By Minsuk Kim
Immigration stories are a cornerstone of America’s historical narrative. From grade school we learn of the Pilgrims’ trans-Atlantic journey to flee religious persecution and of “a mighty woman with a torch” who greeted European immigrants by the millions to Ellis Island. In these stories, tolerance and generosity are singularly American virtues that confer our country’s greatness.
Unfortunately, incomplete immigration stories linger in the present day, obstructed by opposition from a loud and persistent few. As a result, 11.8 million undocumented immigrants live in America’s shadows – they struggle to finance their educations as students, are exploited as workers, and are encumbered by an ever-present fear of deportation as families.
In a recent Huffington Post entry, Will Perez wrote that immigration reform “is of particular concern to Latinos, since 75% of undocumented immigrants are from Latin America.” However, the problems engendered by our immigration system affect a vastly diverse immigrant population. It is estimated that 10 percent of Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) are undocumented, and among the AAPI groups, Korean Americans are affected at the greatest rate, at 20 percent.
The history of Korean immigration to the U.S. is one variation on the American immigration narrative. Immigration began in the late 19th century, as Koreans came to work as laborers in Hawaii, but the bulk of it occurred after 1965 following the repeal of the Asian Exclusion Act. Legions of Koreans came to America in search of freedom from an oppressive political regime and opportunity for economic mobility. Nearly a quarter million Korean Americans are undocumented as the result of this promise of a better life coming into conflict with the realities of the immigration system.
Undocumented Korean American college students have been especially vocal in the fight for immigration reform. The stories of the measures taken by these students and their families to support a college education give the push to pass reform a special sense of urgency. Their hardship extends well beyond their ineligibility for financial aid. A huge question mark looms over their post-graduation plans – without a Social Security number, how are they to find employment? On February 1, one Korean American student reiterated these frustrations and spoke of his aspirations to become a professor before hundreds who had gathered at a Los Angeles church for an immigration town hall. And Ju Hong, an undocumented student from the Bay Area, has come out publicly about his status and blogs regularly on immigration issues.
As the immigration reform movement escalates in size and intensity, undocumented Korean American students will continue to make their voices heard. On March 21, over 100,000 people from every corner of America will come together in Washington D.C. to show their support for immigration reform in a “March For America,” and Korean Americans from California to New Jersey will be among them.
Eric is an undocumented Korean American student at an Ivy League university. He has taken the school year off in order to work and save money to pay for college; he waits tables at a Japanese restaurant 7 days a week, 12 hours a day on weekdays, and 13 hours a day on weekends. Despite his busy schedule, Eric will be coming to Washington on March 21 to march for immigration reform because, as he tells it, reform is not only his dream, but is “the dream of thousands of fellow immigrants who work hard to become American citizens in the land of opportunity.”
Immigration reform cannot wait, and the Korean American community will be present in Washington standing alongside other immigrant groups to encourage our legislators to take the action that America needs.