Pacific Citizen, Brianna Pang
Steve Li, an undocumented City College of San Francisco student, sits in a detention center in Arizona, but thanks to a last minute reprieve from U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein his deportation to Peru has been delayed.
But for other similarly undocumented Asian Pacific American students, living life under the radar, largely in hiding, continues.
Ju, a 21-year-old Bay Area university student, who asks that his last name not be used, dreams of one day working in the nonprofit sector serving immigrant communities. New York resident Jong-Min, a 30-year-old grocery worker, still clings to dreams of becoming a federal judge seven years after graduating magna cum laude.
But for students like Ju and Jong-Min, hopes for a better future will likely fall short of the American dream.
The DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act was first introduced almost a decade ago and this year, once again, it was shot down by the House of Representatives.
The act would provide a pathway for undocumented minors to become permanent residents, but amnesty will not be granted to just anyone. The 2009 version of the Senate bill contains several requirements, including: proof of residence in the U.S. for at least five years; proof of arrival prior to age 16; graduation from a U.S. high school; and arrival in the U.S. between the ages of 12 and 35 at the time of the bill enactment.
Undocumented students would also have to prove “good moral character” in order to be granted “conditional status.” And lastly, the student must also either complete two years in college or serve two years in the military within six years in order to apply for legal permanent resident status.
Ju and Jong-Min both fit all the criteria. Yet, as the DREAM Act continues to face an uncertain future, both still struggle with basic American liberties. Unable to obtain a driver’s license, work legally, or participate in social aid programs, both are left to obtain under-the-table jobs.
A Reprieve for Some
Li was 12 when he left his home country of Peru to join his parents in the United States who had obtained tourist visas. The family had fled to the South American nation from China in the 1980s to avoid persecution, according to a spokesperson from the Asian Law Caucus.
Once in the U.S., the family applied for political asylum from China, but their application was denied several years ago. Sadly, the family’s legal status was left hidden from their son, Steve.
“This is a good example of what happens when Congress does not pass the DREAM Act,” said Sin Yen Ling, an attorney with the Asian Law Caucus, who is representing Li, 20.
Li was scheduled to be deported Nov. 15 but federal immigration officials have now delayed his deportation. The delay is likely because Sen. Feinstein is looking into whether to introduce a private bill that would allow Li to stay in the U.S. on a temporary basis.
“As an original co-sponsor of the DREAM Act, I believe it would be unjust to deport Mr. Li before we get a chance to vote on this bill, which would allow students like him to attain U.S. citizenship,” said Feinstein to the Associated Press.
That’s good news for APA students in similar circumstances.
Still in Hiding
Although Ju’s identity is still hidden from federal ICE officials, his story is eerily similar to Li’s. In South Korea Ju recalls a family riddled with financial problems. In the end bankruptcy and divorce were the result.
He would end up in the U.S. with hopes of a better life. Armed with tourist visas, the family tried to apply for permanent residency status but was denied.
Like Li, Ju says his undocumented status was only revealed to him during his senior year of high school. At the time his life was that of a typical teenager: working hard on AP classes, joining student government, and playing high school varsity basketball. His undocumented status was revealed finally when it was time to apply for college.
“I couldn’t apply for financial aid, and I couldn’t get very much money to pay for college,” Ju said.
Now a college junior at a Bay Area university, Ju currently works odd jobs to make ends meet while working on a political science degree.
Jong-Min sees his own story in Ju and Li’s recollections. Jong-Min was 1 years old when his parents brought him to the U.S. They arrived on student visas and stayed long after the expiration dates. After five attempts to apply for permanent residency status in the past 20 years, all they have received are denials.
It wasn’t until Jong-Min tried to apply for a hospital residency program in hopes of becoming a nutritionist that he learned of his undocumented status.
It was his mother who finally admitted that there was no greencard waiting for him at home.
“A lot of people don’t realize how difficult it is,” said Jong-Min recalling his struggle to gain legal status. “When you come to the U.S. at such an early age, your status depends on your parents’ status. If sometimes, they don’t give you the correct legal status, then that’s it. It’s over.”
He added: “When you find out at 17 or 18, you have to apply by yourself. You have to restart the process, go back to your home country, and reapply there. And at that point, the chances of you getting a visa is very slim because you’ve overstayed a visa as a child.”
And once you leave the U.S., all undocumented students are barred from re-entering the country for 10 years.
It’s a long road that Jong-Min has chosen not to go down. Instead, he continues to work odd jobs just to survive while tucking away his dreams of attending law school.
For many undocumented students, depression is common. And often, APA students are forced into hiding, afraid that others will learn of their undocumented status.
“I kept my undocumented status a secret because I was ashamed,” Ju said. But, “I want to let the public know that this issue is not just a Latino issue. It also affects many Asian American people.”