When Ju Hong stepped before his class at UC Berkeley to discuss his status as an undocumented immigrant, the response was telling. “A lot of the students were surprised at seeing a yellow face,” says the soft-spoken 22-year-old, who notes there is a trend among many of his peers to equate undocumented with Hispanic.
A third-year political science major, Hong is one of an estimated 600 students at Cal with either indeterminate or undocumented immigration status, and according to a recent report in the Korea Times, nearly a third of them are from South Korea.
Statistics released by the University of California Office of the President (UCOP) show that Asians comprise between 45 and 55 percent of all such students registered in UC schools, compared to 25 to 30 percent for Latinos.
Soo Kim (not her real name), 21, came to the United States with her mother in 2002 at the age of 12. A junior at Cal, she is extremely articulate, her words conveying the pent up frustrations common to those in her situation.
“I consider myself a Korean AMERICAN,” she writes in an e-mail response. “I am extensively involved in social and political affairs that currently occupy the United States, and genuinely care for the well-being of this country. I just want to be given an opportunity to prove myself.”
Kim says only her closest friends know that she is undocumented, adding that aside from Hong she hasn’t befriended many other AB 540 students, referring to those eligible for in-state tuition despite lacking proper documentation. “We do have fear,” she says, a fact that puts most students like Kim on guard about revealing their status and prevents them from coming together.
In today’s climate, that fear is legitimated by the million plus deportations carried out under the Obama administration. An article that appeared recently in the Korea Times cited statistics released by the Korean consulate in Los Angeles that said deportations among Koreans rose 35 percent in the first six months of this year compared to 2010.
“I have nightmares of immigration officials knocking on my door and arresting my mom, my sister and me. I lie awake wondering if I have any future at all,” said Hong in a YouTube video he made in 2009 as a student at Laney Community College in Oakland, Calif.
The video helped him become Laney’s first Asian and undocumented student body president. He’s since been elected to a seat on Berkeley’s student body senate and says he plans to push for some of the $1.7 million available to foster greater access for undocumented students.
Koreans make up the seventh-largest group of undocumented immigrants in the United States, with an estimated 23,000 living in the country, many in California. The financial meltdown that rocked South Korea and much of Asia in the late 1990s was the catalyst for a large number of them choosing to immigrate, along with their children. Education was another.
“A lot of us take education seriously,” insists Kim. “Earning a degree is a way to get a start in society. It’s a source of security and a personal achievement,” she adds.
But according to a recent study done by Roberto Gonzales with the University of Chicago, of the 150 undocumented Hispanic students he interviewed over the course of four years, only 22 held college degrees, and all of them were employed in low-skilled jobs. Skeptics ask why undocumented students should even bother with a degree, given the difficulties they face in finding employment post-graduation.
“They’re hopeful,” says Kevin Escudero, a Ph.D. student in UC Berkeley’s Ethnic Studies department. Since January, Escudero has been co-directing a research initiative in cooperation with Berkeley’s Center for Race and Gender involving testimonials from self-identified AB 540 students.
“Part of the intent of the program was to bring together undocumented students from different backgrounds,” says Escudero, who notes that Asian and Latino AB 540 students remain more or less separate from one another. “There are some significant differences between the two groups,” he says.
One of these involves access to funding and services. With Governor Brown’s signing last month of AB 130, part of the California Dream Act, undocumented students are now able to access private scholarships to help with education-related expenses. But, says Escudero, many of these and other services for AB 540 students are geared toward Latinos.
A list of scholarships in California that don’t require a social security number, put out by the advocacy group Educators for Fair Consideration, shows several specifically targeting members of the Hispanic population, while others simply require that at least one parent be foreign-born.
Community support is another issue. One AB 540 student, who asked that her name be withheld, came with her family from Korea in 1994 when she was nine-years-old. Now a senior at Cal, she points to the relative dearth of organizations out there that cater to undocumented Koreans.
“I think there is less awareness [about the plight of undocumented immigrants] among Korean Americans than Hispanics,” she says. It’s a point on which both Hong and Kim agree.
“Members of the Korean American community in general tend to concentrate on their own livelihood and well-being, hence the ‘community’ actually does not function as a collective force,” says Kim. “Nevertheless, there are associations that endeavor to provide legal and financial aid, albeit they are not widely publicized.”
The church is one such organization. Escudero says that for undocumented Korean students the church plays a more prominent role as a source of support than it does even for the Hispanic community, which is predominantly Catholic. Hong himself attends a local Korean American church in Berkeley where, he says, he often speaks on the issue of undocumented immigrants.
Hong, who was recently arrested during a protest march in San Bernardino, Calif., is one of a growing number of undocumented immigrants that have come out publicly, the most high profile case being that of Jose Antonio Vargas, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist with the Washington Post.
Such actions help to dispel the shadows, says Hong, allowing himself and others like him to declare not only their status as immigrants, but to press their claim to membership in this society.
“Most of my life I have lived in the U.S.,” writes the Cal senior quoted above. “Regardless of what the government says about my status, I still think of this country as my home.”