Ju Hong, arrested, looked across the table into the eyes of his enemy.
But Hong, undocumented, felt liberated and empowered — even though the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer standing a few feet from him could begin his deportation process with a stroke of the pen.
“I’m undocumented, unafraid, unapologetic,” he said. “I felt like I had nothing to be afraid of anymore.”
When he left the San Bernardino jail before dawn July 13 — just hours after he and fellow activists stopped traffic in a demonstration supporting the California DREAM Act, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law Saturday — an immigration officer told him to check his mail for a letter stating his date in immigration court.
He has not received the letter yet.
An unofficial citizen
Gone are the purple-haired days of the early childhood he spent idolizing boy bands in his native South Korea; in are the casual collared shirts and jeans typified by American billboards. Only the oddly dropped ‘s’ from the end of a verb signals English to be his second language — his syntax is as colloquial as the language heard in Cafe Milano every day.
But nine digits separate Hong, a UC Berkeley senior, from many of his classmates. Nine digits impede his attaining a state-sanctioned job, leaving him to seek low-paying, under-the-table employment and preventing him from strolling Berkeley’s streets without the omnipresent specter of deportation.
Without a social security number, Hong is legally a nobody in the country he considers his home. As an undocumented student, he has faced, and will continue to face, an uphill battle to join his UC Berkeley classmates — some of whom he has known since high school — in the American workforce after graduation.
“I went to public school, spoke English, took AP classes,” he said. “Even though I’m … trying to make some positive change in our state, at the same time I don’t have the right, just because I don’t have that nine digit number.”
Beyond working, his immigration status also bars him from voting, a right of the American citizenship Hong so ardently desires — and a right that over 55 percent of the California voting population did not exercise in the 2010 midterm elections, according to the United States Elections Project.
“I really wanted to participate in the political system within California, but obviously I can’t, even though I’m politically aware,” he said, adding that he defines a citizen as someone who actively engages in a political system and participates in a society.
Despite the obstacles he faces, the tide could be turning in Hong’s favor. With Brown’s signature on AB 131 — the second half of the California DREAM Act which gives undocumented students access to state financial aid — that lack of nine numbers will no longer keep Hong from accessing the financial aid he needs to fund his education.
This gives Hong a new hope to pursue his lower-case dream: law school.
“After I found out my immigration status, I knew how much policy can make a huge impact on one person’s life,” he said.
Though AB 131 grants students like Hong access to state funding to pursue higher education, the issue of post-education employment lingers. Federal restrictions leave few opportunities for undocumented students, regardless of how many degrees they earn.
So the signing of the bill is at once a landmark and a crossroad. The documented, voting citizens of this country must now ask a fundamental question: To what extent are they willing to accept the undocumented student in society?
From the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1982 Plyler v. Doe decision to Saturday’s signing of the act, American society has witnessed an extraordinary evolution of the undocumented student’s place in the local and state community. Across the country, states invest in educating undocumented students through 12th grade, per the court’s ruling. Now California will grant public financial aid for higher education — at the same time, states such as Alabama and South Carolina deny undocumented students entry to public higher education institutions. Only time will tell which of these divergent paths the nation as a whole will ultimately embrace.
For now, Hong will continue to fight to be officially acknowledged in the U.S.
“If I become a citizen, with the education degree I have and the higher education degree I will have … I can contribute back to society with a professional job,” he said. “I could legally use my profession … in a way to pay proper taxes and use my professional skills to help minority groups.”
Jordan Bach-Lombardo is the university news editor.