Korean DACA recipient saw life uprooted in move to Canada

DACA recipients and supporters in Los Angeles on Dec. 6, 2017, call for congressional action that would allow “Dreamers” to stay in the United States legally. Some activists went on a three-day hunger strike, as others lobbied their Congress members. Kyodo News photo
==Kyodo

LOS ANGELES — “Nobody wants to take care of DACA more than myself and the Republican Party,” President Donald Trump said Jan. 26 in a CNBC interview, referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

In September, urging Congress to replace DACA, Trump announced he was ending the program that protects so-called “Dreamer” children from deportation who had entered the United States more than a decade ago but ended overstaying.

But for a former South Korean Dreamer, these words from the president ring hollow, as the Trump administration set a March 5 end date for DACA protections, with no Congressional solutions for pathways to citizenship in sight.

“For (Trump), it’s something on paper. But for (Dreamers), he’s ruining lives,” said Daniel, a 27-year-old consultant who gave up his DACA status to immigrate to Canada. He asked that his real name not be revealed to protect his identity while he works with lawyers on legal immigration back to the United States.

Daniel was 10 when he and his family moved from South Korea to the United States and considers the latter his home. He is one of approximately 7,800 DACA recipients from South Korea, a country that by far leads other Asian countries in DACA numbers. In total, there are 800,000 Dreamers, a majority of whom were born in Mexico.

When Daniel and his family came to the United States in 2000, his father was promised a job in Maryland as well as green cards granting them permanent residency.

In a sequence of events that is not uncommon among immigrants, the company’s promises went unfulfilled, he said, and Daniel’s parents found themselves fighting in court to stay in the country legally — a battle that they finally abandoned over a decade later.

“It wasn’t that we came here illegally in the beginning,” said Daniel. “We got screwed over with the horrible sponsor and the horrible people that we had dealt with. It was a consequence of bad relationships, not that we had committed crimes.”

Then, on Daniel’s birthday in June 2012, just as he was about to graduate from college, President Barack Obama introduced DACA, paving a way for Daniel to stay in the United States and work.

“DACA was a huge game-changer in my life. It was literally one of the best things that could’ve happened,” he said. “I didn’t want to go back.” His parents had returned to South Korea the previous year to settle down before he was due to join them.

With DACA, Daniel was able to go to graduate school and get a well-paying job in California while renewing his status every two years. He was living what he described as a Korean’s American Dream.

He thought he would be able to renew his status indefinitely, so long as he gave the government his personal information and didn’t acquire a criminal record, but that dream ended when Trump was elected as president.

“All of my friends, all of my life was in the U.S. … I was prepared to say, ‘I don’t ever want to leave the U.S.’,” said Daniel. “But when Trump got in the picture, that wasn’t conceivable anymore because he said he would get rid of DACA.”

On election day in 2016, Daniel was one of many people who researched how to legally immigrate to Canada, causing the government’s Website to crash. Though he didn’t seriously consider moving, he applied for a visa, unsure of what would become of his legal status once Trump was in office.

Daniel started looking into his options, all of which were hindered by a fact that had been looming over him since he’d turned 18: He had been postponing his required military service in Korea by going into undergraduate and graduate programs.

He could take his chances on the president and stay in the United States but would have to apply for a doctorate program to further push back his military service.

Or he could join his parents in South Korea and serve in the military of a country he hadn’t been to in 17 years. The final option was to leave the United States, which prevents him from re-entering, due to DACA restrictions, and start a new life as a legal resident elsewhere.

None of the options were appealing to Daniel, but with the uncertainty over what the new administration would do, he knew he couldn’t stay.

“I lived more than half of my life in the United States,” he said. “But I had to leave everything behind.”

Last summer, exactly a month before Trump announced he would be rescinding DACA, Daniel immigrated to Canada. In the span of two weeks, he sold off all of his belongings at a loss, including the high-end rice cooker and mattress that he’d carefully selected, and moved to Toronto.

“If I had actually stayed there and overstayed my military draft, and Trump had canceled DACA, I would have been devastated,” he said. “Because of the situations I was stuck between, I didn’t have much of a choice, but thankfully this choice was a good one, in the end.”

As a legal resident of Canada, Daniel is exempt from military service until he returns to Korea, where he retains his citizenship.

Because he had been in the United States illegally between 2011 and 2012 — after his parents halted their legal battle for green cards and before he was able to apply for DACA —Daniel believes that he cannot return to the country for more than 10 years. But he is still worried about the fate of the rest of the Dreamers.

“Maybe he’ll actually pull through and do something nice,” Daniel said of Trump, who on Nov. 25 announced he would be willing to give 1.8 million young immigrants a pathway to citizenship in exchange for an increased budget for the U.S.-Mexico border wall. The president also called DACA recipients “good people.”

The figure is more than the estimated number who receive DACA but fewer than those brought to the United States as children who are currently residing there illegally.

The government is currently processing renewals but not accepting new applications. Due to two federal judges’ recent rulings against the federal government, there is no concrete end date in sight until the U.S. Supreme Court issues a ruling.

“Hopefully there will be a solution that’ll be feasible for everyone,” Daniel said.

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