Jin Park is the first DREAMer to become a Rhodes scholar, but if he travels to England to study on the scholarship, he may not be able to return home.
Park, who graduated from Harvard in December, has been in the US since he was 7 and says Queens is his home. But he lost his ability to travel abroad when the Trump administration moved to repeal DACA, or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, in September 2017.
That decision, which is facing multiple legal challenges, has also become a bargaining chip in negotiations over the partial government shutdown.
“There are a lot of things that can happen with DACA if the Democrats want to do that,” President Trump said Friday.
In her first speech back as speaker of the house, Nancy Pelosi also mentioned the issue, saying, “we will make America more American by protecting our patriotic, courageous DREAMers.”
Multiple courts have so far ruled that DACA recipients should be able to retain their legal status, which provides temporary protection from being deported and the ability to work to undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children and meet certain conditions. But those recipients are required to apply for permission to travel abroad, and the Department of Homeland Security has refused to consider their applications while the legal battles over the Obama-era program unfold.
Brought to the US from South Korea when he was child, Park’s entire adult experience has been defined by political whims surrounding immigration.
“It affects how you experience almost everything in America,” he said.
Park, now 22, remembers when Obama stood in the Rose Garden to announce the DACA program. He was finishing high school, and he applied while submitting his college applications.
“On my common [application] for the Social Security number, I remember putting all zeros,” because he hadn’t yet received his Social Security card, Park said.
At first, he tried to keep his head down and focus on his studies during his first two years at Harvard, but he said that became impossible after Trump was elected.
“If you’re undocumented, you can’t just check out. There is always going to be something that brings you back into the politics of immigration,” he said. “For me, that was the election.”
With graduation looming and the future of DACA uncertain, Park sought a way to stay in academia and decided to apply for the Rhodes scholarship.
“I wasn’t eligible for the Rhodes, but with the support of Harvard, I just wanted to start a dialogue,” he said.
His application was initially rejected because the program did not accept undocumented students. Then Rhodes Trust changed the rules, and he applied again.
“It was weird,” Park said. “Nobody wins an award like this on their own. It should really be given to the person and the people behind them.”
Ryan Eller, executive director at Define American, which has been working with Park for about five years, said he wants to know how the US envisions the future and possibility of students like Park.
“If they have full legal access to work, why would they not be able to have access to education resources and scholarships?” he said.
“From a value proposition, it just doesn’t make any sense as to why we wouldn’t allow him to” attend Oxford, where the Rhodes program is based, and return home, Eller argued.
“He has a bright future wherever he goes,” Eller added, who hopes that whatever happens, Park is able to return home “to use all of his skills and brilliance to continue supporting his community.”
Park’s parents brought him to the US on a tourist visa in 2003, seeking better opportunities after the Asian financial crisis made it difficult for them to find work at home in Seoul. They intended to become legal residents, but a sponsor they paid to help with the effort ran away with their money. They also found that as a line cook and beauty salon worker, they weren’t eligible for programs geared toward more elite professions.
“By the time this had happened, I had already learned to speak English and was going to school here,” Park said.
So the family overstayed their visas and became undocumented.
Park said he plans to attend Oxford with his fellow Rhodes scholars, even if his ability to return is uncertain.
“What’s really important is I know that this is my home. I belong here,” he said. “I’m going to use this time to think about using my abilities to work for the community. I’m not going to forgo that opportunity because our laws are unable to catch up with a fact of life, which is that I belong here and I’m an American.”
He added that he is pushing for some sort of solution that encompasses “all DACA recipients.”
“But the way things stand,” he said, “it’s probably going to be a situation where I just peace out and figure things out from there.”
Ryan Eller’s name and the name of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program were misstated in an earlier version of this post.
DACA protections were miscategorized as being part of the DREAM Act, which has not been passed, due to an editing error in an earlier version of this post.