In the United States, immigration is an issue that is not often associated with the Asian and Pacific Islander (API) community, and few people realize the ways that an unjust and broken immigration system affects APIs. Members of the undocumented API community can be deported at any time, and face barriers accessing basic rights, such as health care. Undocumented APIs also face exploitative labor practices, and struggle to meet the financial demands of higher education. Twenty-six percent of undocumented immigrants in Washington State identify as API, but undocumented APIs are far less visible.
In an effort to bring visibility to the undocumented API community, students from University of Washington’s Leadership Without Borders Center and the Asian Student Commission, and community leaders from 21 Progress, hosted a gathering on May 12, 2016 for an event highlighting the stories of undocumented immigrants. The event, Undocumented Stories of Asian and Pacific Islanders, featured Ju Hong, a nationally recognized immigration rights activist. Hong has been involved in immigration rights activism nation-wide, and has been arrested for acts of civil disobedience. He gained national attention in 2013 for protesting deportations during a speech by President Barack Obama.
During the event, Hong called for more safe spaces that allow undocumented APIs to come together in solidarity to share their stories. These spaces can allow undocumented APIs to connect with community organizations, grow their leadership skills, and become advocates for change. Local community organizations that provide support and resources to undocumented APIs include 21 Progress, one of the hosts of the event. 21 Progress has a variety of programs that focus on social justice and economic welfare. One of their programs, Fearless Asians for Immigration Reform (FAIR!) was created to address the specific needs of the undocumented API community. Marissa Vichayapai, FAIR! Organizing Director, presented insights about the community and provided opportunities for resources and allyship.
For Hong, immigration rights is a personal as well as political issue. Hong came to America when he was 11 with his mother and older sister on a tourist visa that they overstayed. Hong learned that his family lacked legal status when he found out it would be difficult for him to apply for college as a result of being undocumented. Hong was able to attend Laney College in Oakland, California, thanks to a California law granting undocumented students in-state tuition. After two years at Laney, he transferred to UC Berkeley and graduated with a degree in political science. To fund his education Hong worked odd jobs and got financial aid from community organizations with scholarship programs for undocumented students.
At the event, Hong presented a movie, Halmoni, that reflects his experiences as an undocumented immigrant. Halmoni is about Hong’s first trip to Korea in over 13 years to visit his ailing grandmother. In the film, it is evident how much Hong continues to struggle with the separation from his grandmother and family in Korea as a result of his immigration status in America.
At the end of the night, Hong reflected on his experience as both an immigrants rights activist and an undocumented immigrant to provide advice to up-and-coming advocates for the undocumented API community, Hong emphasized the importance of community building and organizing around issues of immigration rights. If you want to create positive change in the undocumented API community, Hong said, you can begin by starting conversations within the community, and listening to the wants and needs of undocumented APIs. Finally, he said, if you can, vote. Voting is one of the most important ways that change is enacted.
To learn more about the FAIR! Campaign, find resources for undocumented APIs, connect with trustworthy professionals, and learn how you can support the hardworking undocumented Asians and Pacific Islander community visit www.itshouldbefair.com or email [email protected].