I’m a DACA recipient. I am also a postdoctoral scientist at a leading research institute in Northern Virginia.
September 5 marks the second anniversary since the Trump administration revoked DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. A federal court objected to the rescission, ordering continued acceptance of DACA renewal applications. However, with the pending Supreme Court hearing on November 12, the future of DACA is again unclear.
DACA allows individuals with unlawful presence who arrived in the United States as minors, to obtain two years of deferred action from deportation, and to be eligible for a work permit. DACA is a humanitarian relief for young individuals who, through no fault of their own, became undocumented. They may face immediate life-threatening dangers once deported.
DACA poses a crucial question to our society: Are we ready to break away from our aristocratic view of “citizenship?”
I was born in South Korea. When I was 13, my family decided to move to the United States for my education. Back then, I had barely any idea about America; I was just happy that I did not need to study for the next exam.
I fell in love with science and mathematics in high school. I love the abstract that governs nature. I enjoyed learning so much that, when I was in college, I finished my four years of undergraduate studies with 185 credit hours. I went on for grad school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
My first year there was tough, not because of the workload or the ego-crushing classes, but because I found out that I had become undocumented. USCIS denied our family’s green card application after five years. The time we spent in the United States with the pending green card application counted as unlawful presence. Soon after, I received a Notice to Appear, which triggered the removal proceedings against me.
My heart sank. All the lawyers I talked to recommended me to leave the country and chase my dream elsewhere because there would be no hope for me in this country. I could not imagine leaving my friends and colleagues behind, so I decided to fight on rather than to give in. My friends and professors wrote affidavits of support for my stay. From this, I was able to receive prosecutorial discretion to stop my deportation and to continue my studies in Wisconsin.
I received DACA in 2012 and graduated three years later. Last year, I received the National Interest Waiver, which waives a job requirement for individuals whose skillset is of national interest. I still cannot apply for a green card because of the accrued unlawful presence and inadmissibility upon leaving the country.
Mired in this limbo, I started to ask myself a question: What makes an American “American”?
I look to my “American” friends. Some are richer and some poorer. Some are white and some people of color. I could not find any external factors that make someone American. Instead, they are defined by common American values.
This country was flourished by those who sought equality, democracy, liberty, opportunity, and rights. These values are pillars of the American dream that attracted millions of immigrants, regardless of their age, race, color, gender, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic class. The glue that pulls all of us together are the American values.
The current US administration disfavors certain immigrants because of their age, color, religion, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. What made America great was not the cherry-picking of privileged individuals but those who strived for American values despite their differences.
Currently, 800,000 DACA recipients are pursuing their American dreams. We strive for American values. We are undocumented for a variety of reasons and came from all over the world. Ninety-three percent of us are employed and contributed $2.2 billion in taxes in 2017. We do not have a piece of paper that says we are American, but we live our lives as one.
We are not the only ones who are affected by our aristocratic approach to citizenship. Even now, thousands of immigrants are rejected to stay in the United States because of our approach. They all live their lives as American, thriving, and believing in American values. And American values define we as American.
All of these people are thriving in the American dream. If those people believe in the core values of America, then why do we say “no” to citizenship for all?
Heejun Choi is a community member of NAKASEC and a DACA scientist working at a leading research institute in Virginia.