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Undocumented Asian Students Speak Out

Pacific Citizen, News feature, Todd Kushigemachi, Special to the Pacific Citizen Posted: Jul 30, 2008



Stephanie, 22, has had to take several quarters off of school to earn money for her education at UCLA. She has been a housekeeper, transcribed for writers and even made cardboard boxes.

"If I were to sit down and write a resume, it would be impressive in terms of how lengthy it would be," said Stephanie in an interview with the Pacific Citizen, proudly wearing her UCLA shirt. "Right now is probably the only time when I've had just one job."

Stephanie is an undocumented immigrant, making her ineligible for financial aid and unable to apply for most jobs. For her, the future is uncertain.

Brought to the United States from the Philippines before turning four years old, Stephanie is one of the many undocumented Asian Pacific Islander immigrants who discovered late in life that she has no options for legalizing her status.

Although about 40 percent of undocumented undergraduate students are Asian, according to an annual report by the University of California's Office of the President, the API community is not as open about the immigration issue as the Latino community.

"When you have the Asian students, there is a sense of secrecy and shame." said Stephanie, who asked the Pacific Citizen to only use her first name because of potential risk to her employment.

Stephanie and UCLA graduate Tam Tran have spoken out about their experiences as undocumented college students, seeking to raise awareness of the issue and gather support for legislation that will offer them a pathway to legalization.

A Life-Changing Surprise

Coming up on her 18th birthday, Stephanie pestered her mom to go with her to the DMV to finally get her California ID as an adult.

For the first 18 years of her life, Stephanie had no idea she was in the United States illegally, and she finally found out as she stood at the brink of adulthood.

"It's sort of like being told you were adopted or that you have a secret twin," she said. "You start to question, 'What don't I know about my family?'"

Growing up with her mother reading Us Weekly and her father watching Rush Limbaugh, she only knew about American culture and never learned to speak Tagolog. Stephanie said she has no memories of her life in the Philippines except commercials for Sarsi cola.

"If it weren't for the fact that there was photographic evidence, I would be willing to believe I was born in the U.S.," she said.

Stephanie is unable to apply for a driver's license so she uses public transportation. Because she spends so much time on trains and buses, she appreciates the few opportunities she has to ride in a car.
"When I'm a passenger in a friend's car, it's exciting for me," she said. "It has really made me get excited about weird little things."

Initially uncertain about whether she could attend a public university with her undocumented status, Stephanie eventually discovered Assembly Bill 540, which allows undocumented students to pay instate tuition to attend a public university.

However, Stephanie is ineligible for financial aid. Because she frequently takes time off to help pay for schooling, she estimates it will take seven or eight years to receive her undergraduate degree.

"I feel like I'm in a time warp," she said. "I feel like everyone is growing up so fast because the next thing everybody keeps graduating and everybody keeps moving on."

Uncertain Identity

For 25-year-old Tam Tran, her undocumented status was never a surprise.

"I think it's different talking to someone who's dealing with the issue of finding out they're undocumented and what that means," she said, contrasting her experience with Stephanie's. "I've always known we were dealing with this since I was a little kid."

Tran is of Vietnamese descent, but she was born in Germany and moved to the United States at the age of six. Tran's family cannot be deported because of the threat of persecution in Vietnam and Germany's refusal to grant them passports.

Tran testified in May 2007 before members of the House Judiciary Committee about the complications of her unique situation in support of the federal DREAM Act, a bill that could provide her a path towards citizenship.

"Without the DREAM Act, I have no prospect of overcoming my state of immigration limbo," Tran said in her testimony. "I'll forever be a perpetual foreigner in a country where I've always considered myself an American."

studentsShe also talked about her experiences as an undocumented student a few months later in an October 2007 USA Today article. Later that month at work, Tran received a collect call from her mother.

Her family had been arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

"If they had read the whole case file, they would have known that we can't be deported anywhere and not have wasted their time doing it," Tran said.

With the help of lawyers and Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, chair of the subcommittee before which Tran testified, Tran was able to have her family members freed. It is unclear whether or not there was a connection between the arrest and Tran's testimony or the USA Today article.

Now only having to periodically check in with ICE, Tran is headed towards Brown University in the fall for the American Studies graduate program.


Speaking Up

Tran and Stephanie have both participated in the UCLA group IDEAS (Improving Dreams, Equality, Access and Success). The group is meant to provide a place for undocumented students to share their experiences with each other and other members of the community.

Started in 2003, IDEAS also advocates for legislation such as the DREAM Act, which would provide a pathway to legalized status for college students who came to the U.S. before the age of 16.

"IDEAS has played a very important role in providing direct assistance to undocumented students at UCLA and advocating for the rights of undocumented students," said Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education.

Tran said she took on the unofficial role of the "token Asian" in IDEAS since many members of the API community do not speak out on the issue.

"Because I've spoken out on it so much, it's the only aspect of me people know," Tran said. "It's like, 'There's Tam, the undocumented student.'"

Stephanie worries about the potential risks of speaking out about being undocumented, but she said she is more worried about what would happen if she did not talk about her experiences.

When Stephanie spoke out in a Daily Bruin article about her experiences, she was attacked by conservative Web sites; most of the negative comments were about her not seeking legal status.

Stephanie said people fail to see that she has no path to legalization without legislation like the DREAM Act.

"The Asian community should aggressively speak out in support of the DREAM Act," Wong said. "They should notify members of Congress that this is a tremendous issue that affects both the Asian American community and society at large."

Until Congress passes the necessary legislation, Stephanie can only wait and see.
"Some people pray to God. I pray to Congress," she said.


Immigration issues

Claiming a Public Space -- Undocumented Youth Come Out of the Close

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