As an undocumented youth who qualifies for the DREAM Act, I am constantly barraged by pro-immigration nonprofits and legislators with messages like these:
- “They were only brought here as children, and it’s their parents who are to blame!”
- “These kids are American as apple pie! Deport their parents instead!”
After all, to whom was I to listen? A serious debate on immigration and a discussion on the DREAM Act arose during my junior year of high school. The legislators, nonprofits, and other community leaders who spoke out about the DREAM Act made the argument that it was the parents’ fault. It was not the children’s responsibility to pay for the ‘sins’ of their parents.
My anger toward the ‘sins’ of my parents didn’t last forever though. During my sophomore year of college, with the economic downturn in full swing, my college started making cuts on my stipend. Around the same time, my mother was diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer. Eventually, these two circumstances led me to speak out on behalf of my community and to organize my college community. When five brave undocumented students took part in protesting against Indiana SB590 (Indiana’s Arizona SB1070 copycat– the only non-Southern state to have passed a 1070 copycat is Indiana), I learned of Omar’s story, whose mother had been left behind to perish while they were crossing the desert. After a conference in 2010, I started seeing the connections between the systematic injustices within our immigration system. Our parents did not come here to make us suffer or live worse lives in the United States.
What came afterwards was the hardest thing that I had ever done in my life. I picked up the phone, called my mother, and I told her that it was not her fault that I was undocumented. For a good twenty minutes, I explained to her that I was no longer angry at her for my status and asked her to forgive me. The entire time, she told me that it was her fault and that she had committed a crime and a sin against me. It was difficult, but we got through it.
I wish I could say that this has been the conclusion to my story and that my mother and I are entirely fine now. But I shouldn’t lie either. My mother has been more accepting of me doing work to organize and empower immigrant youth, but our relationship is still colored with her guilt and shame, so she constantly implores me to find ways toward legal residency or return to Seoul where I face two years of mandatory military service.
Because I came here so young, I don’t know what it would be like to leave a language, a culture, and a country behind as a fully-grown adult like my mother did. I will hopefully never know what it means to leave my entire family behind to start a life in a new country. I will never know what it means to raise two children as a single mother. She would not have had to breathe those noxious fumes or suffer through the stress that led to breast cancer.
My story is not unique. My friend Angela’s parents made the choice to come to the United States where she did not have to endure the stigma of living with a disability. Nico’s mother worked in a factory, and like my mother, was diagnosed with cancer. Démian Bichir’s Academy Award nominated-role as an immigrant father who is eventually deported in A Better Life is not an exaggeration. These imperfect heroes and heroines are real, and upon their tired shoulders, we stand and shout out that we are “undocumented and unafraid.”
When we close our ears to what the politicians and the think tanks say and truly reflect on the journey, it’s hard to ignore the sacrifices of our parents. While they still stumble and fall, they brought us here so that our lives would be better. The Joshua generation cannot blame the Moses generation for the hardships that they will face in the Promised Land. Our parents are representations of what God the Father is like. By honoring them, we honor God.
Tony Choi is an undocumented 1.5 generation Korean American from North Jersey via Seoul and Honolulu. He is a proud member of Presbyterian Church of New Jersey (PCNJ), co-founder of Berea DREAM Coalition (now Fighting for Equal Education [F.E.E.]) in Berea, Kentucky, member of New Jersey DREAM Act Coalition (NJDAC), and a member-in-exile of Alliance of Korean American Students in Action (AKASIA). Although he is not formally affiliated with any organizations, he is working with Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) to create a safe space for Asian American and Pacific Islander undocumented youth in the New York Metropolitan Area. You can follow his somewhat boring life on Twitter or e-mail him with your concerns and questions. He likes it when people email him for fun.
You already know this, but I see my mother in the same way. When it was discovered that my older brother had been sexually abusing me, she made the impossible and difficult decision to focus on getting me not to speak out about my pain, lest my brother (our primary income source at the time) be deported.
The more I learn about these stories, the more I realize that these situations are not uncommon. The culture of shame surrounding immigrant and undocumented status in this country is one that, in my case, encourages criminal action. In both of our cases, immigration issues forced our parents into compromising situations– the shame and fear rendered them less capable of protecting and loving us the way they should have. The power imbalance of citizenship creates a situation in which kids like us hold unfair weight over our parents or siblings. We are forced to grow up far too soon.
Deportation destroys families. Sometimes, fear of deportation can do it, too. Maybe the people so strongly opposed to our families are not truly interested in “family values”, as they like to claim.
Great post. Very touching…