Is Obama’s immigration policy shift really a DREAM come true?

Immigrant youth at a rally for immigration reform organized by OneAmerica (Photo by Roxana Norouzi)

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.

OneAmerica

Amy Lee is interviewed by reporters at a OneAmerica press conference after Obama’s big move to stop deporting undocumented youth (Photo by Roxana Norouzi)

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.

Seattle-ites gather at Pioneer Square for a rally in 2010 urging passage of immigration reform and the DREAM act (Photo by Roxana Norouzi)

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. 

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. She's also president of The Seattle Globalist Board of Directors. 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. Roxana's views are her own and don't necessarily represent OneAmerica or the Seattle Globalist.

19 COMMENTS

  1. Roxana,
    you are so lucky that you can help the young people like this. Also they are lucky to have some one like you helping them. Fantastic writing as usual.

  2. wonderful piece of writing, and even better to know you are making a difference in people’s lives! Congratulations! We are proud to know you!

  3. I love your writings, vision and approach. Like Amy/s, I walked over that sandy edge for a long time and deeply know what your work means to them. If you don’t mind, I would like to send this article to the VOA.

  4. Very moving article. I can only hope her hard work and determination will pay off in the end…I cant imagine the average youth has even a clue of the privilege of citizenship in this country. Keep doing what youre doing!

  5. Something tells me you wouldn’t be working so hard for your anti-white hate group if 20 million whites from canada were breaking into this country.

  6. Great story and I’d like to see people like Amy succeed and prosper and contribute to American success. However, as usual, activists such as yourself see only the inherent good in such a bill rather than the overall pragmatic and negative consequences. If every undocumented student were as hard-working, intelligent, and bolstered by a strong family like Amy, there would be no debate here among any party over this act. However, the central issue is most are almost certainly not nearly as good, and this bill essentially opens up federal funding (that American citizens pay for through their taxes, y’know, that only documented workers pay) to people who do not contribute financially to the pot. More so, it enables students who are not as good as documented students to obtain more funding than the documented ones. It may result in reverse inequalities. I am no hater of immigrants – my grandparents on both sides were hardworking ones who came legally and worked the butts off to obtain citizenship. My parents were first generation college scientists who went to Harvard, Oxford, and University of Illinois for Engineering and Science for PhDs. It is important to allow students such as Amy to pursue the same path of opportunity my family forebearers were able to follow, but Obama’s decree does not distinguish between those that work had and deserve it, and those that are simply using undocumented status to gain admittance and funding over better qualified documented. What has made America great is the ability for anyone to work their way up through hard work and dedication, and if you are dealt a tough hand, you work harder than everyone else. It sucks that a student is undocumented, but that is the hand one is dealt, and you deal with it by working harder than anyone else and achieving by merit, not because of a Presidential decree to buy votes.

    • Great article Roxana!

      @tim I love some of your points, they are the same ones that I use as an argument to support the DREAM Act and for seeking comprehensive immigration reform.

      The only thing that I wanted to point out to you (and others) is a common myth that you repeated in your post. That myth is that immigrants don’t pay taxes. The reality is that documented AND undocumented immigrants pay more than their fair share of taxes. These are some stats form a study done last year: http://www.immigrationpolicy.org/just-facts/unauthorized-immigrants-pay-taxes-too.

      It is important to remember that immigrants are paying all these taxes (this study estimates over $11 billion dollars in 2010) and because of their immigration status are not even allowed all the same rights and freedoms that their tax dollars afford their friends and neighbors with US citizenship. These immigrants’ ability to, as you said, ‘work their butts off’ and get ahead in America is very much being hindered by outdated and ineffective immigration laws. Any step in the direction of fixing these laws and continuing to work on a federal and comprehensive solution is the answer. People on both sides of the political aisle agree about that.

  7. Inspired story, thanks for posting. The courage youth like Amy have to share their story is immense – it’s also what will help us achieve more victories like this.

  8. This is an amazing story. Thank you for sharing with us the struggle and victory of such awe inspiring youth as Amy. This country needs young people like her and people like you who help give her opportunities to be empowered.

    Thanks for sharing!

  9. What a beautiful article! Thanks for connecting the national struggle for the rights of all immigrants in our country to such an inspiring personal story.

  10. This is a great article and I like that it shows that undocumented people are from all countries. In response to Tim, undocumented people do contribute to society just as much as legal residents. They pay taxes just like everyone else, only difference is they can’t reap the benefits. I get so tired of people saying that undocumented people are the bane to our society. In my lifetime I have met more US citizens abusing the system than undocumented ones. Sure, criminals may come here too, but don’t generalize about immigrants who are here. A good education is the ticket to a prosperous nation, regardless of what side of the border you are on. Allowing these people to get educated is going to benefit us all and lead to less crime than if you deny them the opportunity. You leave them without a chance at a better life, what else can they do but look for less desirable ways to get ahead in life.

  11. What an inspiring young woman, thank you for telling her story. What country wouldn’t want a bright, dedicated, intelligent young woman as part of its ranks? Amy’s story is just one of millions that proves we need to fix our broken immigration system.

  12. Great story! What guts it must take to stand up and tell your story. Youth with stories similar to Amy must feel inspired. She may just have a future in politics!
    Keep up the good work.

    @Mike, something tells me that you wouldn’t be here if your parents didn’t become immigrants at some point.

  13. Amy is a true inspiration. What a great feeling to know that there are people like you who are willing to go above and beyond to help others. Kudos to Amy for having the strength to tell her story.

  14. Great effort and great article. I am writing to alert readers of one potentially significant risk with Obama’s new program. If a conservative is elected as President of the United States, and she/he repeals this program, the Dept of Homeland Security will then have all of the information needed to locate any youth who applied for employment authorization through this program. Considering this risk, it is a good idea to discuss your options with an immigration attorney. My local favorite: the attorneys at http://www.nwirp.org.

  15. Dear Roxana, your wonderful writing enables me to really feel what you have experienced and allows me to share your commitment. I am looking forward to reading much more from you!

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