Undocumented Asians: Finding a Voice

Jenny Jae-Eun Lee

Jenny Jae-Eun Lee, a member of RAISE (Shengying Zhao/NY City Lens)

“Life is filled with hopelessness, frustration and fear of an uncertain future.”

“I admit that writing down my story-revealing my most vulnerable secret-is not the easiest thing for me to do. I feel vulnerable, exposed and afraid of what might come, as a result.”

These are the words of undocumented Asian immigrants, the voices of two such people who read from their stories at an event at Museum of Chinese in America on January 29—”MOCACITIZEN: Letters from #UndocuAsians.” The performance was aimed at airing issues often hidden. It was followed by a panel discussion on immigration issues, particularly as they apply to the Asian community, which often feels invisible when immigration is discussed.

Both speakers read stories reflecting fears and challenges they and their families face in living without legal immigration status. Both were members of RAISE—The Revolutionizing Asian American Immigrant Stories on the East Coast—a youth-led organization that aims to empower Asian American undocumented students.

First up was Jeffrey Louie. He migrated from Hong Kong with his parents when he was three and has remained undocumented since then. A lean man in his 20’s, everything Louie wore, from black cardigan to delicate metal-colored ring, reflected his taste for fashion. He majored in graphic design, and graduated from City University of New York in 2012. Louie is a participant in Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which allows him to have a Social Security number and work legally for two years.

“Being an immigrant in this country always comes with giving something up,” Louie said. “It’s your personal happiness or your family well being.”

Louie explained a dilemma that he said he has constantly found himself trapped in: having to work at a job he doesn’t like in order to support his family.

Like other waves of immigrants who made the United States their destinations, Louie’s family hope to achieve their American dreams. However, in Louie’s perspective, the happiness that his family came for is still far beyond reach. He can’t help imagine what his life would be if he stayed in Hong Kong. “You are scared of asking your parents if coming to the United States worth it,” Louie said with tears in his eyes. “You are even more scared when hearing them say yes.”

Another RAISE activist, a young woman named Masha, who asked to keep her last name private because of her illegal status, approached the podium to waves of applause from the audience. Nearly all seats were taken by mostly young and middle-age adults. The small classroom was packed with people from different backgrounds, but all with some stake in Asian-American issues.

Masha grew up in Sri Lanka and had to come to the U.S. with her father when she was almost 18. She has suffered from a challenging medical condition since birth, and after a tedious 17-year search, Masha’s father found a Boston hospital that offered an exclusive experimental surgery that might free her from the imbalance that exposes her to a risk of skin cancer. They didn’t expect that this journey of hope would end up as separation from Masha’s mother—for 13 years.

Due to bad legal advice, Masha’s and her father’s visas expired one year later. They chose to stay in the U.S, so Masha could continue her treatment—four years of multiple surgeries. In order to free her mind from the painful process, Masha used her time between surgeries volunteering at a local television station. The experience opened opportunities for Masha and inspired her to become a journalist. She relentlessly volunteered as a reporter and producer, and her works were shared globally. She said she was compensated with stipends because of her excellent performance. However, her dream to become a journalist was stopped short by the invisible rope of undocumented immigration status. Masha had to turn down two job offers at the television station.

“Even though I was advancing in my career as a journalist,” Masha said. “It was hugely painful and devastating to not being able to work and get paid for what I love to do.”

The circumstances compelled Masha to pursue another long-waited dream—college. She is a junior at College of Staten Island, double majoring in media culture and journalism, with a minor in corporate communication. She maintains a 3.8 GPA. Masha is also a reporter for her college newspaper, The Banner, and is trying to participate in student government.

Matt Rosales

Matt Rosales, interim deputy finance officer of Anakbayan New York (Shengying Zhao/ NY City Lens)

She couldn’t benefit from DACA, which has been in place since 2012, because of the age limit on applicants entering the country. DACA provides undocumented youth who were brought to the U.S. before 16 a reprieve from possible deportation and grants work authorization for two years. (DACA doesn’t provide a pathway to citizenship). In November 2014, President Obama expanded the DACA initiative, moving the age cutoff up to 31 years old, advancing the entry year to the U.S. from 2007 to 2010, and extending the work permits from two years to three years. Masha still couldn’t apply because she came to the U.S. after she was 16.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, DACA has benefited more than 580,000 young unauthorized students. The institute estimates that the expansion would provide safe harbor to another 290,000 population, reaching close to 1.5 million undocumented youth in the U.S.

“The reality of being left out is devastating,” Masha said. “I continue to struggle everyday in order to put food on the table and pay tuition fees. It angers me to know that I am exploited to work at my job for $6.50 a hour pay.”

Masha still sees hope amid her difficult life. She is a strong believer that her American college and journalism experience will carry a lot of weigh in launching a career globally, if not in the United States. “I can’t look at life as all doors are closed for me,” Masha said.

The performance was followed by a panel discussion on immigration policies and reform focusing on Asian communities. The panel was moderated by Beatrice Chen, Director of Public Programs & Digital MOCA Coordinator, and it included Mae Lee, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association; Jenny Jae-Eun Lee, core member of RAISE; and Matt Rosales, the interim deputy finance officer of Anakbayan New York.

Lee said one way to increase Asian Americans’ voice in immigration debates is to enhance coalitions among generations of Chinese-American immigrants, including those American-born and the new-coming immigrants. “Those who have long been here have to be vocal too,” Lee said. “It’s not a one-time thing. We need to have ongoing conversation within our community.”

Lee pointed out one misperception that people hold: immigration is still viewed as a Latino issue.” She attributed the misunderstanding to the fact that Asian Americans are a highly fragmented population. The barriers to a cohesive community, Lee said, include multiple languages spoken among Asian Americans; as well as a tendency to view their undocumented immigration status as stigma.

“I found the letter-reading session to be very moving,” said Nila Chatterjee, who attended the event. Chatterjee works at the Asian American Center at Queens College of the City University of New York. Chatterjee said it was essential for this community to “hear about their experiences in their own words, and to have members from the audience share their stories”.