Change for the undocumented?

US Senators introduced a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform package on Monday, and on Tuesday, President Obama will introduce his own similar framework. Crucial to both plans is what to do with the more than 11 million estimated undocumented immigrants in the United States — more than 900,000 of whom, according to the research from the Public Policy Institue of California, live in Los Angeles County.

Among those impacted by both plans would be young people who benefited from a deferred action program the president created last summer. The program enabled undocumented immigrants who arrived under the age of 16 to receive a reprieve from deportation and work permits, but not an opportunity for permanent legal status. The proposed legislation would potentially provide them, and other immigrants without status, with an opportunity for permanent legal status and a path to citizenship. Last summer, we featured the story of one young man from Alhambra who only realized he was an undocumented immigrant at the age of 17. We have reposted his story below.

My father, mother, and brother stare down at their rice bowls, and the dinner table falls silent except for the click of chopsticks on porcelain.*

How is it possible, at the age of 17, I could not have known? I’d been watching news stories about illegal immigrants for years. But the debate was always about the Mexican-American border, never about other countries.

The author, far left, with the 2000 graduation class of Ramona Elementary.I left Hong Kong when I was 4 years old, so I don’t understand everything my parents say in Cantonese, and they don’t understand everything that I say in English. My older brother facilitates any complex conversations. So when I tell my father I need my Social Security number to apply for financial aid, it’s my brother who must explain to me that I don’t have one: We are not legal immigrants. 

Later that night, I’m on Facebook and my newsfeed is packed with friends complaining about applying for Cal Grants. I realize without a Social Security number, I can’t even apply for public financial aid. Without that assistance, I won’t be able to afford college. And a bizarre new reality begins to hit.

My family history that led to this situation emerges without warning one evening as I sit next to my father in the car. He tells me he worked since he was 16 and saved up enough money to move our family to America. But once here, unscrupulous legal advisors promised a Green Card but instead scammed him out of his hard-earned money. We were left with basically nothing, and we were ineligible to become U.S. citizens.

He tells me that my immigration status is sensitive information, and that I should not tell anybody. I follow his advice at first. I am scared friends will judge me, and I don’t even tell my girlfriend of two-and-a-half years.

Celebrating a fifth birthday with family at home in Alhambra. Many things start to make more sense, but I feel so much more confused.  I understand why my parents have driver’s licenses from other states, and why they told me to wait to get my own. Why my parents always pushed us to have good grades, so we could receive a “ride” from any college that would take us. And why my brother ended up at community college, rather than a four-year school. Why we avoid airplanes, and why we have never, in 14 years, visited the rest of our family in China or Hong Kong.

But doubts surge through my mind. If I didn’t know this crucial element about myself, what other mysteries could there be about my identity? I have no motivation or inspiration to do anything. I’m not sleeping; I’m depressed.

Poetry has been the outlet I use to express what’s bottled up inside me, and one afternoon, exhausted from spending the night before surfing the Internet with no destination, the words start to flow.

That evening, at an Alhambra Moors Poetry Slam, I share my secret when I present my poem "Bilingual / Shuang Yue".

They don't understand that it hurts me much more than it hurts them to give them anything less than a 1-2-3-4.0. And I know it's a stereotype, that Asian parents see Bs as Fs. But the truth behind the implications is that my mother and father gave up every little thing they have just so that I could live the "American Dream"

As people fill out FAFSA and Cal Grants, I'm left with my hands and wallet empty, thumbs twiddling just to pass the time because my immigration status is far from legal. Tell me. When did the land of the free become the land in which it's illegal to live?

I feel the eyes of a Latino parent connect with mine. After the slam, she congratulates me on my performance, and tells me how much she connected with my work. I feel the weight lift a bit, and more comfortable sharing the truth. Still, none of the other students from my poetry club ask me about my status. And I don’t talk about it either.

When my college acceptance to my dream school arrives, it is not a happy day. I feel alone, stranded in a cluttered space of celebrating friends and worried faces. I avoid telling my parents, but when I finally do, tears fill my mother’s eyes. “When we came to America all we wanted for you was an education,” she says. “That’s all we wanted all our lives as parents.”

She apologizes to me for not being able to provide me with an education, which I feel is ridiculous. I tell her I would still go to a community college, and it’s not like all hope was lost.

I had never heard of the Dream Act, federal legislation that had been pending for more than a decade to provide legal status to young people like me. Congress failed to act, but just two days after I graduate, President Obama announces a new program that would prevent my deportation and allow me to work legally. My father e-mails me the news. Later, when I come home from a night out with friends, my usually reserved father greets me with eyes glowing with joy like I’d never seen before. “It’s here. Our struggles are over,” he tells me. “We’ve finally made it in America.”

The day before the new rule is set to go into effect, I enter the Asian Pacific American Legal Center with my brother and mother by my side. I expect to see other Chinese people, but instead, they’re ethnic from all sorts of backgrounds. In the crowded room, I feel alone, again. I’ve never talked to anyone else about my status, not even my brother. I look at the nurse in scrubs across the room. Could it be possible that she has a job at a hospital without a Social Security number? Without citizenship, without an identity?

I realize I’m actually extremely lucky. Law has never seemed so beautiful to me: something that had always felt like rules that constrained could change the lives of actual people. As I begin to speak to my lawyer, I look into his eyes, and I see an Asian man who is working in a law firm in Los Angeles. I do not know who he is or how he got here, or what it’s been like for him. But what I do know is that he’s helping me get to where he is: A working Asian American in the United States of America.

The author requested his identity not be revealed due to the fact that his immigration status remains in limbo.

2 thoughts on “Change for the undocumented?”

  1. Thank you for sharing your story on this news outlet. I also grew up in Alhambra, undocumented. I understand that graduation and college can be bitter sweet– I know what it feels like to not have the same access to resources to pursue higher education. Fortunately, if you qualify for Assembly Bill 540 you now also have access to the CA Dream Act which would provide institutional college financial aid and Cal grants. I am sure the folks at APALC also explained that you might qualify for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which would allow you to get a work permit, ssn, and eventually a driver’s license. If you contact me, I can send you more information of organizations I work with– let’s work together to make a permanent and humane pathway to legalization. I can also let you know about resources for undocumented API communities.

  2. Thank you for sharing your story on this news outlet. I also grew up in Alhambra, undocumented. I understand that graduation and college can be bitter sweet– I know what it feels like to not have the same access to resources to pursue higher education. Fortunately, if you qualify for Assembly Bill 540 you now also have access to the CA Dream Act which would provide institutional college financial aid and Cal grants. I am sure the folks at APALC also explained that you might qualify for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which would allow you to get a work permit, ssn, and eventually a driver’s license. If you contact me, I can send you more information of organizations I work with– let’s work together to make a permanent and humane pathway to legalization. I can also let you know about resources for undocumented API communities.

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