March 30, 2017 10:00 am JST

Dreamers: The realities of life as an undocumented immigrant

Taken to the US as children, many know nothing other than life in America

The American dream is fading for Jan. The young Filipino's journey to a better life started at the age of seven. To escape civil unrest and a complicated family situation on his home island of Mindanao, Jan moved to Manila with his mother -- a single parent -- where she ran a mobile food stall from morning to night to put Jan through private school.

Sensing the strain on his mother and her deteriorating health, Jan, at the age of 13, decided to move to America, where a free public school education would lessen his mother's burden.

"I was too naive; I didn't think about other consequences at that point," Jan said. "I was still a kid, no matter how mature I was molded as a single child in a single parent family."

Jan left for the U.S. in 2012 on a tourist visa and moved in with relatives in Flushing, New York, a neighborhood that has one of the largest concentrations of Asian immigrants in the nation.

Jan started attending high school there as a freshman. Months after his arrival, Jan's mother joined him and worked as a housekeeper and caretaker for the elderly. Although he initially spoke little English, he studied hard, made good friends and by his senior year became a member of the honor society.

Jan's life turned around the time of his graduation. He was accepted at some good universities, but had no money to enroll. And being an undocumented immigrant, the doors were mostly closed for financial aid or scholarships. He eventually gave up. "There was anxiety about your peers moving forward without you," Jan said, reflecting on the difficult decision.

Another blow came when Jan applied for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program started in 2012 that granted deferred action from deportation and work permits to undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as minors. But he did not meet one of the key requirements: being in the U.S. before 2007.

Jan currently attends a community college. To pay tuition and earn a living for himself and his mother, he works under the table as a social media manager at a doctor's office. Despite his cloudy situation, Jan is hopeful -- and determined. "I'm going to college even if it's part-time -- one step at a time."

'What do I do now?'

Phillip was 10 years old when he came to the U.S. His parents, recognizing the opportunities of America's free public education system, brought him from their native China to New York. Now 25, Phillip has been living in the country without legal documentation ever since.

His undocumented status didn't really hit home until high school, when he was unable to apply for a driver's license like his classmates.

"The term 'illegal immigrant' struck me hard -- that really changed me," Phillip reflected. "I started having fears about deportation and stuff like that, so I avoided socializing with friends," he said. "After high school, I just stayed home and played games to escape reality."

Later, Phillip heard of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, created in 2012. Under the policy, undocumented young people who came to the U.S. as children before reaching their 16th birthday, and have continuously resided in the U.S. since June 15, 2007, are protected from deportation for two years and allowed to work. Phillip met DACA's requirements but lacked proof of his presence in the U.S. for a two-year period after high school, time he had spent hiding at home. He was turned down in early 2015.

"When I got the letter of denial, I was just really upset. Even though I knew my chances were low, I had this slight hope that I would get that approval," he said. "I was just sitting there, thinking, 'What am I supposed to do now?'"

Before long, however, he decided to start looking for work. "That kind of made me realize I shouldn't be hiding, take myself back to who I was before knowing what my status was." Phillip works odd jobs, including making deliveries for a truck company. With that money, plus support from family, he recently started going to a community college in New York, studying graphic design.

"I certainly don't see a bright future. It's still kind of dark for me. I don't see a light at the end of the tunnel right now," Phillip said. "But I'm trying to make a difference."

Fear and anger

Angie Kim came to the U.S. with her family at age 9 from South Korea. Following a number of failed attempts to adjust her immigration status, she was left as the only member of her family without legal documentation. Angie is one of a sprawling community of Dreamers -- the name commonly given to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. For many like Angie, life in the U.S. is all they know. Many are more familiar with American culture and English than the cultures and languages of their countries of birth.

Now 32, Angie is a beneficiary of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which grants her legal permission to work in the U.S. Though she considers herself fortunate to have received DACA approval, Angie is no stranger to rejection. An early attempt to gain documentation fell through when her grandmother, a U.S. citizen, passed away just two weeks before the final interview. The second blow came when an age cap prevented her father from passing on the benefits of his second marriage to a U.S. citizen. Documentation instead went to Angie's younger brother. "I was devastated," she said.

Angie now looks back at her undocumented status as "a blessing in disguise," or rather, "a blessing and a curse," she said, correcting herself. "I was able to meet amazing people and do amazing things, but at the same time I've had some hardships making ends meet."

As a DACA recipient, Angie was asked to accompany New York Rep. Grace Meng to President Trump's address to Congress, in a stand against his immigration policies. Prior to the election, she was able to meet and share her story with then-President Obama. Now, as a community organizing fellow from the MinKwon Center for Community Action, she works to promote the rights of Asian immigrants. "What amazes me is how these policies from [Trump] are able to evoke so much fear," Angie said. "My anger comes from what it's doing to their lives."

-- Hiroyuki Nishimura and Ariana King

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