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The Right to Stay

An undocu-Korean’s quest to remain and his fight for millions like him.

I wait for Jong-Min You in a small Asian bakery close to the Bay Parkway subway station in Bensonhurst. It’s an early summer evening in May and Bensonhurst is lively and bustling with Chinese-run fresh produce grocery stores and a scattering of Eastern European restaurants. He’s running behind and shows up 20 minutes later in paint-stained jeans and a shirt. He apologizes profusely, explaining that he was helping his mother who has been ill.

This is the first time I’ve met Jong-Min outside of an official press conference or action run by New York City advocacy organizations working for immigrant rights and protections. On the occasions I have seen and spoken with Jong-Min, he’s often dressed to the nines in a suit, speaking at a press conference or action as someone who would qualify for expanded DACA.

Outside of those activist spaces, Jong-Min spends most of his days working at his father’s small grocery store in Bensonhurst, interacting with customers, stocking shelves, and helping with the accounting.

A young Jong-Min growing up in Tennessee.
A young Jong-Min growing up in Tennessee.

Jong-Min You is a 36-year-old undocumented immigrant of Korean descent. He moved to the United States with his parents and his younger brother in December, 1981 when he was nearly 2 years old. His first few years in the U.S. were spent in Nashville, Tennessee, where his parents were attending university. But his parents’ student visas eventually expired, leaving the family undocumented.

Still, Jong-Min’s parents were determined to provide a better life for their children so they remained in the U.S. and eventually moved to New York City in 1988, when his father was given an opportunity to run a grocery store in Bensonhurst, which he eventually came to own. His father and mother have run the same grocery store for 29 years – the primary source of income for their family.

We walk down Bay Parkway to find a quiet place to chat. I ask if we should just go to the grocery store but Jong-Min hesitates, saying his father is there and there are always people popping in and out. We settle on the back room of a McDonald’s a few blocks away. He’s very familiar with the neighborhood; he’s grown up here and has worked and helped out at his parents’ grocery store for over two decades.

Jong-Min found out he was undocumented in 1997, during his third year at Stuyvesant High School, a prestigious New York City school. He had applied to an internship at a hospital because he was interested in becoming a pediatrician. To get the internship at the hospital, he had to provide documentation, including his permanent residency card.

Jong-Min at Stuyvesant High School in New York City.
Jong-Min at Stuyvesant High School in New York City.

When he called his mother to ask where his green card was, she hesitated and just said it was at home. When he went home to search for it but couldn’t find it, he went back to his mother to ask where it was. She finally told him that he didn’t have one and that they did not have legal documentation.

Jong-Min was shocked; never before had he thought about his immigration status and the barriers that not having papers would pose. Upon reaching his senior year in high school, he realized he didn’t qualify for financial aid because he was undocumented. “When you go to Stuyvesant, it’s expected that you will go to Harvard or Yale. But I couldn’t do that because of my status. It was a much bleaker world.”

Despite the financial aid setbacks, Jong-Min decided to get out of New York for college and ended up going to the University of Tennessee, in the same state that his parents had started their American journey. He did not speak about his immigration status to anyone. “You kind of have to lie… it was difficult to keep it to myself but it was necessary,” he said.

Jong-Min during graduation ceremonies at the University of Tennessee in 2003
Jong-Min during graduation ceremonies at the University of Tennessee in 2003

He recalls that the majority of his friends were white students and they would sometimes say anti-immigrant things, but Jong-Min would remain silent. He graduated magna cum laude with honors in sociology and psychology at the University of Tennessee.

Jong-Min admitted he felt depressed at times. “It feels likes you are stateless or classless,” he said about being undocumented.

When he graduated from college, he had hopes of becoming a lawyer and perhaps one day a judge and Supreme Court justice. But the cost of law school hindered his pursuit. Instead, Jong-Min moved back to Brooklyn to work at his parents’ grocery store. He has worked there since he graduated from college in 2003.

As we left the McDonald’s to walk to the grocery store, he points out the pizza place and the flower shop that he used to work at. “These are the jobs I could find,” he said.

At the grocery store, I watch as Jong-Min greets his neighborhood customers who have been coming to their store for years. He sells a customer a set of lottery tickets and another customer a pack of cigarettes. His father is stocking the shelves.

Jong-Min in his family's grocery store in Bensonhurst in May.
Jong-Min in his family’s grocery store in Bensonhurst in May.

Jong-Min came out as undocumented in 2009. I asked him why he finally decided to come out of the shadows. He said it was a combination of things – he saw more and more undocumented people become vocal about their immigration statuses, and he had also joined several Facebook groups on immigration and saw people posting about the DREAM Act and immigration reform. He’d also heard of several cases of young undocumented people taking their lives because they were so depressed at their lack of prospects in the U.S. “Kids were committing suicide… I couldn’t just sit around and watch.”

In 2009, he met two UCLA alums, Tam Tranh GS, an undocumented Vietnamese immigrant, and Cinthya Felix, an undocumented Mexican immigrant, who were major leaders in the movement advocating for the passage of the DREAM Act. Tam had started her graduate studies at Brown University and had founded the Brown Immigrant Rights’ Coalition; she was friendly with Jong-Min, persuading him to speak more about his own story. Jong-Min started to be more vocal about his own situation because of Tam and Cinthya. It was their resilience and very public activism, as well as getting to know more undocumented youth, including other Asian young people in similar circumstances, that helped inspire his coming out of the shadows. But Tam and Cinthya died in a tragic car accident in May 2010.

Tam and Cinthya’s deaths led Jong-Min to become even more active in the immigrant rights movement, identifying himself as a “DREAMer” and pushing fervently for immigration reform, to stop deportations, and calling on the President to issue executive actions to provide deferred action for undocumented youth in the absence of the passage of the DREAM Act (which failed to pass the Senate in December 2010).

In 2010, Jong-Min was featured in the New York Korean Daily as an advocate and potential beneficiary of the DREAM Act. His mother saw the article and was very fearful. “She was very angry.” Jong Min said.

He tried to explain to her why he felt he had to come out and she said, “Let someone else do it.” He said that his mother’s attitude was to “not put your dirty laundry in public.” His father didn’t say anything to him about it. “I think he understood it,” Jong-Min said.

The move towards advocating for executive actions to stop deportations came after the DREAM Act failed to pass in the Senate in December 2010 by only five votes. The DREAM Act would have provided a path to citizenship for undocumented young people who had come to the U.S. under the age of 16 and who were completing four years of college or two years in the military. The failure was a huge blow to the DREAMer movement who had been advocating for this bill since its inception in 2001.

Tensions had also arisen in President Obama’s first term, as the number of deportations continued to rise. Over a million people were deported in the first four years of the Obama administration, and this number has risen to 2.5 million by 2016. As criticism against the Obama administration’s lack of action on immigration reform mounted, President Obama announced his executive action called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in June 2012, months before the presidential election that he would eventually win, sealing his second term in office.

Jong-Min holds a copy of TIME Magazine in June 2012 that featured dozens of undocumented immigrants on its front cover.
Jong-Min holds a copy of TIME Magazine in June 2012 that featured dozens of undocumented immigrants on its front cover.

At first, Jong-Min was overjoyed. DACA finally provided a chance for young people like him who had come to the U.S. as children to get a work permit and get temporary protected status from being deported. However, upon reading the fine print, he realized he didn’t qualify. In 2012, Jong-Min was already 32 years old. One of the stipulations of DACA was that you only qualify if you are 31 years old or younger.

“I was reading the fine print and it said you had to be 31 or under and I just sighed. I felt okay – I guess I was just used to it. When I was advocating for the DREAM Act, I didn’t think I would age out.”

Jong-Min said he was happy for those who did qualify for DACA and acknowledges that it has changed their lives. He says he’s watched his colleagues and friends who qualified for DACA get better jobs. Some have also been able to travel back to their countries of origin. In reference to his inability to access DACA he said, “It’s more about moving on… what are you going to do? You have to move forward.”

Jong-Min remained hopeful despite his lack of qualifications for DACA. He continued to advocate for immigration reform, but again was disappointed when in 2014, the House of Representatives chose not to bring the Gang of Eight Immigration Reform Bill to a vote.

When the immigrant rights movement shifted again towards pushing the President to use his administrative power to stop deportations, Jong-Min became a fierce advocate. In November 2014, after months of inaction from Congress on immigration reform, President Obama announced additional executive reforms on immigration, the centerpiece of which was the expansion of DACA (which would remove the top age gap of 30 from the qualification) and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA), which would allow parents of U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents to receive work permits and temporary stay from deportation.

This time, Jong-Min would qualify for the Expanded DACA, or DACA+. He said that once the executive actions were in motion and he could apply, his plan was to take the LSAT and go to Yale, with hopes of finally becoming a lawyer.

However, within months of the November 2014 announcement, 25 states including Texas, filed a lawsuit against the ruling and a Texas federal court preliminarily blocked the executive actions from going into effect, arguing that their constitutionality was in question.

This effectively delayed the DACA+ and DAPA from going into effect and left the provisions in a tedious nine month-long battle in the courts. When the Fifth Circuit Court of Texas still refused to make a decision, the case was finally punted up to the Supreme Court in January this year.

Jong-Min at a rally in February, 2015 after the delay on DACA+ and DAPA was put into effect. Photo courtesy of New York Immigration Coalition
Jong-Min at a rally in February, 2015 after the delay on DACA+ and DAPA was put into effect. Photo courtesy of New York Immigration Coalition

When the U.S Supreme Court took over the case of DACA and DAPA+, Jong-Min went to Washington D.C. for the first day of the hearing in mid-April. Joining with advocacy groups, Jong-Min was able to sit inside the Supreme Court for the hearing. He was at the court by 6 a.m., waited for hours to get in, and then listened to an hour-and-a-half of arguments. He said he paid very close attention to the questions that the Supreme Court Justices were asking and wasn’t sure what the outcome would be. “I tried to feel hopeful,” he said.

Caption for photo: Jong-Min with Sophie Cruz, a Mexican-American child of undocumented parents, outside the Supreme Court on April 18.
Jong-Min with Sophie Cruz, a Mexican-American child of undocumented parents, outside the Supreme Court on April 18.

When Jong-Min and I met in May, it was a few weeks before the U.S. Supreme Court was set to make a decision on the case. It was still very unclear what would happen. I asked Jong-Min what it’s like to wait for a decision and he just shrugged. “I’ve been waiting my whole life. What’s another month? I just wish we had the chance to legalize our status.”

On June 23, the U.S Supreme Court’s deliberation over DACA/DAPA ended in a 4-4 tie, meaning that the executive actions will not be implemented. The tie means that the case gets punted back to the lower courts. While the Supreme Court’s ruling was not a decision on whether the executive actions were constitutional and there is a possibility they could hear it again, the tie has a huge impact on the five million undocumented immigrants who would have qualified under the provisions.

A few weeks after the Supreme Court decision, I asked Jong-Min how he felt. “I felt angry… There’s nothing for me, there’s nothing for my parents. It frustrates me when we keep losing and then everybody talks about elections.”

He continued, “We’re waiting for politicians all the time and nothing really happens.”

Jong-Min says he’s no longer going to wait for DACA to pass in order to go to law school and study for the LSAT.

I ask him if he’s nervous about this year’s presidential election, given the vitriolic anti-immigrant rhetoric from presidential candidate Donald Trump.

“I’m not personally nervous but I think a lot of people are – but if we band together, hopefully we can push things along and help people under threat of deportation. I think no matter who the President will be, the community still has to organize for our rights.”