A silent struggle: Undocumented Korean students strive to attend college

By Katie Gronendyke and Jake Rosner

[Check out the story as it appeared in the Korea Daily News-Chicago]

Through a mouthful of Hershey’s chocolate – “ the reward for his completed kindergarten homework – In-Su rattles off the names of animals, vegetables, and fruits in both Korean and English. Esther, In-Su’s tutor, reaches over his paper. With a pastel-orange nail, she taps softly on the next picture that he needs to name. This is Esther’s third hour of tutoring, and she still has one more session to go.

Esther is undocumented.

She has had trouble paying her college tuition. With a father making a minister’s salary, she can’t rely on her parents. Without a Social Security number, she works odd jobs. Tutoring is one of many. The work doesn’t come close to covering the $16,000 she needs to re-enroll at Loyola University Chicago for a pre-med degree. She went from full-time to part-time student status to save money, and finally dropped out last year after she couldn’t pay tuition.

Her financial situation isn’t at all what she expected growing up. It wasn’t until her freshman year of high school that her parents revealed to her  that she was undocumented.

To pay tuition, Esther tutors a high school student, just one of her several jobs.

She had been brought from Korea when she was 13 months old. Her mother figured it would be more expensive to give birth in the U.S. Her father was in the States on a visa to get his bachelor’s degree, but lacked the money to apply for permanent residency when the visa expired. He, along with his wife and their daughter, Esther, became undocumented immigrants.

Her parents told her that if anyone found out, she could be deported back to Korea.

Young Sun Song, the Youth Program Coordinator at the Korean American Resource and Cultural Center (KRCC) in Chicago, relates the stories of several other students she works with who have had trouble with money. When Connie, another Korean undocumented student, was accepted into the Art Institute of Chicago, she didn’t realize paying for school would necessitate a full-family effort to supplement the income she earned from working her three jobs.

Connie’s family had been through a lot. After moving from Korea to Georgia when she was young, they waited for three years for their immigration papers to be processed. When they realized their lawyer was committing immigration fraud, preying on their assumption that the bureaucratic process simply moved slowly, Connie became officially undocumented. She didn’t have any student loans – she couldn’t qualify for them – so she picked up jobs, often several at a time. It took the full-time work of all four family members to get Connie through to the end of college financially.

Significant undocumented population and the pressures of education

See sidebar-Immigration statuses defined

These are just two stories of the thousands of undocumented Korean students in Illinois. Though only 13,000 of Illinois’ 80,000 Korean-American residents live in Chicago, according to the Census, there is a high concentration of Korean-Americans in the northwest suburbs. The statistics are unclear as to the number of Korean undocumented students. According to Song, the Republic of Korea’s official immigration documents suggest, based on the difference between visas issued and the number of Koreans who return when the visas expire, that about 18 percent of America’s Korean population is undocumented. By these estimates, there are almost 300,000 undocumented Koreans living in the U.S.

Despite the struggles of being undocumented, many Korean-Americans feel a profound cultural pressure to pursue higher education. Carla, an undocumented youth organizer with KRCC and a student at University of Illinois at Chicago, says that “not going [to college] is out of the question.”

Kwang Chung Kim, a leader of the Korean American Scholarship Foundation (KASF) and former sociology professor at Western Illinois University, frames the focus on education through the lens of Korean parents.

The parents “want to compensate for what they feel they lost in Korea, through their children,” he says. “For the second generation, age 25 or over, if you don’t have a college degree, you’re kind of a deviant.”

Paying for school

Undocumented students and visa students are not eligible for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), commonly known as Financial Aid, making the prospect of paying for college truly daunting. Fortunately, Illinois is one of only ten states in which undocumented students qualify for in-state tuition at public universities. Visa students, however, are counted as “international students” upon high school graduation, and must pay out-of-state tuition, which is often double that of in-state residents. A bizarre irony arises: students on valid visas, who are “international students,” pay far more in tuition than students whose visas have expired and are thus undocumented.

In the absence of financial aid, undocumented and visa-holding Korean students have a few options. Many students choose to attend colleges with cheaper tuition, such as state schools or community colleges.

Table
3 Chicago Schools, a range of affordability

Community College – Oakton Community College

State School – University of Illinois Chicago

Private School – Loyola University Chicago

Approximate tuition and fees Per semester class hour
District residents: $91
Out-of-district Illinois residents: $287.88
Out-of-state residents and visa holders: $348.16
Per semester
Illinois residents: $7,000
Non-residents: $13,000
Per semester $20,000

Grace Yoshiba, a sophomore who received scholarships from Loyola, says that the amount of money she would have to pay for a college ‘was the major deciding factor” in choosing which college she would attend.

Scholarships continue to be a prime way for students to subsidize their education, though most help from community institutions covers only $500 to $1,000 of educational costs. Korean churches frequently give out these small scholarships.

“I’ve been discovering more and more students having difficulty with paying their college tuition in light of the crumbling economy,” says Michael Chung, the college and youth pastor at Hanmee Presbyterian Church in Itasca, IL, which offers annual scholarships. “The recipients are chosen based on the financial situation of their family and a short essay.”

KASF offers a secular alternative. The former Executive Director, Jin Kim, helped start the organization ten years after his immigration to the U.S. in 1960. With yellowed inch-thick frameless bifocals and ironed khaki pants pulled up high, he exudes pragmatic optimism for the beneficiaries of the program.

Jin Kim speaks with other Korean history class participants at the Korean Culture Center in Wheeling, IL.

“What scholarship does is not just giving the financial support,” he says. “The key thing is encouraging [the students] and inspiring them.”

The powerful role of family

In the absence of scholarships or financial aid, some Koreans simply decide to return to the Republic of Korea for college. Being fluent in English can make it easy to find a job in international business in Korea. When a student’s family is still in Korea, and the student has become fluent in English, the decision to move back isn’t necessarily so hard.

Though the decision is usually linked in some way to the cost of college in the U.S., Song says that the “family support system is the number one reason why they decide to stay or not to stay.”

Family relationships are only part of the family’s role. In many cases, students receive extensive financial support from their parents.

“For many Americans, they are supporting their own studies. For Koreans, their parents are saying, “we’ll support your education all the way,” says Kwang Chung Kim. “Some parents cannot do it, but they do their best.”

The idea of parents paying for their children’s education isn’t unusual. However, Korean parents often go to more extreme lengths, and make greater sacrifices, than many other families.

ZB Stryjecki is the manager at the Albany Park branch of Foster Bank, Chicago’s only Korean-owned bank. He encounters the financial struggles of many Korean families on a day-to-day basis.

They would stretch themselves to the point where they’d have two or more jobs, and then select the zip code that allows [their children] to go to the high ranking high school,” he says.

Yoshiba’s parents try their best to pay for their daughter’s education despite her mother’s colon cancer diagnosis.

Grace Yoshiba returns to her apartment after a lab practical at Loyola University Chicago, the school she and her parents have struggled to afford since her mother was diagnosed with cancer.

“We found out she was sick right before I started going to school, so that means 60 percent of our income is gone,” explains Yoshiba.

Yoshiba began working at Children’s Memorial Hospital to help pay for college and has received grants and scholarships, but her father still pays most of her tuition.

“My dad, he’s a high school teacher, started taking extra jobs at the school to pay for my college,” says Yoshiba. “I mean, it’s mainly him.”

Working to pay tuition

However, for the majority of Korean students who are on visas or are undocumented, paying for college requires them to work not just a cushy work-study job on campus, but also several jobs that are off-the-books. Employers often take advantage of these students’ undocumented or student visa status to pay less than the minimum wage.

“As long as you’re young and willing to take whatever exploitation, there are jobs for undocumented people,” Song says.

Mike, a young undocumented man, has also cycled through jobs, desperate to make enough for his education at Wright College.

“Mike’s worked at I don’t know how many shops. Shoe store, restaurant, liquor store, whatever he could get,” says Song. “He often doesn’t get paid for the work he had done.”

In addition, the constant work and poor conditions have had a harmful effect on his education.

“Everything is an emergency for him. He lost his job and got injured,” says Song. “I don’t know how he can focus at school.”

Making matters worse, the recession has brought about a new trend. In the absence of jobs, many students who are legal residents are now competing with undocumented immigrants for low-wage, low-skilled jobs. According to Song, this has created animosity within the Korean community between documented and undocumented students. Though workplace discrimination against undocumented students is nothing new, the recession has led to an even greater permissiveness of the practices.

For example, when an employer “wants to fire the worker, they ask them to bring their papers after working there for two years,” says Song. “Before, they didn’t have the option to choose workers who were documented or undocumented – now they do.”

In the face of discrimination, it can seem pointless to work several jobs to pay for an education. Even with a degree, it’s hard for undocumented students to get good jobs because of their immigration status.

Angela Ryo, a young adult pastor at Hahna Presbyterian Church in Chicago, who was undocumented when she attended college, says, “The thing is, being undocumented is so demoralizing it’s hard to be driven. Why study when you can’t go to college? Why go to college when you can’t get a job afterwards?”

A silent struggle

Despite the prevalence of undocumented Korean Americans, their issues are rarely discussed publicly. Several administrators at the KASF express confusion at the prospect of undocumented students receiving their scholarships.

Checking the validity of students’ Social Security numbers takes too much work, so KASF just asks for the student’s information and has them sign a document asserting that it is valid.

Moreover, the very existence of undocumented Koreans is contested. According to Young Sun Song, “People here in Chicago think, ‘Of course we have undocumented [youth].’ But not here in Chicago – in L.A.”

Even for students who grew up in the U.S., such as Esther, it is hard to discuss their status because of how it might affect their family’s reputation.

“It’s a small community – you bump into people at grocery stores – and they don’t want to bring shame to their parents,” Song says.

Ryo credits shame and fear for the lack of discussion or knowledge in the Korean community about undocumented Koreans. “It’s pretty hushed up. It is a shame culture after all, and to admit that you are undocumented, you never know how that can turn against you,” he says. “It was our family secret.”

She also says she sees a common desire among the Korean community to be seen as a model minority group, and contrasted what she perceived as Americans’ views of Korean immigrants with those of Latino immigrants. “We are, after all, the model immigrants, right? And so we need to live up to the expectations,” Ryo says.

Local organizing groups have started pushing for a more open dialogue about undocumented students in Chicago. The Immigrant Youth Justice League, founded by Rigo Padilla after his widely reported near-deportation in 2009, advocates for “coming out” – making one’s undocumented status publicly known as a tool of social change. Similarly, KRCC is planning a national “coming out” teleconference in the next month to increase media awareness of undocumented students’ issues.

Song believes that many of the negative comments concerning undocumented Korean students arise out of mere ignorance that such students exist in Chicago, rather than malice. “If the community knows that it’s one of their church members, they wouldn’t say the same thing about undocumented immigrants,” says Song.

Perhaps the greatest possibility for advancement is the recently passed Illinois DREAM Act, which mandates training for high school counselors on how to connect undocumented students with college funds.

The need for such training is urgent. Misinformation abounds.

“I actually heard a lot of people whose counselors told them they couldn’t go to [college] at all because they wouldn’t get accepted because of their status, which isn’t true,” says Esther.

It was in fact the story of Tereza Lee, an undocumented Korean student, that led to the proposal for the federal DREAM Act. A prodigy who had been accepted into several of the top music schools, Lee had come to the U.S. when she was two years old and did not have valid papers. One of her teachers sent Lee’s story on to Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, who proposed the legislation on the basis of her experiences as an undocumented student.

A more open future

Esther is still saving up for school. She has accrued enough tuition over the last three years that she will need some time to pay it off.

Esther hopes to return to Loyola in the spring of 2013. After that, she will pursue medical school at one of the 13 medical school programs, out of the 300 in the U.S., that do not check applicants’ status.

In the meantime, Esther is able to talk about her status and promote greater discussion of Korean undocumented students in some circles.

“I’m pretty open about my status in the church community now right now,” says Esther. “I really hope that the Korean community can get up to that point and just realize that there’s an issue that’s affecting a lot of families.”

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