Tony Choi’s Story
It’s difficult to pinpoint that certain moment that gave a spark for social justice. At the heart, there were always instances that changed my life, but all of those experiences connect back to that one time. I first stepped off the plane on a warm January morning in Honolulu to start my undocumented life in the United States in 1998. My mother was in a foul mood leaving Seoul, her home since 1956. For my sister and me, it was our first time on an airplane. The flight attendants were ticked at me because I kept on pushing the emergency call button to receive those delicious Korean Air peanut packets. Closing my eyes, I had dreamed of this “America” that I would grow up in. Maybe it was the Korean American mentality already brewing in me, but I envisioned of my family owning a small business in a mountain village on that flight. The last thing on the flight that I remember was seeing my mother filling out our W-2 forms and declaring ourselves as visitors for pleasure to America. I did not know that my vacation would continue onto the next two decades. The repercussion of being undocumented for the next half of my life would be like, yet that would determine my identity and the direction that my life would be headed.
Knowing that my family was undocumented, I learned and assumed the fear of immigration agents knocking down our doors. I learned how to live in the shadows of the sunny Aloha State. From early on, I was coached by my parents to not provide a social security number when I was not obligated. I was coached very well by my parents to never to disclose our immigration statuses, and I was even to keep my mother’s occupation as a waitress a secret from anyone in school. But deep inside, I knew that living in the shadows was no way to live. I still vividly remember an argument that I had with my sister in fifth grade shortly after moving to suburban New Jersey. I had told Mrs. Bufano, my homeroom teacher that I fell asleep in my classes because I would wait for my mother until her shift ended at 12. Although it was mostly one-sided because my sister was five years older than me, I remember retorting, “I am not ashamed to tell people that my mom works as a waitress until 12 because she works incredibly hard to support us.” As many people with siblings would know, this was neither the first argument nor the last argument I had with my sister, but it was the first time that I had convinced someone about having pride in their own identities.
Forging ahead several years to college life in Kentucky, I had somehow bought into the argument that I was an illegal immigrant who was a burden upon this society. On top of that, I was separated from an immigrant society that had long sheltered me. Living with that guilt and constant fear, I had reoccurring nightmares of ICE agents knocking down my dorm room and being placed in deportation hearings. The paranoia was affecting my schoolwork and all my relationships. I was afraid to stand up to people making prejudiced remarks. Around that time, my school started going through changes as the financial crisis had affected it heavily and started looking for places they could cut corners. My mother was also diagnosed with stage II breast cancer around that time, so the very little stipend that I received from my school was a vital part of my life. With the stipend cut heavily, the fear turned into anger against the injustice being done to me and my family. I raised several questions. Why should it be my stipend that gets cut first? Why should my mother not get the benefits that she had been paying into the system since we came to America? Why should my sister drop out of college 4 credits shy of graduation to support my mother? But most importantly, I asked myself this: What can I do? When I confided this to my academic advisor, he connected me to an organizer, Erin Howard, in Lexington who worked with immigrant youth. Through my conversations with my advisor, my labor supervisor, and Erin, I learned that I was not alone in this. Being involved in organizing immigrant youth and mobilizing allies, I found it to be incredibly self-empowering. With that empowerment, I carved a space for myself as an organizer on a national level.
Though this narrative makes it sound as if I am completely over my struggles and challenges, the fight still goes on. Whether it is overcoming my personal challenges or finding legalization for two million DREAM Act-eligible youth across the nation, I still struggle to find the answers. When I disclose my status to people who I think would be allies, a common question comes up: “Would you have come to America even if you knew that you would be undocumented?” Though challenging, I would say yes. It is through my struggles that I learned to develop a deeper heart for those in need. It is through my challenges that I learned the systematic injustices in our society. I used to desire the dream that I had in the airplane from Hawaii of owning a small store in a mountain village and living a quiet life, but now, I do not want to live a quiet life. I want to live a life of significance where I do more good to the world than bad and to challenge others to do the same.
*Tony is a DREAM Activist, and currently working as an Immigrant Rights Intern at the Korean Resource Center in Los Angeles. He will be on his last semester at Berea College in Kentucky.
The DREAM Act (acronym for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) would provide a path towards permanent residency to certain undocumented immigrant students of “good moral character” who graduate from US high schools, arrived in the US as minors, and lived in the country continuously for at least five years prior to the bill’s enactment.