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Asian American Policy Review

Topic / Gender, Race and Identity

At the Crossroads of Change: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, Undocumented Korean Americans’ Political Participation, and Upcoming Challenges

This piece was published in the 27th print volume of the Asian American Policy Review.

On January 14, 2017, a week before President Donald Trump’s inauguration day, Junsoo Lee, a nineteen-year-old undocumented Korean American from Virginia, gave a speech at the “Here To Stay” rally in Washington, DC. He said, “Because of the ignorance and hatred toward immigrants and refugees, because visibility means the risk of deportation, we are forced to bite down on our tongues. But we cannot be afraid of standing up for ourselves. Silence is no longer our safety. I speak out in vulnerability because our strength is our resilience. What I ask of the community is not to wait for the leaders to give you a voice but to become the voice this nation needs. My name is Junsoo Lee, I am undocumented, unapologetic, unafraid, and I am here to stay.”[1] More than a thousand people, packed into the historic Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church to demand the Trump administration not put into effect anti-immigration executive orders, gave him a resounding round of applause. Lee was the only Asian American among the lineup of official speakers at the church rally that day.

Lee is one of 192,000 undocumented Korean Americans, a group that makes up the eighth-largest undocumented population in the United States.[2] While the reality is such that one out of seven Korean Americans are undocumented, the day-to-day experiences of undocumented Korean Americans have remained largely unexamined.[3] This stands in stark contrast to the extensive media coverage and research conducted on Latino/a immigrants. My commentary shows undocumented Korean Americans have not remained silent, passive, or languid on the matter. Rather, since the early 2000s, many undocumented Korean Americans have actively engaged in political activism that has challenged exclusive frames of citizenship and raised awareness about the existence of undocumented Korean and Asian Americans.

For instance, Tereza Lee, a former undocumented Korean American pianist who inspired Senator Dick Durbin to introduce the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act in 2001—which later became the model for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program—was responsible for bringing to light the desperate circumstances of undocumented youth in the public discourse for the first time.[4] In addition to her role as a catalyst in the creation of the DREAM Act, Tereza has continued to be politically active by testifying at the Senate hearing on the DREAM Act for the Senate judiciary subcommittee on immigration, refugees, and border security, giving a public speech, providing interviews to the press, and giving artistic expression to her experience as an undocumented minor through her piano performances.[5]

Another case of an undocumented Korean American who has taken on activism since 2000s is Ju Hong. Although he is well known as the “heckler” who interrupted former President Barack Obama during his speech on immigration reform in San Francisco on November 25, 2013, to ask Obama to halt the mass deportation of undocumented immigrants, his involvement in activism started a long time before that incident. In 2009, Ju Hong released a video clip titled “Korean Student Shares a Secret” on YouTube to raise awareness about undocumented Korean Americans by “coming out” as undocumented.[6] He also practiced civil disobedience at a San Bernardino immigration rally in 2011 that was protesting the broken immigration system.[7]

Their political participation, ignited by the proposal of the DREAM Act in 2001, became more visible and vibrant when DACA program was enforced in 2012.  This commentary highlights the impact DACA has had in promoting the political participation of undocumented Korean Americans and the potential challenges that will arise under President Trump’s administration. In exploring the benefits and the restrictions embedded in DACA, this commentary raises questions about the conditions for a progressive and more inclusive immigration policy. This commentary draws on three years (between 2013 to 2016) of doctoral research fieldwork on the impact of immigration policies on undocumented Korean American young adults. I participated in various activities with the Korean American activism community including petition drives, phone banking, rallies, voter registration, community meetings, and press conferences. With consent and support from research participants, I conducted interviews with eighty-eight people, including undocumented Korean American young adults, their parents, community organizers, and non-Korean undocumented immigrants in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Virginia, and Washington, DC.

DACA, an executive order by President Barack Obama, was enacted on June 15, 2012. It provided a renewable two-year period of deferred action, protecting from deportation undocumented minors who came to the United States as children and met the requirements set out by the program.[8] According to the US Citizenship and Immigration Service, as of September 2016, 752,154 requests for DACA from undocumented minors have been approved since it was announced in 2012.[9] Approximately 9,114 undocumented Korean Americans have applied for DACA.[10]

Although DACA did not guarantee a path to permanent residency, the order was considered groundbreaking because it granted undocumented minors eligibility to apply for a social security number and work permit. For many undocumented young adults, these measures meant concrete changes in their access to a driver’s license, and better educational and work opportunities. I often heard from my undocumented interviewees of how DACA brought them more opportunities and hope. Caroline Hyun, a twenty-six-year-old undocumented Korean American from southern California, said her newly acquired driver’s license drastically changed her life. “I’m not living in a city area, so transportation has been always an issue. To work a part-time job, commute to the campus, take care of my younger siblings, I always needed it [a driver’s license]. I had just graduated college when DACA came out. I don’t think I would have been able to handle my job and all the family stuff if I couldn’t drive,” she said. For Shinwoo Park, a twenty-two-year-old undergraduate from New Jersey, the biggest thing DACA brought was the “advanced parole” program, which allows certain DACA recipients to travel in the case of urgent humanitarian causes or educational purposes.[11] “In my major [international relations], it is important to study abroad. I could spend a semester in China through the parole program and wrote a paper with what I learned there. The experience helped me to find out what I can do after I graduate with the major,” he said.

Many media outlets drew attention to the positive impact of DACA, highlighting the humane side of the order as well as the possible economic benefits future DACA recipients could bring to the United States. Nonetheless, there have also been continuous criticisms and concerns about DACA in regard to its limitations and restrictions. As its requirements for eligibility reveal, DACA is explicitly aimed at providing temporary support only to those who satisfy the conditions of the program in terms of age, education or military service, and criminal record.[12] The program can be understood as a gesture on the part of the government for selective inclusion for undocumented immigrants as long as they are young, educated, and moral—qualities deemed as assets for the United States. For the many immigrant activists working for a comprehensive immigration reform wholly inclusive of all members of the undocumented population, DACA falls short. Even with its many limitations and restrictions, however, DACA is currently the only program that protects young undocumented immigrants from the risk of deportation.

In addition to these benefits, I found in my research that DACA spurred once uninvolved undocumented Korean American young adults into political action. I noticed as they broke their silence around their undocumented status and spoke out publicly for the rights of other undocumented immigrants. I also observed the key role of local Korean American community organizations in facilitating this activism. The possibilities created by DACA prompted many undocumented Korean Americans to make phone calls and knock on the doors of Korean American organizations advocating for immigrants’ rights. They asked for detailed information about DACA and their eligibility. This explosive interest led to stronger interactions between immigration families and Korean American organizations that provided DACA-related services for free or at a very low cost, a service for which immigration lawyers previously charged hundreds of dollars in fees. For instance, in the years since DACA has been implemented, the Korean Resource Center in Los Angeles and Orange County, the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium’s Virginia office, and the Minkwon Center for Community Action in New York have developed programs offering DACA application services, pro-bono legal consultation from lawyers, and DACA renewal clinics.[13]

In the process of providing information and application services to undocumented Korean Americans, these organizations also created regular gatherings and workshop sessions for DACA applicants and recipients, establishing peer groups with whom they could share their concerns, anxieties, and future plans. As a result, Korean American youth and young adults who were previously silent about their undocumented status and their experiences as an undocumented person formed safe circles of friends and learned of their rights. In particular, the Korean Resource Center’s programs, such as its summer youth camp, volunteering and internship opportunities, and undocumented parents’ gathering have connected many undocumented Korean Americans. The Minkwon Center for Community Action runs a monthly gathering for undocumented Korean American youth, titled “Asian American DREAMers’ Collective,” to share their experiences, hear up-to-date information, and plan solidarity actions. These experiences, in addition to the “deferred action” that guarantees young adults protection from deportation for at least several years, has encouraged young adult undocumented Korean Americans to speak up about their requests for a more inclusive immigration policy, comprehensive for all immigrants. In fact, some DACA recipients have later become full-time fellows, organizing community events and providing services at their organizations. The relationship between the non-profit and DACA recipients clearly reveals the function and necessity of DACA programs. In sum, these actions are remarkable, considering the guilt and shame many undocumented young adults and their families carry on their shoulders. Inspired by the existence of DACA, many undocumented Korean American young adults have started to join petition drives, press conferences, rallies, and performances. This energy has continued to build, as evidenced in Lee’s speech at the “Here To Stay” rally in January 2017.

Undocumented Korean Americans’ participation was also palpable during the Supreme Court hearing for the United States v. Texas on April 15, 2016.[14] The case would ostensibly decide the implementation of the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans program and an expansion of DACA. On that day, groups of young Korean American DACA recipients from across the country participated in a rally, delivering speeches and mobilizing community members. Other examples that exemplify efforts in increasing engagement by undocumented immigrants include “DREAM Riders Across America 2013” and “DREAM Riders Across America 2015”; national road trip campaigns carried out by Korean American DACA recipients and their young allies from the Korean Resource Center; the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium; and the Korean American Resource and Cultural Center.[15] Through the two national road-trip campaigns in 2013 and 2015, undocumented Korean American young adults met local immigrant communities, youth groups, politicians, and media representatives. They also shared their stories at local community meetings and in interviews with the local media, organized a petition drive for comprehensive immigration reform, made a legislative visit, and conducted a press conference. By expanding the campaign from focusing on undocumented Korean American and Asian American allies in 2013 to a campaign of Korean/Asian American, Latino, and African American young adults in 2015, it evolved to be a more inclusive and pan-racial project that included all immigrants. The DREAM Riders Across America 2015 was also made into an educational documentary.[16] This has led to documentary screenings in communities, universities, and schools, followed by question and answer sessions that have helped tear down the stigma surrounding undocumented Korean and Asian Americans.[17]

The political participation of Korean American DACA recipients is due to the activism of undocumented immigrants who worked hard to bring about the DREAM Act before them. Their actions provided the inspiration and specific model for DACA activists in the 2000s. Remembering and appreciating their organizing efforts toward the government to take action on behalf of undocumented immigrants, many Korean American DACA recipients have tried to make their critical voices heard in public. Instead of passively enjoying the “benevolent” treatment of the executive order, DACA recipients have proactively engaged themselves with the limitations of DACA and requested an expanded version of DACA that can include people from a wider range of age and status conditions.

DACA is now subject to cancellation by the sitting president at any time. Since the election, DACA recipients, as well as many Korean American community organizers, have encouraged Korean and Asian Americans to both register to vote and support candidates who favor policies for immigrant rights. At the time of the completion of this commentary, DACA recipients and their undocumented family members I know are experiencing anxiety and nervousness as President Donald Trump has released several anti-immigration policies during his short time in office. It is not easy to be hopeful about the future. But one obvious hope remains. The time people have taken in the past few years to discuss, observe, and understand immigration policies for undocumented immigrants, such as DACA, will generate protest over anti-immigration policy that ignores and discriminates against undocumented immigrants. I strongly believe the political participation of Korean American DACA recipients will continue, bolstered by a robust solidarity of people from diverse communities. There are approximately 1.5 million undocumented Asian Americans, including 192,000 undocumented Korean American. They comprise 14 percent of the total 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.[18] The future of DACA is just one part of how the United States welcomes and respects people of color, laborers, and all the marginalized newcomers. Although it will be a challenge, it can also be an opportunity for this country to reconfirm and restore the values of hospitality, coexistence, and democracy. The outcome of these challenges is in our hands.


[1] The personal names used here are pseudonyms except Tereza Lee and Ju Hong, who have been featured by multiple media outlets and have agreed to have their real names used in this commentary. The Korean American organizations’ names mentioned in this commentary have been published with their consent; “National Korean American Service and Education Consortium,” Facebook, live stream, 14 January 2017.

[2] “Undocumented AAPIs: Top Five Countries of Origin,” National AAPI DACA Collaborative, 7 September 2015; Rosenblum, Marc R., and Ariel G. Ruiz Soto, “An Analysis of Unauthorized Immigrants in the United States by Country and Region of Birth, ” Migration Policy Institute, August 2015,

[3] “Korean Americans and Comprehensive Immigration Reform,” National Korean American Service and Education Consortium, n.d. Accessed 04 February 2017.

[4] Lee, Tereza, “DREAM Act Story,”, n.d. Accessed 04 February 2017.

[5] “Opening Remarks At The First-Ever Senate Hearing On The DREAM Act,” US Senator Dick Durbin Illinois, 28 June 2011. Accessed 04 February 2017; Cambron, Laura, and John Wojcik, “13,000 Jam Navy Pier to Gain Legal Status,” People’s World, 16 August 2012; “Tereza Lee, the Original DREAMer,” Hyphen Magazine, 17 September 2012; Tereza Lee, interview by author, 16 May 2016.    

[6] Hong, Ju, “Korean Student Shares a Secret,” YouTube, 10 November 2009.

[7] Arbas, Diana, “UC Berkeley Student Ju Hong: Undocumented and Unafraid,”, 03 August 2011.

[8] “Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA),” US Department of Homeland Security, n.d. Accessed 25 January 2017,

[9] “Number of I-821D, Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals by Fiscal Year, Quarter, Intake, Biometrics and Case Status: 2012-2016 (September 30),” US Department of Homeland Security, n.d. Accessed 25 January 2017,

[10] Malik, Sanam, “More Work is Needed to Increase DACA Applications from Asian American and Pacific Islander Immigrants,” Center for American Progress, 22 June 2016.

[11] “I-131, Application for Travel Document,” US Department of Homeland Security, n.d. Accessed 05 February 2017.

[12] Ibid; undocumented minors were able to apply for DACA if they: (1) were under the age of thirty-one and had no lawful status on June 15, 2012; (2) came to the United States before their sixteenth birthday; (3) have resided in the United States since June 15, 2007; (4) are currently in school, graduated from high school, received a GED, or have been honorably discharged from the Coast Guard or armed forces; and (5) have not been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor, or three or more other misdemeanors, and do not otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety.

[13] “Deferred Action for Young People,” Korean Resource Center, n.d. Accessed 05 February 2017; “DACA/DAPA Information Session with Free Legal Consultation,” National Korean American Service and Education Consortium, 13 August 2015; “DACA Renewal Clinics,” Minkwon Center, n.d. Accessed 05 February 2017.

[14] Robbins, Liz, “In Immigration Fight, Asians Work to Be Heard,” The New York Times, 24 June 2016.

[15] “DREAM Riders Across America 2013,”, n.d. Accessed 05 February 2017; “DREAM Riders Across America 2015,”, n.d. Accessed 05 February 2017;

[16] “National AAPI DACA Video Tour,”, n.d. Accessed 05 February 2017.

[17] Bai, Stephany, “National AAPI Video Tour Aims to Amplify Youth and Immigrant Voices,” NBC News, 19 April 2016.

[18] Rosenblum and Ruiz, supra note 2.

Recommended Citation

Chung, Ga Young. “At the Crossroads of Change: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, Undocumented Korean Americans’ Political Participation, and Upcoming Challenges.” Asian American Policy Review 27 (2017): 67-73.