Obama administration failed to pass the DREAM Act. We can’t plead to the very same people who invalidate our existence as a community and cross our fingers that legislation will come. With the end of Trump’s six month legislative grace period for DACA and DREAMers looming and no legislative solutions in sight, we don’t have a choice but to fight.
As Frantz Fanon once wrote in The Wretched of the Earth, “When we revolt it’s not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.” The immigrant community, despite its cultural differences, fights because we can no longer tolerate the conditions that are forced upon us. It was the immigrant community that banded together to end the passage of H.R. 4437, a bill that would not only place further restrictions on the immigrant community but make felons out of those that supported undocumented immigrants. DACA came into existence through the efforts of grassroots immigrant activists putting their bodies on the line. After the DREAM Act failed to pass in 2010, the immigrant community engaged in mass protests, risked arrest and deportation through sit-ins, and held the resolve to continue the pressure on elected officials. We don’t need to be validated by the people who villainize us as criminals or by those who naively push the narrative of DACA recipients as being helpless children. We have to fight because at the end of the day, no one is going to fight our battles for us. ●
The author is an immigrant activist based in New York.
This post has been changed to protect the privacy of the author.