When I first saw the email alert, “Obama offers immunity to younger immigrants,” I could hardly believe it was true.
President Obama had signed an executive order that was a modified version of the DREAM Act, vowing to not deport undocumented youth under 30, and giving them the opportunity to temporarily work in the U.S. legally.
The first thing that came to my mind when I heard the news was a young high school student named Amy Lee.
Last month, after a presentation I gave in a Federal Way High School, a teacher pulled me aside.
“I have a student, she is the brightest student in the entire class, has the highest grades, and AP credits towards college,” she explained, “but she’s…..undocumented.”
The way she whispered this word under her breath made me realize she expected me to gasp in disbelief. I explained that I work for the immigrant rights organization OneAmerica where I focus on expanding educational pathways in South King County for immigrant students, some of whom are undocumented, and that I might be able to help her.
I walked into the teacher’s back office to see a girl hanging her head. Amy explained that she had received a $19,000 merit scholarship to Pacific Lutheran University, but she still needed $11,000 more for tuition and had no idea how she will pull it together. As an undocumented student she does not qualify for any type of federal or state aid or loans. Just a few days before, I had learned of a scholarship that was going to be offered in Washington State solely to undocumented students. As I told her this a huge smile appeared on her face.
I left her school with a promise from her that she would not give up and a promise from me that I would do whatever I could to get her enrolled in college in the fall.
She now tells me the day we met she was at one of her lowest points. She was about to give up on college and dreams of a career to be a doctor.
Then she found this glimmer of hope.
Later Amy emailed me her college entry essay. I read her story detailing everything her family had been through to come to the US. During an economic recession in South Korea ten years ago, her parents’ prosperous business went bankrupt. They were left with nothing. They moved into a tiny abandoned house and often struggled just to eat one meal a day.
I spent the next few weeks pulling all the strings I had in my power. I called various scholarship funds, educational access organizations, and even the financial aid office at Pacific Lutheran University.
When the Realize the Dream Scholarship was released, I sent her the information thinking this is the answer. She called me two days later to tell me she doesn’t qualify because she had not been in the state for 2 years; her family only recently came to Washington from California.
On June 14th, the night before Obama’s announcement, as I was leaving work for the day something told me to call Amy. She picked up on the third ring and told me about her high school graduation – how proud she felt about her high academic attainment but how her college plans still hung in limbo.
She was having another particularly hard day and said, “Well even if I do go to school, work hard and get my degree, what next? I can’t work.”
I didn’t know what to say. I felt a bit naïve and embarrassed for always coaching her to not give up and to continue persevering. The privileges I had in my life that allowed me to be anything I want to be and pursue the American dream, were only fantasies to her.
For the first time, what it meant to live as an undocumented person actually hit me.
The next morning, when I heard President Obama’s announcement, I immediately called Amy.
I asked her if she had checked her email or seen the news. Puzzled, she responded that she hadn’t. I told her the news. The line went silent for a few moments and then she screamed, “Are you serious?”
Though I realized to Amy this announcement seemed like somewhat of a miracle, as someone deeply steeped in the immigrant rights movement, I understood the eleven years of effort and activism it took to make this moment a reality. Organizing dozens of rallies and marches; resolving conflicts between pushing comprehensive immigration reform or the DREAM act; mobilizing communities to build awareness; and finally, moving House legislators to pass the DREAM bill in 2010 only to watch it fail in the Senate.
Though I was cautious of Amy presuming this was the answer to all her concerns, clearly it was a step in the right direction.
An hour later, Amy arrived at my office with her mother and a typed speech in hand. I had explained to her that OneAmerica was hosting a press conference about the legislation and without hesitation Amy said, “I’m coming, I want to tell my story.”
I suddenly felt protective of her, knowing that she has been waiting for this moment but also wanting her to be aware of the implications of telling her story. I felt worried for the vulnerability she would feel exposing herself suddenly in the public eye. I was keenly aware of the myths surrounding undocumented immigrants and the negative outpouring that often follows these stories. “Go home, you don’t belongs here. You broke the law, you are a criminal.” She was going to hear it all.
I asked her to think long and hard on the drive over about if she was ready to do this. When she arrived at the office, I realized there was no stopping her. She was determined to tell the world about the life she has been living for the last 10 years.
With the cameras rolling, Amy shared her story for the first time.
She told everyone how she has been forced to live in the shadows. Not only because she is undocumented but also because she is Korean. Not having papers is a hidden issue in the Korean community and one that is shameful.
“When you have depression or a drug addiction there are all these places you can turn to for help,” she said. “Even when my family received threats that we would be deported, I had no one to turn to or get help from because I had to keep this secret and couldn’t trust anyone.” She went on to describe the poverty her family escaped in Korea to be smuggled over the Mexican border when she was just 8 years old. She explained, “It was not the right method but we needed to live.”
After the press conference, every local news station was lined up waiting for a chance to speak with her. KIRO, KOMO, Q13 Fox and KING all wanted a piece of Amy’s story. The media could see the extraordinary plight in her struggles and how she represented the estimated 800,000 youth or ‘Dreamers’ in the U.S. who, thanks to Obama’s move, have renewed hope and options for a meaningful future.
A KOMO news story on the immigration policy shift, with Amy’s interview at 1:30.
Amy did seven different interviews with grace and poise that defied her 18 years of age while connecting with other undocumented youth and activists who had used their struggles to build a movement. Throughout the day, I watched as she transformed from someone who feels ostracized and alone to suddenly having the eyes and ears of so many people, and most importantly, the power to define her own story.
One reporter asked her, “Do you consider yourself American?”
“I am Korean-American. What can I say?” she responded. “I grew up here, it is the only home I know. I am just like any other American kid except that immigration status determines my opportunities in life.”
After the interviews Amy went home with her beaming family and I went back to my desk feeling like it was one of the best days I had in a long time. I felt so proud of Amy and lucky that for some odd reason, our paths had crossed when they did.
As a result of this decision, so many opportunities are now available to Amy. Not only she can continue her life without the fear of deportation but the doors to temporary legal employment have been opened to her.
Still, without a clear pathway to U.S. citizenship, her college plans remain uncertain. She’s $11,000 away from being able to afford that dream.
So we’ll continue working, marching, acting, and sharing her story in hopes that one day all the barriers to the bright future she deserves will be lifted.
Roxana Norouzi has worked with immigrant and refugee populations in the Seattle area for the past 10 years. Currently, she provides strategic guidance around education policy and implementation for OneAmerica, Washington State’s largest immigrant right’s organization. In 2010, Roxana was awarded the University of Washington’s Bonderman Fellowship which allowed her to travel to the Middle East, India, Southeast Asia, East Africa, West Africa and South America.