ATLANTA—When Kevin Lee was little, his mother warned him to keep his families’ immigration status a secret. “Mom said, ‘Kevin, don’t say anything,’ and I knew at any moment my parents could be taken away. I knew I was undocumented. Some people find out later.”
Lee is a Dreamer, an undocumented youth who received Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, (DACA). It means he can get a drivers license and work legally and will not be deported. His parents could still be deported. There is no similar program for people over 30.
Before the Dream Act or DACA, Lee went to the Navy to enlist but found he could not enlist without a Social Security number. “Even though I pledged allegiance to the flag every day [in school] I was not really an American,” he said in an American accent.
Lee started at a community college. He said he worked hard and now has graduated from UCLA.
He is an immigrant-rights organizer. “I answer calls from mothers like mine—so much heart, so much will, so much creativity,” he said.
He scorns legislators who vote to defund DACA “and then say they support those who want to contribute to this country.”
A group of undocumented students raised money in Los Angeles to do a cross-country road trip, to tell their stories and advocate for comprehensive immigration reform. The Dream Riders traveled from California to Washington, D.C., Charlotte, New Orleans, and Houston, and ended their trip back in Los Angeles on Aug. 6.
In Atlanta, one Dreamer was careful to stay out of range of cameras and did not speak during the public forum. S. Chang’s parents brought her here when she was so young that she does not remember living in Korea.
Her father is a cook, but since Georgia passed its immigration bill requiring that employers use E-Verify to check immigration status, he has not been able to find work. The two of them have become very poor.
Chang said she has only told her best friend her status and does not want to bring any risk or embarrassment to her father. An 18-year-old high school senior, she has outstanding grades and is thinking of becoming a dentist because “I love smiles” and because dental care was very hard for her family to get.
An anonymous donor paid for her deferred action application after she approached the Asian American Legal Advocacy Center (AALAC) of Georgia for help. AALAC Executive Director Helen Kim Ho said a lot of Dreamers are afraid to come out. If they are Korean, like Chang and Lee, “their greatest fear is rejection within the Korean community, and judgment.”
When people speak of undocumented youth, “I can’t stand ‘it’s not your fault,’ because that means it’s your parents’ fault,” Ho said.
Immigration attorney Bonnie Youn compared legislators who oppose a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants to Southern legislators who supported segregation during the American civil rights movement. “Privately they do support, but publicly they feel they have to preserve” an appearance of opposing illegal immigration to pacify some of their constituents.
Democratic state Rep. Pedro Marin said, “If elected officials are only worried to get re-elected they aren’t doing their job.”
Prompt Path to Citizenship
Immigrants and their supporters want comprehensive immigration reform to include a prompt path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, an end to detaining and deporting illegal immigrants unless they commit crimes here, and emphasis on keeping families together.
The Obama administration advocates a path to citizenship, and President Obama created the Dream Act with an executive order.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan met with Dream Riders in Washington on July 29. “I was inspired by the stories of the Dream Riders and their friends and family—stories often rooted in hardship and heartbreak as their parents strive to make ends meet—stories of success and struggle as they try to obtain the best education that our country has to offer,” Duncan said in a statement.
At the same time, the Obama administration has deported more people than the Bush administration.
The director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in 2011 that the agency would prioritize deporting people with flagrant criminal violations. It has deported thousands whose criminal violation was being a fugitive from ICE, the Boston Globe reported. In fiscal year 2012, ICE removed 409,849 people, it announced.
The Senate immigration reform bill offers a slow and stringent path to citizenship. It does not prioritize reuniting families or keeping them together. It would give few choices to people like Lee’s and Chang’s parents. The House has been talking about a bill entirely focused on enforcement.
While Congress is in recess, immigration advocates are visiting legislators in their districts.
Chang said she would like to say to lawmakers, “Can you please look at it from a human point of view?”