This post first appeared at Campus Progress.
Ju Hong has big plans.
An undergraduate at University of California-Berkeley, he is deeply involved in activism on campus, was recently elected to student senate, and plans on attending law school.
His only problem: He’s undocumented—one of the estimated 1.9 million undocumented young people in the United States.
Not that his immigration status has slowed him at all. “My personal struggle [with immigration has] made me stronger,” Hong says.
Hong was born in Seoul, South Korea, in 1989. His parents were small business owners and he says his mother and father worked hard, but struggled to provide for their family.
“We faced tremendous financial difficulties,” Hong says. “We were barely surviving. I ate one or two meals a day.”
When Hong was 11, the family flew to the U.S. on tourist visas. Their visas eventually expired, but they did not leave. And Hong had no clue his family had suddenly and quietly become members of the population of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. estimated at 12 million.
During his senior year in high school, Hong was filling out a college application that asked for his social security number. He didn’t know what to write, so he went home and asked his mom what his number was. Her response left him floored: their family had overstayed a tourist visa from South Korea, and they were all undocumented citizens. He didn’t have a social security number.
“I became a totally different person,”he says. “I became totally distant from people. I avoided questions like, ‘what college are you going to?’ ‘Why don’t you have a driver’s license?’ ‘Why don’t you have a job?’ ”
And added to that, he felt pressure from his own community. “There’s a lot of cultural stigma within the Korean community” about being undocumented, he says.
He enrolled at Laney Community College, in Oakland through an affidavit under state law AB540, a bill that was passed in 2001 by former Gov. Gray Davis (D) that allows undocumented students to attend public universities and pay in-state tuition. Hong kept his head down, avoiding discussions of his status—until he heard about undocumented students who came out of the shadows and proclaimed their status to the world, particularly the story of fellow Californian and University of California-Los Angeles student Tam Tran. Tran was killed in a car accident last year.
“Tam Tran’s story stood out because…her situation was quite similar to mine,” Hong says.
“I was inspired—[other undocumented youth] were taking such a great risk,” Hong says. “I realized that there were people out there just like me, who were having a difficult time as undocumented students,” but were out.
Slowly, Hong felt himself returning to his old, outgoing self. He began a blog—anonymous, at first—on being undocumented. Then, in 2009, he took a big step by deciding to come out as undocumented on YouTube.
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The same year, Hong ran for student body president at Laney College and won, becoming the school’s first Asian-American and first undocumented president.
Hong soon decided to transfer to Berkeley and ran for student senate as a part of the CalSERVE Coalition, a progressive slate of senators. There are somewhere between 340 and 630 undocumented students at Berkeley, according to the university president’s office, and Hong says the those students lack real representation in student government.
“A lot of AB540 students feel like they’re alone, like they don’t have any support. I want to show them that they do. My main constituents were undocumented students. They appreciate the fact that I bring their voices to our campus, and to make sure that they continue to have access to higher education.”
In April, Hong found out he won, making him one of a small handful of undocumented students elected to student government around the country. He plans to push for policies that would make the campus more welcoming to students without papers.
After graduation, Hong hopes to become an immigration attorney, to help guide other immigrants through the maddening American immigration maze. And he plans to continue organizing for legislation for undocumented students. His dream of attending law school can’t be fulfilled without the passage of legislation that would legalize his and other undocumented students’ statuses, so he is willing to put his own tenuous immigration status on the line.
“I’m really at a level where I’m ready to take a risk to push the Asian American community to help push the DREAM Act,” he states. “So many people are suffering in our community. I don’t want that to happen in the next generation.”
Micah Uetricht is a staff writer with Campus Progress. You can follow him on Twitter @micahuetricht.