Autumn in Los Angeles. Thoughts across the Southland turned to pigskin as the big UCLA-USC game approached. And on one particular day, some Trojans saw fit to express their allegiance by spray painting genitalia around the UCLA sign.
“It’s childish, but [the rivalry’s] fun,” said Michelle Yoon, a junior at UCLA, during the 30-minute window she had in her day between a meeting with an advisor and work in an infant research lab. She’s wearing a UCLA sweatshirt and whimsical shoes as we sit by the campus’ Inverted Fountain, which had been shut down to discourage other pranksters. It all seems very collegiate and, well, normal.
It’s perhaps this promise of normalcy that made our conversation feel somehow momentous. Yoon is an undocumented immigrant, born to Korean parents in Argentina, and has spent much of her life in fear of deportation. But now, with her application for President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program nearly complete, she’ll have a renewable work permit. For the first time in her life here, she’ll be legal.
Until DACA, Obama’s main effect in immigration had been to deport at a faster rate than any president before him. The left-leaning website Narconews related how Obama’s hand had been forced by targeted civil disobedience against Democratic politicians, including Obama himself, as legal experts campaigned hard on the argument that he had the constitutional authority to grant not only deferred enforcement against undocumented students, but permission to work. Ultimately, Obama delivered the most significant change to immigration law in a generation.
Or so the story goes. The Nation recently profiled Jim Messina, Obama’s 2012 campaign manager who helped mollify health-care industry lobbyists in the run-up to the Affordable Care Act. When asked about his strategy for balancing outreach to insiders like the lobbyists versus outsiders like activists, Messina reportedly replied, “There is no outside strategy.”
According to Obama, though, the most important lesson of his first term was that Washington could only be changed from the outside. There is clearly room for both rhetoric and backroom dealing in politics, but what has interested me more about this issue, as I’ve met with undocumented students, is how many have gone from being incidental activists to passionate advocates. The vast majority are Latino, and have been rightly lauded. But there are Asian Americans among their ranks. South Korea is the nation of origin for the largest group of Asian DACA applicants, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. It’s only 1.6 percent, though one imagines it’d be a bit higher if it included students like the Korean Argentinian Yoon. But it perhaps helps explain why some of the most prominent Asian American undocumented student activists have been Korean.
Yoon is also co-chair of ASPIRE, a student group for undocumented UCLA students that once focused on activism and is now facing more mundane missions of education and outreach to youth eligible for the deferred action program.
But not everyone responds by rising up, so to speak, and, certainly, no one should be forced to assume any mantle. “I get something like, ‘I’m busy, I’m not sure if I’m ready to commit,’ stuff like that,” says Yoon, in regard to other Asian American undocumented students she’s approached. “People are scared, or people are just not sure. I understand that feeling.”
But what Yoon found, after contending with the myriad difficulties and deceptions required to keep her status a secret, was that “it got easier as I got involved. I realized we should put our faces out there.”
It’s hard not to think of Obama’s tearful speech to his staffers post-election in Chicago: “And so when I come here, and I look at all of you, what comes to mind is, is not actually that you guys remind me of myself, it’s the fact that you are so much better than I was. In so many ways … You’re just starting. Whatever good we do over the next four years will pale in comparison to what you guys end up accomplishing for years and years to come.”
It’s the power of a president who can inspire, if I may indulge in some 2008-style optimism (retro, I know). I try to find the right way to ask for Yoon’s thoughts on this. But for the moment, with hopes for immigration reform high and unsullied by the legislative mudfight soon to come, it somehow seems right that in a half-hour, we talked more about her future than about politics.
This article was published in the December 2012 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today!
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