From left to right, Angy holding up a sign in one of her YouTube videos, my stepfather, and Alaa. [Yoona Ha/ Medill]

[Read the interview with Alaa Mukahhal here.]

Alaa Mukahhal is almost done telling me about her upcoming court date. It may end in her deportation. A moment of silence is followed by a huge sigh that expels from Alaa’s lips. My palms sweat as I grip the phone tightly, not knowing what to say. But before I can utter a word of comfort, I hear an unexpected noise: laughter.

“I’m confident that I will fight back till the last minute just like so many of us,” she says. “I suggest you read Angy Rivera’s amazing and funny undocumented blog too.”

As I hang up the phone, I turn to my computer, wondering how being undocumented could ever be funny.

After interviewing Alaa and more than a dozen undocumented immigrants for an undergraduate research project last year, I found myself feeling a spectrum of emotions, but mirth wasn’t one of them.

During the process of finding undocumented activists to interview for my research project, Angy Rivera, the first and only undocumented columnist in the nation, was someone I wanted to interview but couldn’t get in touch with. Instead here I was, clicking through her YouTube channel while talking to her close friend Alaa.

Click on photo to go to Ask Angy

Of all of Angy’s YouTube videos, I was most attracted to her “Dating while undocumented” video, not only because Alaa strongly recommended it, but also because I was a single female who just turned 19. In fact, I was willing to pay extra attention in case I would hear some expert advice on how to date guys.

Even better. Angy started the “Dating while undocumented” video by saying that being undocumented is often a group experience that affects not only you, but those around you.

“Can I see the picture of your license?” she asks. “How come I never see you drive?”

One question after another was followed by a loud buzzer noise and a screen shot of a disapproving Angy.

As much as I wanted to laugh and feel some comfort in knowing I’m not the only one who asks such stupid questions, a memory of my former self haunted me.

When the video ended, I found myself lost in thought of my not-so-old past.


About five years ago, I immigrated to San Francisco from Seoul, South Korea, with my mother and my stepfather.

Throughout the first few days of our stay in a cramped apartment space in Haight-Ashbury, I complained of sharing a room with my parents.

I would often wake up to the consistent tap-tap-tap noises my father would make, as he hovered over a laptop that glowed silently in the dark.

Almost immediately upon our move-in, my father started looking for a job to feed us all. Every morning, he would head to the city, dressed in his best suit with his favorite watch clasped on his wrist.

It was not long before I noticed that these interviews turned into a continuous part of our lives.

Four interviews would turn into fifty, and from one interview to the next, I noticed my father’s shoulders sag more and more.

Once I started school, the constant lingering presence of my father quickly became a mysterious annoyance.

I blamed my father’s unemployment on his old age or his lack of a college diploma. Little did I know why he was turned down from one job after another.

The evolving feminist in me became even more outraged as I saw my mother work long and hard hours, drive to and from her work and my school, and pay our bills with her small salary as a Japanese sushi bar waitress.

To me, she seemed like a Korean Atlas who carried our family on her tiny shoulders.

One evening after dinner, I saw my mother apply hand salve on her hands while my father switched the channel with a remote.

I was shocked at how unrecognizable her hands were from when I last saw them in Korea, but more outraged by the contrast their hands bore.

While her hands were crackled with dryness and hardened with callouses from the constant dishwashing, his hands had an almost unapologetic sheen to them that showed no sign of hardship.

That was enough for me.

“Dad, how come you never do anything for us?” I yelled. “You don’t drive, you don’t work and you don’t do anything for us!”

I stared at my father’s unmoving face, waiting for an explanation, an excuse, or even an apology for his laziness.

Instead, I saw my 46-year-old father slowly kneel on the ground next to my mother, who scurried to hold him back up.

“I’m so sorry, Yoona. and I’m so sorry to your mom,” he whispered. “I’m an illegal and I’m so sorry I can’t be the husband or father I want to be.”

As soon as those words escaped his mouth, I felt the blood rushing through my cheeks.

I was oblivious and ignorant of how immigration papers held a strong hold over the lives of those it documented.

As Angy discussed in her video, undocumented immigrants had to live with the uncomfortable choice of telling their status or keeping it to themselves. My father chose not to tell anyone until that night.

My father’s confession that evening still haunts me to this day.


In Angy’s “Dating while undocumented video” she reveals the lesson I learned from my father’s painful confession. “While there are bad relationships you have while you’re undocumented, there’s also good relationships – the ones where people understand you’re undocumented and don’t judge you for it.”

Later on that evening after watching the video, I emailed Alaa, thanking her for recommending Angy’s YouTube video. Alaa had trusted a stranger with her story, and in the process, she’d made someone less oblivious and ignorant.