Look at "those illegals,” my friend said jokingly while he was dropping me off to the Bart Station. He pointed at two Mexican immigrants standing against the fence. Although it was a joke, I was extremely angry. Yet, I was defenseless and vulnerable. I simply laughed with him and stayed casual as if nothing happened. Once he dropped me off, I wondered if he would treat me differently if he knew that I’m also “illegal.”
I was born and raised in South Korea until I was 11. When I was in South Korea, the country was facing economic crisis. I remember our family had financial difficulties and we were in deep trouble. Soon after, our family filed bankruptcy. The following year, my mom and my dad divorced. With my mom and older sister, we were barely surviving in our home country, South Korea.
On July 25, 2001, we came to the United States to seek a better life. I was twelve years old. But once we arrived here, we faced a different set of challenges because of our immigration status.
As a single parent, it was hard for my mom to raise me and my sister. She works twelve hours a day, seven days a week, sacrificing her time and energy to support my education and provide food on the table each day. Almost every two months, she has to look for a different job because of her immigration status. She often looks exhausted and overwhelmed after work.
Like my mom, my sister works full-time. Until recently she attended community college at the same time but because of financial difficulties, she had to drop out. My sister had the chance to attend more prestigious colleges and universities. Instead, she is 24 years old and working two shifts at a restaurant, mopping floors, and washing dishes, while her friends are experiencing college life.
I also work at a restaurant and attend college full-time. While I feel fortunate to work, sometimes I feel humiliated working “under the table” and getting paid such low wages. It’s extremely difficult and frustrating, but it’s the only option for me to pay for college.
During my senior year in high school, I learned that my visa had expired and I was living here without documentation. While my friends talked about colleges, I worried about whether or not I could even go to college. Despite all my hard work in high school, I didn’t have access to educational opportunities that most people take for granted.
Being an Asian American undocumented student, it was especially challenging to come out from the shadow, because of the cultural taboo and social discrimination in my own community. This isolation led to periods of depression.
Worst of all, I’m afraid of being deported. I have nightmares about I.C.E. (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents knocking on the door to arrest my mom, sister, and me. I clearly remember one dream where I.C.E. agents chased after me in the darkness. As they surrounded me in a corner to arrest me, I woke up in a horror. I couldn’t go back to sleep. Every day, I search for a way out of these wicked nightmares.
One of the ways that I face my fear is that I’m speaking up.
Despite all the challenges I face, I’ve never given up my hopes of achieving higher education and living my dreams like everybody else.
Today, I have a 3.8 GPA while I actively involve in a community. I work hard and push myself to show that anything is possible in this country, despite my undocumented status. And I will continue to push myself to be a role model to other people, especially in the Asian American community.
There are thousands of Asian American undocumented students who are struggling to live a normal life just like me. Clearly, immigration is not only a Latino issue; it impacts everyone. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security report, about 11.6 million undocumented immigrants are living in this country. 1.2 million are Asian American. Moreover, a recent report by the University of California Office of the President revealed that 40 to 44 % of undocumented students in the UC system are Asian, of which 60% are Korean, 14% are Chinese, 10% are Filipino, 7% are Indian or Pakistani, 7% are Thai or other Asian descent.
Asian Americans are the second largest undocumented population, yet I believe we have not been as visible in fighting against discrimination and promoting immigration reform.
UCLA Labor Center, Kent Wong said, “These [undocumented] students risk themselves to speak out despite having no legal status and being subjugated to deportation, but greater risk is silence in the face of oppression and injustice!”
I knew I couldn’t just wait and hope for politicians to solve our problems. In spite of deportation, it is crucial that our voices get heard. We need to fight for our dreams that will determine our future. In this economic recession, immigrants and minorities will get the worst hit. However, we cannot simply give up and be silent.
How long do we have to wait for the immigration system to be fixed? Not long I’d say, if Latino, Asian American and others come out from the shadow and address this critical issue together. It is urgent for us to erase old traditional cultural taboos and move forward.
Korean American community needs to stand up. Chinese American community needs to stand up. Vietnamese American community needs to stand up. Pakistani American community needs to stand up. Japanese American community needs to stand up. Indian American community needs to stand up. All Asian American communities need to stand up to fight and push comprehensive immigration reform to pass in 2010.
Don’t be silent or ashamed to talk about immigration or your lives; we need you more than ever before. Comprehensive immigration reform will pass only if we stand united as one.
2010 is going to be a special year. It will be the year that the immigration reform will pass and we can all begin a new chapter in our lives.
The National Asian American Pacific Islander week of action from Jan. 12-20 is a collaborative effort among national, state and local AAPI organizations and allies to demonstrate the collective power and voice of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the comprehensive immigration reform debate. Coordinated outreach and events across the nation will engage community members in the broader Reform Immigration FOR America campaign and show Congress that the AAPI community is serious about demanding reform this year.
Ju Hong writes on behalf of NAKASEC (National Korean American Service & Education Consortium) and the Korean Resource Center.