The Dream: Profiles of Undocumented Korean Americans
I came to the United States when I was 2, sleeping on a plane from Korea in my mother’s arms. In the chilly month of October, 1993, she first set foot on American soil, with me wrapped on her back and carrying two sets of luggage. My father received us at the airport. I just stared at him with curious eyes, as I’d do when meeting anybody new. According to my mother, I couldn’t recognize him as my own father for the first year or so of being reunited with him.
My father came to America six years before my mother and I did. He met my mother during a short visit in Korea, got married and came back alone to continue working. He was searching for better quality of life here for his wife and future child. Choosing to find it in America was a daring decision. He ultimately prepared the way to ensure our family a new beginning in America, although many dreams were shattered along the way.
My father’s business failed in bankruptcy that caused our family to move from Delaware to New Jersey when I was 5 years old. On the day we were leaving, expensive belongings were stolen from our truck. My mother’s purse that had our money, green cards, passports and other important documents was also stolen. I still remember that day, the look of devastation on my parents’ face. Those were truly one of the darkest hours our family endured.
Back then, I didn’t have a choice, whether to leave or stay in my country of birth. I didn’t know anything and was obviously too young to have a say. So it was decided for me that I would grow up in America—and that would mean to be immersed in its culture and taught its history and values: Freedom, justice, equality. I spoke English with my friends and teachers, but communicated with my parents in our native tongue. Despite this I was never able to fully understand them.
My parents and I were speaking the same language, yet things got lost in translation. Though their words often hurt me, I’ve come to realize that their intentions were good. They didn’t want me to repeat the same kind of suffering and weaknesses they experienced as immigrants. Countless times, the multi-cultural experience between the worlds within and outside my home left me utterly confused—to the point of frustration and anger. I felt like two different persons, trying to accommodate two different audiences. I had identity issues between the Korean and American me. I resented being an immigrant child.
Now at the age of twenty-one, I’m still learning to process this internal conflict. The chasm between my parent’s generation and my own is so deep and narrow, that it seems hard to find a way to close it up. Perhaps only time, understanding, patience and an honest examination of wounds—of things left unsaid—will enable a recovery.
I’m hoping that my experience will strike a chord of recognition with the larger Korean American community, especially those who first came to the U.S. to seek something that couldn’t be fulfilled in their homeland. Could we have foreseen that living in the “land of dreams” would mean having to toil and at the same time mercilessly receive the stigma of being immigrants?
I came across a story about a woman by the name of Kyeong Sook Hwang two months back, who today still remains helplessly in jail. Looking at her situation as a human being, I could not help but to empathize with her. She was an undocumented immigrant living in New Jersey with her husband and two American-born children. She came to the U.S. in 1996 and built a life here. But while trying to renew her driver’s license last November, she was unexpectedly arrested because of her undocumented status. The case could have been processed as an immigration case, but instead was filed as a criminal case. While trying to pursue Ms. Hwang’s story and bring light to the injustice, I felt the strong fear of exposure that her family expressed through the interviews. So much so, that it caused me to stop writing their story.
Then I began to wonder —why should they have to live in that fear? Their actions were wrong as defined by the law, but to penalize them for working hard as law-abiding people who just want a better life, also seems wrong and irrational.
The 2010 Census estimates that there are 230,000 Korean Americans living in the U.S. as unauthorized residents.
“Korea is one of the ten largest countries that have sent undocumented residents to the U.S.,” said Pyong Gap Kim, a professor of Sociology at Queens College, whose research focuses on Korean and Asian American immigrants.
Most unauthorized residents from Korea usually just overstay their visa period. Some are Korean elderly people who came to America to visit their children and didn’t go back. Some are international students who graduated from prestigious American institutions, but couldn’t find a job that could sponsor them to work here. Some came at an early age and have been in the U.S. for a long time, enough to call it their only home.
“Many of them are good students,” said Professor Min. “Definitely, government should pass something like the DREAM Act to save them.”
And something like it has come to the forefront of American legislation. On June 16, 2012, President Barack Obama issued an executive order that bypasses Congress to grant more than 800,000 young people the ability to stay in America with undocumented status, without the fear of deportation. However, it does not count as a path toward citizenship. It’s not the DREAM Act quite yet, but it’s a step forward.
“Hopefully, Congress will pass a law, not only for illegal students, but other illegal residents to save their status. That’s the only way that can solve this problem,” added Professor Min.
The illegal immigrant population in the U.S. generally tries to lead a hidden existence. Some prefer not to tell their stories for safety and protection of identity, but some choose to expose themselves as a way to show their consolidation and seek help from organizations that recognize their plight. Emily Park is one of the latter.
“I like using my name Emily Park, and I don’t mind it going out there.”
Of course, Emily Park isn’t her real name—but that is who she has become.
Emily came to the U.S. in 2004 at the age of fifteen and hasn’t gone back to Korea ever since. Emily initially came to America with her grandmother who eventually returned to Korea. At first, Emily resided with her aunt’s family but moved out on her own soon after. On top of the monthly allowance her parents sent, Emily had to work through both high school and college to survive.
“I do miss Korea, but at the same time I miss it as a 13, 14, 15 year old me. I don’t think I could go back there and live the life I had,” said Emily. “But I do want to see my family members that I left behind.”
Emily was still too young to know what was happening during that time. She couldn’t foresee the hardships ahead. But when she reflects on why she made the decision to come to America, the answer is clear and unshaken.
“I firmly believe the main reason I came here was for a better education.”
Emily was an exceptional student in high school. Her record is what earned her a full ride for all four years of college, maintaining honors status throughout. So when she applied to the DREAM Fellowship provided by Korean American Community Fund (KACF), partnered with New York Immigration Coalition, it was an opportunity for her as an undocumented student to continue her education and gain an internship experience in America.
“For us it was about giving young people a chance to contribute back to America and to the country, and the only country that many of them consider to be their home,” said Kyung Yoon, Executive Director of KACF.
As a part-time student pursuing her second B.A. in Science at Queens College, Emily is also a volunteer at the MinKwon Center, a Korean community action group based in Flushing. Her dream is to work for a medical non-profit organization like Doctors Without Borders and help people in dire need. One of the activities she invests a lot of her energy and time in is campaigning for the New York State DREAM legislation.
This legislation is comprised of two bills, which are called the DREAM Fund and the DREAM Act. The DREAM Fund is designed to set up a private commission to raise public scholarships every year, open to children of immigrants, including undocumented students. Congruously, the New York State DREAM Act will open up current existing federal TAP (Tuition Aid Program) grants to undocumented students entering their undergraduate education.
Even though Emily won’t reap the benefit of the New York State Dream Act, she stated, “The reason I am focusing on the New York State DREAM Act is because I know the pain. I know the helplessness of these undocumented students—how they feel every day, not being able to afford going to school,” shared Emily.
The passing of the New York DREAM Act would indeed become a stepping stone to pursue the federal DREAM Act, which almost became official in 2010, but fell short by five votes in the House of Representatives. Because it was so close to winning and also because other states such as California, New Mexico, Texas, Illinois and Connecticut have already passed their own versions of the DREAM Act, Emily believes it has the potential for success on the national level with enough time and persistent efforts.
“What is really amazing about this whole event was that it got very close right around the time when any bill that had anything to do with immigration was mercilessly rejected, but DREAM Act was the only surviving bill that got really close. So that really gave a lot of hope to many people,” said Emily. “That triggered me to actually come out of the shadows,” Emily said.
Emily is a rarity among the undocumented Korean American population in the U.S. She has emerged out of the darkness and has freed herself from the bondage of fear. The process has brought self-empowerment and she feels a lot safer with the protection of her community. But there are other concerns that weigh heavy upon her heart.
“My difficulties have been the same for the last eight years. It hasn’t really changed at all. It’s usually finance and this emotional barrier that I have. It’s gotten a little bit better, but I’m continuing to face these difficulties because of my status,” said Emily.
“I feel like it’s going to get worse once I start graduate school because I cannot be qualified for getting loans, state or federal tuition aid,” said Emily.
“I don’t want to reveal my name. Please call me Y.”
It’s been three years since Y came to the U.S. and has been living on her own. She lives at her uncle’s house in a suburban town of New Jersey. We have to go through the back to get to Y’s room in the attic where there is a kitchen and a bathroom. She does not interact with her uncle much. Y has a mother, stepfather, father, stepmother and stepsiblings in Korea. She misses her mom but would rather live on her own.
“It’s just more comfortable that way. My parents aren’t well off.” said Y.
Y first came through a three year visa waiver. After three months had passed, she decided to stay in America, automatically becoming an undocumented immigrant.
“I did that because I wanted to study here. That was my hope from the very beginning.”
To do that, she took up a variety of jobs to raise enough money for college. Right after graduating high school, she has worked at two delis as a cashier and an accountant, then at a food court in a golf range. Now she works at a frozen yogurt shop five days a week, eight hour shifts from 5PM to 1AM.
“My manager at work, when he first interviewed me, he asked me how much I needed for living expenses. I told him the amount and also let him know that I needed to save up tuition money. He calculated everything for me—rent, electricity, food, etc. He told me I wasn’t going to raise enough money for school with the pay I was receiving,” said Y. “After two months, he asked how much I was able to save up and I told him very little. He made me shift leader and decided to raise my wage to ten dollars an hour. That drives me to work really hard.”
If “Y” had stayed in Korea, she’d be living life as a college student, meeting friends, doing things she likes. But now in her early twenties, she is working full time for minimum wage. She is roommates with a middle-aged woman and her son. The details of her room are humble. The walls are undecorated, lit dimly by a lone lamp stand. No make-up on her dresser, only a few sets of clothes for each season, arranged neatly in her closet. And a couple of thin layers of blanket on the floor make up her bed.
Y and I are at a quiet café perched on a deserted road. It’s nearing midnight. She is almost at the end of telling her story and my heart is broken. Her small, but course hands indicate a history of rough work. After sipping on her green tea frappe, Y’s tears start to overwhelm the brim of her eyes and she weakly says, “It’s hard.”
“I want to go to college, study and get a proper job. I just want to live normally. It’s something I can do easily in Korea, but here it’s so hard. Before I came, I had no idea it was going to be this hard. I just kind of jumped into it. My heart was just so convicted to come to America,” said Y.
With that same conviction, Y continues to toil away her youth with the hopes of one day attending a university in the U.S. She dreams of becoming a social worker to care for the poor.
“I packed clothes for all four seasons when I came here. If you get checked at the airport, there would be suspicion since the visa was only good for me to stay three months. But the security let me through. I know nothing’s by coincidence,” said Y.
“There’s a reason why I’m here.”
“I was adopted.”
That’s J speaking. He just completed his third year of college and is in the process of enlisting in the U.S. Army. He dreams of having a family of his own and becoming a good father and a husband one day—the simple hopes of life that every one of us is entitled to.
It’s close to a decade since J came to America. He became a U.S. Citizen when he was a freshman in high school. The rest of his family—his mother, father and brother—aren’t with him, but they do exist. For about 2 years now, J has been living on his own.
He tells me he isn’t too proud of how he became a U.S. Citizen.
“It was more like a contract. I was adopted by a family and my real family in Korea would pay them monthly, plus all the lawyer costs and living costs,” said J. “It’s more like a guardianship. Although they adopted me and they became my parents, I never thought of them as my parents—never. The last time I saw them was about five, six months ago.”
I can sense an edge in his words. There’s tension there. There’s hurt there, and at the same time a longing. And I don’t know what to do but listen.
“In the beginning it wasn’t that bad. As time went by, you know—they have their own kids who are similar age with me. It was more like a competition. I felt left out a lot of times. We went through the same things but got different treatment, said J.
“They called me their son, but the words didn’t follow with their actions. So I was discouraged a lot.”
It has been a lonesome journey for J living in America, first as a boy and now as a man.
“They decided to adopt more kids. They went through the same things as me. Because of them, it was a wake-up call for the parents,” said J. “It’s just not right. They should have stopped with me. It was evident that they were doing it for the money.”
When J left Korea, he was a young child. Though he might have known his adoption was an arrangement, as a kid, he might have wanted to receive love and affection from the parents who went so far as to call him by the name of son. These parents were not only Korean, but also Christian. To think that such people would repeatedly involve themselves in this illegal act and veil it with superficial love was a disappointment to J.
Citizenship through adoption might sound outlandish to the ears of those who would never have to go near experiencing such alternatives. But it’s a harrowing reality for some children. They learn to fend for themselves at an early age and grow acquainted with an ugly world, burrowing a hole of pain in their hearts.
“I really don’t want anyone to go through the same thing that I went through and what my family did for me. I don’t blame my family, but I don’t want any other cases like this. Because it’s just so hard for the kids and I don’t think it’s good,” pleaded J.
“I hope the US government would just do something. Pass something to alleviate whatever people are going through, so that people don’t have to illegally get status and citizenship.”
I lived nineteen years of my life as an immigrant, a green card-holder, a permanent resident, and an alien—all of them mean the same thing. These days, I excitedly tell people that in the coming months, I too, will become a U.S. citizen. That usually means only one thing, and people understand and accept that immediately.
The paperwork for the naturalization process sits patiently at my desk.
But I don’t know.
I thought the $680 application fee was costly. I can’t say that anymore. Because there are those who’ve paid their lives for it. They gave up their freedom to buy it.
I’m afraid I do not really know the weight and heaviness of what becoming a citizen is. I’m afraid I will not be able to prize it as much as these individuals would and have.
I mean, is it supposed to be like this? Should it be so difficult for people to be able to say, “I am an American”?
If some of these illegal immigrants can’t have their citizenship. If anyone might dare say they do not deserve it after all they’ve gone through, then I feel I don’t either.