Equity & Diversity

The Diversity of America’s Undocumented Youth

By Lesli A. Maxwell — July 09, 2012 3 min read
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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post misstated Mexico’s geographic location as being part of Central America.

Most of the faces of undocumented students who have publicly revealed their immigration status to push for immigration reform and more specifically, passage of the federal DREAM Act, are Latino. And that makes sense given that the vast majority of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. are from Mexico.

But DREAMers are a far more diverse group, and that’s a message that a fledgling Asian immigrant youth group is intent on spreading in the New York and New Jersey region. The still-forming group—with support from the New York City-based Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund—is initially hoping to create a “safe space” for undocumented Asian youth who want to meet others facing similar challenges. One of the group’s first acts is to host legal clinics with AALDEF to provide information to undocumented Asian youth about the new deferred action policy announced by President Obama last month that will allow qualified individuals to avoid deportation and pursue work authorization.

Tony Choi is one of the principal organizers of the new Asian DREAMer group, which has no official name yet.

He is a 23-year-old undocumented Korean immigrant who came to the U.S. when he was 10 and settled with his family in New Jersey. Raised by a single mother who was a waitress and manicurist, Tony was a strong student who tested out of his ESL program after a couple of years and was later accepted to a magnet high school in Bergen County. Tony disclosed his immigration status only to a few trusted friends and the youth pastor at his church. He could never get a driver’s license or a part-time job while in high school, but said he didn’t think much more about the limitations of his immigration status until it was time to apply for college.

“Growing up here, I felt I was the only Asian who was undocumented and I felt very isolated,” he said of living in New Jersey. “The repercussions of that for my future really hit me when it was time for me to go to college.”

Nevertheless, Choi was awarded a full scholarship to attend Berea College in Kentucky, and moved to the small town to major in political science and Spanish. Struggling to fit into the small town environment of Berea, where Choi said there were very few Asians or other people of color, was difficult, but he eventually confided in a few friends and one trusted Spanish professor. It was that professor who told him about a new youth movement forming in Lexington, Ky., which became the Kentucky Dream Coalition. Choi joined the group, but once again found himself as the only Asian student with undocumented status.

He points out that several well-known DREAMers who have been involved in the youth immigration reform movement are Asian, including Tereza Lee, a Brazilian-born woman of Korean heritage, whose parents brought her to Chicago when she was 2-years-old.

“I think fostering diversity in this movement is really important,” Choi said. “We have a lot of work to do to change the attitude in the Asian American community about immigration because it’s been so hush, hush and you don’t talk about it. We can’t forget that immigration is at the heart of the Asian American experience.”

Bethany Li, an AALDEF staff attorney who is advising Tony and the other student organizers, said that many undocumented Asian students come to the U.S. legally with their families on visas, and stay on in the country after the visas have expired. Many don’t realize they are unauthorized until they start the college application process, she said.

In California, one of the few states with its own DREAM Act statute that allows undocumented students to pay the same fees as state residents and also gain access to some financial aid, nearly half of the undocumented students who attend the University of California system are Asian, according to the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, a civil rights and advocacy group in Los Angeles.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.