UCLA student sheds light on shadow population Freedom from Fear awardee unveiled undocumented status at LA’s City Hall

UNDOCUMENTED — UCLA student David Cho. New America Media photo

The night before he announced he was undocumented on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall, Freedom from Fear Award winner David Cho wrote a farewell letter to his friends and family in case he was deported once it became known that he didn’t have the papers to live legally in the United States. “I didn’t know what would happen to me,” said the 21-year-old.

After his announcement, he said, this fear was replaced by a feeling of liberation.

The Freedom from Fear Awards, which commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides that mobilized young people to take down segregation in the South, honor 15 ordinary people who stood up for immigrants and refugees at great personal risk. Cho came out as undocumented at a rally for the DREAM Act during his second year at UCLA.

“If I didn’t put a human face to [the issue], change wouldn’t come about,” said Cho.

Cho didn’t know he was undocumented until he asked his parents for his Social Security number when filling out his UCLA application. His father reluctantly told him that the family’s visas had expired after nine years of legal residence in the United States as a result of the family’s sponsor mishandling their renewal application.

Cho did not tell anyone when he first found out about his immigration status. At the time, he had never heard of an undocumented Asian student speaking out on immigration.

At UCLA, he eventually joined the student group IDEAS (Improving Dreams, Equality, Access, and Success), a support group for undocumented students. As he became more involved, he decided that he had to come out.

Cho’s family came to the United States from South Korea, pushed out by the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s. As an elementary school student in South Pasadena, Cho struggled to learn English. Nonetheless, Cho mastered the language and graduated from high school with a 3.9 GPA.

Cho worked 30 hours a week as an SAT tutor in order to pay his college tuition, as he was not eligible for financial aid as an undocumented person. He maintained a 3.6 GPA while working and also serving as the first Korean American and first known undocumented drum major for the UCLA marching band.