East Bay student pursues dream of citizenship
By Chris DeBenedetti
Posted: 10/22/2009 01:25:55 PM PDT
When his mother told him that he and his family are undocumented immigrants, Ju Hong was devastated.
The East Bay teen’s seemingly normal childhood had been darkened overnight by a sad fact of which he had been blissfully unaware. Like millions of American immigrants, he learned, his mother fled economic desperation in her country for the United States. Like many others, she overstayed her visa with the hope of attaining citizenship for herself and her children. She never reached that goal.
Today — nearly a decade after settling in the Bay Area — Hong is a productive, law-abiding resident who desperately wants American citizenship. But until he gets it, he will be pushed — like other undocumented immigrants — to live in the shadows. He also risks deportation.
“I have a life that’s a daily lie,” said Hong, a student at a Bay Area college. “Emotionally, I’m drained because any day anything can happen to me.”
But instead of playing the victim, Hong is actively trying to find a solution. The answer, he believes, lies in improving immigration laws. With that goal in mind, he spoke last week at a Santa Clara rally, telling the crowd his life story and why the need for immigration reform is greater than ever. He then joined nearly 1,000 people in a march that ended at Santa Clara University.
Hong also joined more than 300 people from nearly 30 states last month in Washington, D.C. There, he attended a Citizenship Day rally. He also met with congressional aides, asking them to support the Dream Act, proposed federal legislation that would ease the path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
It was Hong’s first trip to the nation’s capital. He made the journey with the help of the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium (NAKASEC), a national cultural and civil rights organization, and the Los Angeles-based Korean Resource Center.
Sookyung Oh, a NAKASEC official, said she hopes the students’ experience improves their understanding of what citizenship really means.
“Not just the legal definition of citizenship, but also the idea of giving service to a community and making it a better place,” Oh said. “We want to redefine citizenship as an action rather than a status.”
Some critics of undocumented immigrants argue that their illegal status undermines the regular citizenship process, and that they take jobs that legal citizens might hold.
However, Hong said all he wants is the freedom to give back to the country he calls his true home.
“My intention is to contribute to society, to work to boost the nation’s economy,” he said. “We’re not criminals; we’re striving to get an education and to make contributions to society.”
Hong is hopeful that the proposed Dream Act one day will provide him a path to citizenship, removing the biggest obstacle to him reaching his full potential. In the meantime, Hong hopes to use his new leadership role to help find solutions that benefit the country and its immigrants from all backgrounds.
“I want one day to get my law degree and maybe work in government,” he said. “I’d like to help others like me. I’d like to help those who are in my situation.”