Philosophical, articulate and stuck: The life of an unauthorized Korean-American

By Jenna Lee, Medill, Immigrant Connect

Glohan Choi is philosophical, articulate and stuck. He is also one in seven undocumented Korean-Americans in the United States. He wants to change the world. For now, he is a 24-year-old restaurant server.

“[The job] seems menial, but I try to do best with what I have,” Choi said. “If I’m serving food, I try to make sure the customers enjoy it. Just helping them, that’s what I’ve always liked.”

Click on photo to get a sense of Glohan Choi’s evolving world view (Video: Jenny Lee/MEDILL)

In 1996, four-year-old Choi followed his father, who came as a student to Northwestern University. His father was on an F-1 visa, a nonimmigrant visa for individuals who want to study in the U.S. The rest of the family was on F-2 status, a visa given to family and spouses of F-1 students.

A few years after their arrival, Choi’s younger sister was diagnosed with autism. Conditions for raising an autistic child were better in America than in Korea, so they decided to overstay on the student visa, extending it for as long as possible. Choi and his family became undocumented when the visa expired. Money was running out, and his father could not finish his degree at the university.

The window for unauthorized Koreans is frosty

For the past four years, DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) has been a temporary solution for undocumented immigrants, granting them work authorization and the right to obtain a driver’s license. Since its introduction on June 15, 2012, more than 800,000 undocumented immigrants have benefited from the deportation moratorium, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website. After three years, those in the program must renew their DACA authorization, which costs $465, the same fee as the initial application.

South Koreans are the fifth largest group in the applicant pool for DACA, according to a 2013 report by The Brookings Institution. Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are above South Korea in the ranking. More than three-fourths of South Korean applicants became recipients.

In November 2014, President Obama announced executive actions expanding the population eligible for DACA. He also introduced DAPA (Deferred Action for Parental Accountability), which allows parents of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents to request deferred action and employment authorization for three years.

After President Obama issued the executive orders, Texas and 25 other states challenged the executive actions. A federal judge in Texas blocked the President’s DACA and DAPA initiatives on Feb. 16, 2015, and the injunction has delayed the acceptance of applications for expanded DACA, which was to go into effect two days later.

The USCIS has continued to accept applications for an initial grant of existing DACA and renewal under the 2012 guidelines.

On June 23, 2016, a short-handed U.S. Supreme Court deadlocked 4-4, keeping the lower court’s injunction in effect.

Choi had not heard about DACA until the Court held oral arguments in the case in April, four years after the program’s introduction. Choi does not have many Korean-American friends, and without communication with local Korean-American organizations, the program was not in his radar, he said.

Even if Choi knew about DACA, it would not have made a difference. The guidelines for DACA say that one must not have had unlawful status on June 15, 2012 to be eligible, but Choi was a lawful resident due to his F-2 visa until 2013. Choi is not eligible for the original DACA or its expanded form. He wishes that he could be a DACA recipient because he wants to travel freely.

“I can afford a ticket, but if I go, and they see my passport, and they check the visa stamps, they will see an anomaly,” he said. “They could stop me and they could deport me. That idea kind of freaks me out.”

Unauthorized Koreans fly under the radar

Koreans are one of the fastest growing undocumented immigrant groups in the U.S., according to an article in the Atlantic. Yet, they make up only 1.5 percent of the total DACA applicants.

Sae Hee Chun, the campaign coordinator at National Korean American Service and Education Consortium (NAKASEC), said many eligible Koreans and other Asian Americans do not apply for DACA because they are not comfortable with exposing their identity to their employers and to the government.

Outreach from organizations is crucial in increasing access for the undocumented population, Chun said. Due to language barriers, some members of the Asian American community are unable to get answers to simple questions or do not understand the terms expressed on the USCIS website.

Ju Hong, National Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) DACA Collaborative Outreach Coordinator and an activist for the rights of undocumented populations, said cultural stigma as well as language barriers prevent undocumented immigrants from sharing their stories. There are far fewer AAPI activists than those from Latino background, Hong said.

Churches are common gathering places for the Korean community, and some are worried that people will look at them differently if they expose their identity as undocumented.

In 2013, an estimated 200,000 Koreans lived in the U.S. as unauthorized immigrants, according to a report by the Migration Policy Institute. Between 2009 and 2013, one-fifth of the eligible Korean-American population applied for DACA.

Yujin Maeng, a youth and immigrant rights organizer at the Korean American Resource and Cultural Center (KRCC) in Chicago, said nonprofit organizations need to put more effort into increasing access of information about DACA and DAPA. She said parents are often unaware of resources, at times due to language barriers.

“Oftentimes, a lot of information comes from their kids, who are often students at school,” Maeng said. “We do a lot of outreach with counselors, hopefully because we see their counselors at least once a year, when they register for classes.”

Choi changes his outlook

As a child, Choi was not aware of his status or the challenges that lay ahead for him and his family. For most of his life, his mother was at work, mostly as a cook, while his father stayed at home taking care of his sister. Stress piled up as Choi watched his parents fight over financial situations. Taking care of his autistic sister added to their difficulties.

“It was easier for me because I could just leave,” he said. “I was never home.”

Through adolescence and early adulthood, he mostly spent time with his friends, rarely with family. When he enrolled in Harper College, a north suburban community college outside Chicago, he planned to transfer to a university after two years. With a GPA of around 2.5, however, it became a far-fetched dream. The tuition was also beyond his family’s reach.

“My mom worked three to four jobs sending me,” Choi said. “In retrospect, I should have taken it more seriously, but that’s all in hindsight.”

About a year ago, his attitude toward life took an upturn, ending years of apathy. Learning how to think critically in sociology and philosophy courses at college prompted the change, Choi said. Instead of agonizing over his difficulties, he started wanting to change his circumstances.

The thought of having a job other than a server excites Choi, since he has worked at restaurants for many years. Although he does not want his undocumented status to define him, he knows that it determines what he can do with his life. He hopes that he will be able to enroll in a university and receive a fuller education. He wants to impact social change and pursue his artistic passions, but for now, he is stuck.

“As much as I want to achieve change and make the world a better place, I don’t have the tools to do that,” Choi said. “I do what I can, you know, I help people when I can, I lend them an ear, I’d give people advice … Right now, that’s the extent of it.”

Choi can’t leave a legacy from purgatory

Ji-Yeon Yuh, an Asian-American history and Asian diaspora professor at Northwestern University, said DACA is an “immigration purgatory,” since it is only temporary relief from deportation.

“Your status is not illegal, but your status isn’t completely legal either,” Yuh said.

DACA is not an option for Choi, but he is in a purgatory between his aspirations and challenges to come. Financial resources in the household have not improved and his parents are aging. Taking care of his sister is a concern, since it is likely that Choi will eventually become her primary caretaker.

“The hardest is yet to come,” Choi said. “I think about when my mom is going to be able to retire, and I don’t think there will ever be a time.”

On top of financial concerns and distressing future prospects, he wonders how he can leave a legacy. His job as a server provides only a meager means to an end, Choi said. Years of suffering have taught him empathy, and he aspires to use it for a greater pursuit, such as policy writing or counseling individuals.

“Right now, I’m in a cage. I’m not free yet. But I hope there will be a time, I think there will be,” Choi said. “That’s what older, wiser people told me. Not to be depressed, to look forward.”

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