In December 2021, Tayae Rogers ’25 began working towards organising a talk on the undocumented lives of Korean immigrants as the social justice chair of the Korean Student Association on campus. Rogers is half Korean and grew up in an area with a significantly large Korean American population. Yet, until very recently, she was unaware of the extent to which Korean immigrants in America are undocumented and the challenges that exist in their path to citizenship.
“I had not heard of this issue until last year when I was organizing an advocacy internship in an organization that works with the Korean American and Asian American community. Growing up with all that exposure to the Korean population and yet never having heard of the issue and the fact that there are so many of them that go undocumented was really interesting to me,” Rogers said. “Those are big numbers and groups that we don’t talk about. I think that it’s useful to shed light on this issue for other Koreans as well as for the broader community who is interested in immigration and policy.”
The speaker for the talk was Esther Jeon, an organizer, educator and lifelong learner from Jeonju, South Korea and Houston, TX. Jeon is deeply passionate about immigrant justice. She is a 1.75-generation “DACAmented” Korean, who believes in utilizing community organizing as a resource to work towards collective liberation and justice for all. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, refers to a policy that was introduced under the Obama administration that called for deferred action for certain undocumented people who came to the United States as children.
Jeon provided a glimpse into events in Asian American history that led immigrants from these regions to migrate to the United States and cited statistics that are essential to understanding the severity of the problem.
“There are 11 million undocumented immigrants in the States out of which 1.7 million are Asian Americans. Asian Americans are also the fastest growing undocumented population in the United States,” Jeon said.
Jeon discussed how the undocumented status makes it impossible for immigrants to succeed in attaining citizenship. Furthermore, hundreds of thousands of immigrants are deported every year by the United States government, thereby separating and causing irrevocable psychological trauma to several immigrant families and communities across the country which cannot be ignored.
“As an undocumented person, something I hear a lot from people is ‘Why don’t you just do it? Why don’t you get in line for citizenship? Why are you still undocumented? What are you complaining about?’” she said. “What’s important to note here is that there is no line to get into. Once you are undocumented, there is no pathway to citizenship.”
Jeon drew attention towards the distinction between supposedly “good immigrants” and “bad immigrants,” a notion that forms the basis for the DREAM Act. The act was originally introduced in 2001 to grant citizenship to selected undocumented immigrants on the condition that they attend college, join the military and/or fulfill the standards set for them by the United States. The term “dreamer” has been long debated, since it is rooted in the assumption that some immigrants are worthy of American citizenship while others are not.
“This distinction between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ immigrants is extremely tenuous; it changes all the time. At the drop of a hat after the COVID pandemic, Asians became bad again. All it took was for this (pandemic) to happen for Asian American immigrants to face an uptick in the kind of racism and xenophobia they have faced over the last few years,” Jeon said.
Jeon concluded by reinstating the reality that several Koreans face today when they arrive in the States.
Their experiences speak to a need for a pathway to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants regardless of whether or not they are able-bodied, “dreamers”, young people but all 11 million that have been tagged as “illegal” in this nation.
“Being undocumented or ‘illegal’ (as it is often harshly referred to) is not something inherent to any human being. Rather, it is a social, political or economic condition that has been assigned to the individual,” Jeon said. “As Korean and Asian Americans, we have a very unique opportunity to be able to push back against this ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ distinction. We know this distinction is fake and it … serves the United States government’s interests at best.”