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KoreAm Journal: Homeland Insecurity

By March 13, 2006 No Comments

Dae Hwan and Young Mi Jung lived contentedly in Toledo, Ohio, for 20 years. But after a mix-up with Homeland Security, the couple made the difficult decision to voluntarily deport to Korea. They left their only son, Andrew, behind.

By Alice K. Kim
KoreAm Issue: February 2006

TOLEDO, Ohio — It is two days after Christmas, and a light rain is steadily washing away the snow that has accumulated in the past few weeks. It is unseasonably warm for December, and the drizzle makes Christmas seem like an already distant memory. Emmanuel Baptist High School, damaged due to a recent arson attack, is quiet, although there are cars in the parking lot because the basketball teams have already resumed practice.

Robert Flamm, a pleasant-looking man, is the principal of Emmanuel Baptist and lives within walking distance of the school. Living with him is one of his students, Andrew Jung, a gangly 15-year-old freshman.

Andrew is busy scarfing down his lunch when a Korean American visitor appears. He leaps up and bobs his head in a quick, uncertain bow, then seems relieved when a handshake is offered and cultural formalities are dispensed. He then quietly returns to his sandwich, cleaning his plate with the alarming speed that is reserved for teenage boys. When he is done, he immediately rinses his dishes and places them in the dishwasher.

Andrew has been living with the Flamms since August 2005, when both his parents were voluntarily deported to South Korea, after having lived in the United States for over 20 years. Dae Hwan and Young Mi Jung first came to Toledo in 1984 on Dae Hwan’s student visa. Over the next 10 years, Dae Hwan raised a family while completing an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Toledo. The Jungs returned to Korea briefly in 1995, and then re-entered the States on another student visa for Dae Hwan, this time to pursue an English language degree at the University of Michigan. Dae Hwan later petitioned to change his course of study to accounting at the University of Toledo, but his visa continuation was denied by Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS).

In 1996, INS issued a notice requiring that the Jungs attend a deportation hearing, although, according to the Jungs, they never received that notice. By that time, their original home address had long changed, and their lawyer failed to inform them of the hearing date. The Jungs did not appear at the mandatory hearing, and as a result, were ordered to deport. Unaware of the order, the Jungs remained in Toledo. Dae Hwan found work as a dishwasher, and then as a sushi chef at a local restaurant. His employers sponsored him for an I-140 work permit. When he received the permit, Dae Hwan mistakenly assumed that his immigration status was finally secure.

On Feb. 14, 2005, the Jungs were roused at 6 a.m. by agents with the Department of Homeland Security and Toledo police officers. Dae Hwan, who had fallen asleep in front of the living room television after his late night shift, answered the front door. As the officers filed into the living room, Young Mi, who had been sleeping in the upstairs bedroom, sensed that something was amiss. She told Andrew to stay in his bedroom, before she joined her husband downstairs. The officers ordered them to present their passports and driver licenses. As his parents frantically scrabbled to find their paperwork, Andrew listened from his bedroom door.

“I could hear my parents scurrying around, talking Korean, saying ‘Where is it? Where is it?’ They went through everything, but they couldn’t find [the papers],” Andrew recalls. After showing the officers several documents, the Jungs were informed that Young Mi had to be taken into federal custody. Before they led her away, Young Mi turned to reassure her family.

“My mom said, ‘I’ll be back very soon. Don’t worry about it, we’re going to get this all settled out.’”

This was not to be the case, however. Over the next six months, Young Mi was held in a variety of detention centers, some over eight hours away. Dae Hwan, with the help of close friends from the community, searched for ways to get her released. He left his initial lawyer, the one who had bungled the original deportation hearing notice, and hired a lawyer who specialized in immigration law and removal and deportation proceedings. As time passed, however, Young Mi’s court hearing date kept getting delayed. Between looking for legal options and trying to keep track of his wife’s frequent detention center moves, Dae Hwan continued to work at the restaurant to support himself and Andrew. Andrew stayed with one friend after another, often not seeing his father until late at night. At times, different rumors would circulate about the possibility of Dae Hwan also being taken in to custody.
“They had rumors that [Homeland Security officers] would come for my dad on this night or that night,” Andrew remembers. “And I’d just sit in bed and think, please don’t take him tonight. Please don’t take him tonight.”

By August, the family decided that they could not take the strain any longer. Dae Hwan let the officials know that he and his wife were willing to voluntarily deport, and on Aug. 11, 2005, they headed to the Detroit Metro Airport accompanied by a large group of disbelieving supporters. In the terminal, Dae Hwan and Young Mi signed over legal guardianship of Andrew to their close friends the Jessops, then said their final goodbyes and boarded a plane to Korea.

The Jungs’ story is sadly common. According to Homeland Security statistics, there were over 1 million voluntary deportations in 2004. In the Jungs’ case, however, the family’s close ties to their community made the situation all the more heartbreaking. Young Mi had been a major fixture at Emmanuel Baptist Elementary School all throughout Andrew’s childhood. Unable to obtain a work permit, Young Mi had become fully involved in her son’s world. She was a homeroom parent for the elementary school, chaperoned field trips and helped out in the classroom. She was also an aide for gym classes and the school library. Even after Andrew moved up to junior high, Young Mi remained a permanent volunteer at the elementary school. The school in turn showed their appreciation by honoring Young Mi with a community service award.

When Young Mi was first arrested, Dae Hwan didn’t know where to turn. Because he worked second shift at the restaurant, Dae Hwan hardly attended any of Andrew’s school functions, and subsequently had not forged the same community bonds that his wife had. His first instinct was to contact the few close Korean friends that he had in the area; but after news of Young Mi’s incarceration became widespread, Young Mi’s longtime friends responded immediately with an outpouring of support and concern. Both the school and members of the outside community rallied around the Jung family, circulating petitions and raising media awareness about the family’s situation. Elementary school children sent stacks of letters clamoring for Mrs. Jung’s return.

Perhaps the greatest champion of the Jungs’ cause has been Leonard Jessop, the father of Andrew’s longtime best friend, Alex. Leonard and his wife, Julie, had become acquainted with the Jungs when Andrew and Alex struck up a friendship in elementary school. On the day that federal agents took Young Mi, Dae Hwan told Andrew not to tell anyone what had happened. Unable to cope on his own, however, Andrew confided in Alex that “something really bad” had happened to his parents. Alex kept the secret to himself for a few days at Andrew’s request, before finally deciding to tell the news to his father. As soon as Leonard Jessop heard what had happened, he leapt into action.

Leonard and Dae Hwan visited the Jungs’ first lawyer in an effort to find out why she had neglected to forward the deportation hearing notices. The visit was less than successful. Dae Hwan, discouraged by the experience, was loath to get involved with any more lawyers, but at Leonard’s encouragement, hired a second lawyer. When that lawyer failed to make much progress on the Jungs’ case, Leonard sought out the services of David Leopold, a Cleveland-based lawyer with an impressive track record in immigration law, and the current head of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Leonard also founded the group Citizens in Support of the Jung Family (www.helpyoung.org), and devoted himself to becoming intimately knowledgeable about all the details of the Jungs’ history and legal options. He has become somewhat of an expert in the bureaucratic intricacies of the U.S. immigration system. His fervor stems from concern for the Jungs, as well as a growing sense of outrage over the state of current U.S. immigration policy. One of the main problems, as he sees it, is that “our government never apologizes and says maybe we slipped up.”

He still expresses disbelief over how long Young Mi was incarcerated.

“I kept asking myself, where is the human dignity in that?”

***

Andrew’s case has become pretty well known over the past few months. When the story first broke, it was covered by the local newspaper, but was soon picked up by national media networks. One group who became interested in Andrew’s story was the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium, Inc. (NAKASEC), a Los Angeles-based organization dedicated to advocating immigrant and civil rights issues. In September 2005, NAKASEC invited Andrew and the Jessops to Washington, D.C., to participate in a rally calling for the passage of the Secure American and Orderly Immigration Act of 2005, a bipartisan immigration reform bill sponsored by senators John McCain and Edward Kennedy. As part of the rally, Andrew shared his story at a town hall meeting attended by over 500 people, including members of Congress. After the rally, Andrew was approached by a 10-year-old Latino boy.

“He told me, ‘Hey, I know how you feel.’ The same thing had happened to his parents, too.”

While in D.C., Andrew and the Jessops met with Sen. Mike DeWine and Rep. Marcy Kaptur. Both legislators expressed interest in the Jungs’ plight; but as a lawyer pointed out to Leonard, they can help, but they can’t go beyond the law. NAKASEC is currently gearing up to fight the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005. Among other things, the act seeks to criminalize undocumented workers, as well as any individual or organization that harbors undocumented workers. This would mean that nonprofit organizations, churches and even family members would be penalized for helping workers like Dae Hwan Jung. According to Eun Sook Lee, executive director of NAKASEC, the irony is that the current administration claims to be in support of family values. “We want to show that the immigration system is actually breaking families apart,” says Lee.

***

More than anything, Dae Hwan and Young Mi want to come back home, but given the heightened state of national security since 9-11, the chance that they will be able to return to this country soon, if ever, is slim.

It is hard to imagine what the past year has been like for their son, and what kind of lasting effect the experience might have on the shy teenager. Despite the drama of the past year, Andrew has managed to maintain a sizeable list of activities and accomplishments. He is a straight-A student, the president of his freshman class and plays for the junior varsity basketball team. He is first violinist with the Toledo Junior Youth Orchestra, and works as a golf caddy at the Sylvania Country Club. Recently, he was nominated by classmates to be the freshman representative for the homecoming court.

Although the Jessops are Andrew’s legal guardians, Andrew’s parents decided that it would be better for Andrew to live with the Flamms. Not only do the Flamms live closer to the school (Alex Jessop now attends a private high school in Sylvania Township), but Dae Hwan also liked the fact that as the school principal, Robert Flamm, could “keep Andrew in check.” As might be expected of any freshman boy, when Andrew learned that the Flamms had offered a place in their home, he was a bit intimidated by the idea of living with his principal. Now, after having lived there since August, he says that while Robert is kind of strict at school, “at home he’s really loose. It’s been really good living at his house.”

Andrew’s parents may be several thousand miles away, but they still keep a close watch over their only son. Every night, Andrew talks to them via a free Internet phone service, and his parents monitor his grades online. Based on their talks, Andrew can tell that things have been difficult for his parents in Korea. After living in the United States for over 20 years, Dae Hwan and Young Mi are having trouble adjusting to what is effectively a new country. Young Mi often weeps from homesickness. As of yet, they are still living with relatives, and have not been able to obtain employment. Andrew hopes to be able to visit them for the first time during his summer vacation.

Many members of the Toledo community also maintain contact with the Jungs via letters and e-mail. Cindy Dunnett, principal of Emmanuel Baptist Elementary School, speaks regularly with Young Mi.

“We cry just about each time we talk,” she says. “It’s really hard, because this is their home. They’re Americans now, you know?”

  

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