In the Periphery of the Spotlight
I was never meant to find out that I was undocumented. I stumbled upon my status during my first year at Tufts, after speaking to a staff member at the International Center. My visa paperwork had been processing for over six months, and despite the usual lag that comes with bureaucracy, this was abnormal. With no feedback from the immigration office, all we could do was speculate about why my visa change had been so delayed. Perhaps the system was acting up. Maybe there was an influx of priority applicants. However, in the winter of that year, I was called in to the I-Center because someone had withdrawn my visa application. I didn’t approve any papers to be withdrawn, so who had? I called my Appa to see if he knew any more information.
To say that my parents are the strongest people I know is an understatement. They left their family and lives behind to gamble for a chance at a fresh start. In Korea, Appa owned an optometry business and Umma worked at a publishing company. When we immigrated, they didn’t hesitate to pick up new trades; from being janitors to laundromat workers, I witnessed my parents break their backs to pay the rent. I grew up with an implicit understanding that their 50-hour work weeks amounted to new school supplies and not having to opt out of school field trips. For this reason, I saw my parents as larger than life. But on this particular afternoon, any sense of courage and gumption they had when we embarked a plane in Seoul to Virginia was nowhere to be found. They told me that day that my family had been scammed by lawyers when I was nine years old. I came to America when I was eight. Ever since, we had been undocumented.
I remember this conversation as a mere physical experience. Hearing that my family had no papers, that we were “bul-bup”, meaning illegal in Korean, had no immediate impact on me. At the time, I knew that I wasn’t allowed to travel outside the country. I had already known that I could not work because of the limitations of my visa. This new status felt no more restricting than being an international student at Tufts. In fact, it took six months for the impact of what it means to be an undocumented person in America to sink in. I don’t remember what the impetus was for the sheer fear of uncertainty to finally and suddenly hit me. I do remember feeling the gravity of my situation—I have never cried empty tears until that day during the summer after my first year.
In that moment, the resentment I held towards Umma and Appa for withholding the truth from me disappeared. In retrospect, I would do the same. How could I tell my child that the federal government had cut off their wings? How could I tell them, “You can be anything you want to be,” if their dreams were pushing impossible legal boundaries?
Because my family is low-income and my parents are aging, I began to put pressure on myself to succeed. In theory, I knew a Tufts degree should help me become financially stable and support my parents. I certainly didn’t want Umma and Appa to work seven days a week going into their sixties. However, given the laundry list of everyday things I cannot do as an undocumented person—namely working, driving, and traveling—I felt like my ability to imagine a future for Umma and Appa had been confiscated. Even more so, I felt that I was not allowed to have a future.
Despite the weight of these realizations, I immediately chose to break the silence that is expected of undocumented immigrants. Shouting the validity of my existence and being in the presence of an undocumented community at Tufts empowered me. However, I cannot deny the inevitable safety in choosing this identity to be less visible. Especially with my political thoughts, I am wary of what I say and who I say it to, because I know that my citizenship status can be leveraged against me. This is a reality that undocumented students face, especially on other campuses where the student body is not as like-minded as we are at Tufts. Revealing our status can mean that an anonymous tip can be filed against us. If we choose to share our narratives, we put our physical well-being on the line. No one should have to make a choice between visibility and safety.
I especially felt the censorship that came with my legal status as a Tufts Community Union Senator during the resolution to “End Investments in the Israeli Occupation” last May. Over 100 students were packed into the meeting room in Sophia-Gordon Hall. The turnout itself underscored the personal significance of this resolution to many students on campus. Given the contentious, high-profile topic of the resolution, the tension in the room was undeniable. At this particular meeting, no video recordings were allowed for the safety of everyone in the room. Yet, when one student was caught secretly recording the debate, I feared deportation for the first time in my life. What if I was caught on tape and my name was found in the Tufts directory? What if a background check was run so my name could be added to a database? A simple background check would reveal everything needed to put the pieces together. For the rest of the meeting, I vetted my opinions carefully. Offending someone could mean waking up to a deportation proceeding letter.
Being an Asian undocumented person at an elite private White institution means I live between clashing identities, ideas, and places. When my mental health hit its lowest point, I sought out communities and spaces that uplift immigrant narratives. What I found is that Asian immigrants are at the periphery of the undocumented movements. This is not the fault of the undocumented Latinx people actively fighting for our rights; the media and politicians have shaped perceptions of our community so that the public largely views us as Latinx. The intentional exclusion of other racial identities by White institutional structures lessens our collective power to organize as a community. Further, the invisibilization of Asian, African, European, and Arab undocumented immigrants allows us to stay complicit in stereotypes being perpetuated (as in, “Bad hombre” and “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best”). Though the entire undocumented community is equally implicated by policy reforms and increased Immigration and Customs Enforcement surveillance, non-Latinx people can more easily choose to remain silent or disengage. We don’t face the added danger of visibly being perceived as undocumented.
By stratifying the levels of privilege that people within the undocumented community can experience, the US immigration system makes a continuous effort to pit parts of our community against one another. Even programs such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals that transformed 800,000 lives of young undocumented people reinforce a notion that not all undocumented immigrants are worthy enough to receive benefits. To qualify for DACA, you must have arrived in the US before you were 16. You must be in school or have a high school diploma. You must have no criminal record. Ironically, this sense of blamelessness that the applicant must display drives a wedge between younger undocumented people and those in their parent’s generation. The policymakers’ focus on the younger demographic implies that the older undocumented folks did, in fact, commit a crime by “illegally” coming to this country. DACA reinforces a system that sifts only the most palatable narratives of the undocumented community to remedy. If you do not show potential of upward mobility, you are not deserving of even a fraction of rights that an American citizen has.
The times I inserted myself into spaces centering immigrants, I often felt like a visitor. I couldn’t discount how unusual it felt to be an Asian-American undocumented person. I wanted to discuss the intersectionalities between undocumented and racial identities but did not want to divert attention from folks who were at the forefront of the activism. The tension between what I perceived the undocumented identity to look like and my own narrative lent itself to a self-consciousness in entering these spaces. Even as an undocumented person, I am still working to unlearn what I have been taught in history classes about immigration and the faces behind it reinforced by the media.
People seeing me as an Asian woman means they usually do not jump to the conclusion that I am an undocumented person. For that reason, I do not bear the brunt of the burden of being actively questioned about my legal status. In those ways, I am privileged. Ironically, I can’t help but to be cognizant of how my racial identity is perceived as depoliticized, but being undocumented holds the complete opposite implication. Calling for a reimagining of what solidarity looks like for all undocumented people—Black, Brown, and White—is a delicate balance that I have not yet found how to navigate.
To those who are not undocumented: speak for us when we choose safety over voice, embrace our existence, and fight with us. I challenge you to push back on the notion that immigration is only a Latinx issue, in our own minds and in our communities. Look for the pockets of communities and the hidden spots within the undocumented immigrant narrative that you can support alongside the dominant movements.
To my undocumented siblings and family: do not feel the need to qualify or justify your presence by proving you are good enough. That you aren’t a criminal, that you go to school, that you are human. We forget how much more we deserve.