In December 2008, a girl woke up and found out her parents were not returning home. She’d always known that her family was different but it was never a big deal. What had started as a two-week vacation to a wedding turned into six years living half a world apart, the distance nursed by daily Skype calls made a country away. Our girl, who wishes to be called Miss Anonymous, is a student, a granddaughter, and an activist. She is also one of many undocumented Asian and Pacific Islander immigrants who live and strive for the American Dream in the United States of America.
After Miss Anonymous’ parents went to Fiji, her country of birth, her family found out Miss Anonymous’ mother had overstayed her VISA and was no longer allowed entry to come back to the United States. Miss Anonymous’ parents stayed a year in Fiji, then moved to Canada to be closer to their children, a total of six years away from the United States.
Miss Anonymous’ grandmother, an undocumented immigrant, fills the role left behind by her parents. Miss Anonymous’ grandmother works a 12-to-24-hour shift with little pay and no social security benefits waiting. Her wages keep the family together. Miss Anonymous’ grandmother took a job a caregiver, ushering elderly patients, some who are as old as she. Occasionally Miss Anonymous’ grandmother will be gone an entire week just to make ends meet for the family. As undocumented youth, Miss Anonymous and her brothers had even fewer options prior to recent immigration reform efforts.
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which provides exemption from deportation, is a two-year renewable permit geared toward undocumented youth like Miss Anonymous and her younger brothers. DACA is a federal program, initiated by the Obama administration in June 2012. By enrolling in the DACA program, doors are opened for applicants to tap into certain financial aid programs to pursue higher education, get a social security number, a driver’s license, find employment, and protection from deportation. Before DACA there was the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors), an act that was first introduced in August 2001 and has failed to pass. The DREAM Act was supported by many young undocumented adults and allies who went by the name, “Dreamers.” While the DREAM Act had been fought for over the span of ten arduous years, with many of the Dreamers reaching the age of 35, the momentum gave way to create DACA and assist undocumented youth, such as Miss Anonymous, who arrived at the country before their 16th birthday.
“First there is the emotional weight of being separated from our parents,” Miss Anonymous said. “Next, is the financial burden put on my grandmother to keep the household together. Last, is the fear of being deported at any given moment.”
For Miss Anonymous, the daily grip of being undocumented still has its hold as her brothers are still saving up money to pay for their DACA application fee. Her parents are still in Canada, a country that is close, but never close enough. Her grandmother is still working, paying her taxes as she always has for the last 20 years she has been in the country, but she will not have the opportunity for deportation relief, a social security number, or a work permit like Miss Anonymous and her siblings.
One major challenge for undocumented Asians and Pacific Islanders is the lack of recognition and services to the community, said Marissa Vichayapai, Fearless Asians for Immigration Reform (FAIR!) Campaign Director and Asian and Pacific Islander DACA Coordinator of 21 Progress. The FAIR! campaign was developed to address the lack of eligible APIs applying for the DACA program. With the campaign’s recent launch, outreach to the undocumented API community is well underway but there are still many barriers that need to be overcome, Vichayapai said.
“The API community is so diverse and each ethnic group has its unique challenges,” Vichayapai said. “So the success of the campaign weighs on our ability to learn and quickly adapt our messaging and strategy to fit each in the most culturally appropriate way.”
Vichayapai also described how the struggle for certain Pacific Islanders distinguishes itself. There is a fiercely larger uphill battle for the undocumented Pacific Islander community due to their comparatively lower social capital, higher rates of poverty, and the general misperceptions about the prevalence of this issue. Vichayapai said that while Pacific Islanders are often included in the undocumented API discussion, they are not commonly identified as one of the ethnic groups in need and therefore outreach efforts are usually directed elsewhere.
In contrast, one ethnic group that has received much attention, for example, are Chinese immigrants. Vichayapai goes on to state, the undocumented Chinese community is one of the largest and fastest growing. In Washington State, undocumented Chinese immigrants rank third, making up 18 percent of undocumented APIs. However, Chinese immigrants also have one of the lowest DACA application rates. But even with focused outreach, and receptive human service providers, there are still unique challenges. Generally speaking, there is a certain level of distrust in government systems. However, this distrust seems to be even higher in the undocumented Chinese immigrant community, Vichayapai said.
Although each level of identity for undocumented API’s carries its own intricacies and challenges, expressing the need for resources to support undocumented APIs can commonly be met with false perceptions such as the model minority myth, the stereotype that all members of Asian ethnic groups have above average socioeconomic success and require no government assistance.
For Ellen, a DACA recipient who asked to be identified by only her first name, the image of the model minority student is a false perception of her true identity. A Fortune 500 company intern, Rainier Scholar, and university student studying science and political science, Ellen is well on her way to a bright future. On first glance, it might be so easy to assume her journey was effortless. But when Ellen graduated from high school, she was not accepted to any of the fourteen colleges she applied for. Ellen was ineligible for any financial aid or a significant percentage of private scholarships, and had to apply as an international student in her own country. Although Ellen saw the United States as her home, the lack of papers saw her as undocumented.
Ellen stayed in bed for three days the morning she found out she had been waitlisted early on in the notification period from one of the colleges she applied to.
“I thought that if I could find even one college willing to invest in me, it would prove that I have value and could perhaps one day justify staying in this country,” Ellen said. “But on the day I received my first letter [from the college that waitlisted her], I had realized that all of the effort I had put into making myself a competitive candidate for college had all turned out to be meaningless.”
Unlike Miss Anonymous, Ellen was unaware of her undocumented status as a Chinese immigrant until she reached elementary school. Ellen described how she eventually found out. Ellen’s school was hosting a program with fun prizes for those who attended. All Ellen needed was a quick form for her parents to sign. A young Ellen arrived eager to school the next day, form in hand, showing it to a parent volunteer of the school’s program. The parent volunteer, who happened to be the mother of one of Ellen’s friends, looked at the blank space for the social security number or alien registration number and gently asked Ellen if she had one of those numbers. Ellen recalled her mother’s words from the night before, that she didn’t need one of those numbers. Ellen shook her head at the parent. That was the first time Ellen realized, she was not like her classmates.
“I think at the time it wasn’t immediately obvious to me that I was an undocumented immigrant, but I was old enough to tell that I was different and very likely doing something wrong by just being here,” Ellen said.
For both Ellen and Miss Anonymous, telling the story of their struggles as an undocumented immigrant has been a first step in achieving their American Dreams.
“I had never thought about coming out to other people about my status, not even to friends that I have had for a decade now,” Ellen said. “But I hope that through the organization [FAIR!] I would be able to offer help and support to other people in the same situation and perhaps be more open about myself along the way.”
Both Ellen and Miss Anonymous shared their stories with Vichayapai who they met through FAIR!’s outreach efforts. FAIR! is the only campaign providing outreach and services to undocumented APIs in Washington State. Through FAIR!’s resources and partnerships, DACA eligible APIs receive access to free DACA screenings, immigration attorneys, financial assistance, DACA-related resources, and a personal advocate.
With few options and resources, scams targeting undocumented APIs became increasingly prevalent. Vichayapai recalls stories of APIs being charged up to $600 dollars for DACA application forms that are free to download on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ website.
“There is a lot of work that needs to be done, trust that needs earning, and damage that needs repairing. For too long, the undocumented API community has been overlooked and underserved. Undocumented APIs need to know they are not alone. The journey to relief is a long and tiring one. I’m here to make sure that for those who are eligible for relief, people don’t lose steam or hope in the final hours,” says Vichayapai.
In doing this effectively, the FAIR! campaign has to stay vigilant. Vichayapai said: “We are continuously reassessing needs within each ethnic group and modifying our efforts to meet each community where they are at.” One such effort taken was the launch of the It Should Be FAIR! DACA Application Scholarship program, which helps APIs meet the $465 dollars needed to submit their DACA application.
Today, Miss Anonymous’ undocumented brothers are among the first APIs who will benefit from the campaign’s efforts. “I’ve been working with the brothers for over a month now,” Vichayapai said. “There have been many people invested in seeing that they successfully enroll in the DACA program and we’re excited to say that their applications will be in the mail before the end of July.”
The FAIR! campaign is sponsored by 21 Progress, the creator of the Build Your Dream program, the only interest-free, fee-free micro-loan program for undocumented immigrants in the nation. DACA eligible applicants in Washington State who qualify for a loan receive the $465 dollars needed to submit their DACA application. The FAIR! campaign was proposed after noticing a distinct lack of APIs applying for the loan and for DACA.
“In Washington State, 26 percent of the undocumented community are originally from an API country,” Vichayapai said. “It’s really striking to me as to why the community is so underserved and under acknowledged.”
Miss Anonymous said she is frustrated by media representations of undocumented immigrants, which strips them of their unique, and individual journey.
“It’s not fair for those people to generalize us into one big group,” Miss Anonymous said. “Yes, we share similar challenges, but how we got to where we are today is different. Details are not the same in any two stories.”
Miss Anonymous said she is hopeful for this upcoming September when she will hear the decision about DAPA (Deferred Action for Parent Accountability). DAPA grants deferred action status to undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States since 2010 and have children who are American citizens or lawful permanent residents. Deferred action is not full legal status, but in this case would come with a three-year, renewable work permit and exemption from deportation.
Through 21 Progress’s Fearless Asians for Immigration Reform campaign (FAIR!), Miss Anonymous said she has been empowered with knowledge about undocumented APIs and immigration policies for DACA and DAPA. She said she imagines a future where people see undocumented immigrants as not so different from themselves.
Miss Anonymous has some advice for undocumented youth: “Remember that you do deserve to be here and that each and every one of us has something very special to contribute to this great country we call home.”
To find out more about 21Progress, Build Your Dream, or FAIR!, visit 21Progress.org.
Editor’s note: After this story was written, Miss Anonymous decided to share her story under her real name, Amy Kele.