When Tony Choi was in high school, his friends would ask him why he didn’t drive. He would evade the question with what he thought was the only plausible defense: He cared deeply about global warming, he told them. Twelve years later, he laughs at his attempt at that moral argument, which was simply a cover-up for the fact that he’s an undocumented immigrant and had no way of getting an ID.
“I learned to really hide myself,” Choi, who’s from Seoul, South Korea, and lives in New York, told HuffPost. “It definitely didn’t feel good. It made me scared. My sister would say, ‘If you stand out too much, they’ll take you away.’”
These memories came back to Choi, now 28, on Tuesday, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced President Donald Trump was nixing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, ending protections for some 800,000 undocumented immigrants who came to the country as minors. The program, originally enacted under former President Barack Obama and now in Congress’ hands, shielded young people from deportation and allowed them to work in the country legally.
Besides being undocumented, Choi is also gay. He points out there is more at stake for people who could be forced to go back to a country that isn’t big on LGBTQ rights. He notes that military service is compulsory in South Korea for men ― and the military penal code prohibits consensual same-sex acts.
““For a lot of us, going back to our home countries isn’t an option because of our queerness.”
“For a lot of us, going back to our home countries isn’t an option because of our queerness,” he said. “If I were to go to Korea, I would have to do the two-year mandatory service in the military, and the law prohibits sodomy.”
Choi came to the U.S. from Seoul when he was 8 years old. His parents’ lumber business had folded due to the global financial crisis, he said. They lived in Hawaii for a year and eventually moved to Bergen County, New Jersey. His father worked construction jobs and his mother worked as a restaurant server and in a nail salon.
He remembers specific anecdotes that highlighted the fact he was undocumented, though he said he didn’t understand it at the time. He couldn’t cross the border to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls during a family trip in fifth grade. And when it was time to take the PSAT and he asked his mother for his Social Security number, she simply told him he didn’t have one.
As Choi got older, his parents divorced and his mother suffered arthritis from her nail technician work. She’s also a breast cancer survivor, which meant she couldn’t work for a sustained period of their family’s life in the U.S.
Before DACA, Choi could only work cash-under-the-table jobs, and he earned $5 an hour at a sushi takeout restaurant after college. He contributed what he could to his mom, who was reliant on her children’s salaries.
“Even if I don’t get deported, I’m worried I’ll be relegated to living that kind of life again,” Choi said.
Currently, his mother hasn’t quite accepted the potential consequences of Tuesday’s decision.
“My mom says, ‘They wouldn’t do this to you.’ She cited examples of Trump saying he was sympathetic to our plight,” Choi told HuffPost. “I say Trump didn’t even have the courage to say he was rescinding DACA. He sent a surrogate ― he sent Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III. Trump’s not with us.”
Undocumented And Queer At College In Kentucky
Choi entered college in 2008 at a small school in Kentucky called Berea College. He received full tuition coverage as part of a pilot program for undocumented students.
He said he felt grateful and enjoyed his time but felt like he was living a really singular experience without a community of other Asians, and it was extremely isolating. Fear took a toll on his mental health.
“I heard about immigration raids. It started giving me nightmares,” he said. “I grew up in Korea. Now I’m in Kentucky, where there weren’t other Asians like me. I would have panic attacks and nightmares about ICE raiding my door.”
He said he finally started opening up to school leaders and friends, asking for help and also spreading awareness about what he was facing.
“What I didn’t realize I was doing was organizing,” he said. “I was essentially the first immigrant rights organizer at my school.”
He said he connected with other immigrant groups in Kentucky after that and really “came out” as undocumented in 2011 at a conference in Memphis.
Choi now works as a social media manager for 18 Million Rising, an Asian-American/Pacific Islander activism community. Prior to that, he was an organizer with the Women’s March. He points out that issues related to immigration, queer, women and minority rights are all related, and that more people should be aware of that.
“A lot of times when people think about immigration, there’s a stereotypical immigrant in their minds,” he said. “There are undocumented folks from all corners of the planet living in the U.S. We don’t follow the exact same story. We’re not here for all the same reasons. But we’re fighting the common fight. We’re struggling all together.”
Asians Fastest Growing Undocumented Group
While the pool of DACA applications is made mostly of youth from Latin American countries, Asian-Americans account for about 11 percent of those eligible for the immigration program. Within that group, fewer than 30 percent of eligible Asian applicants apply.
Those able to apply before Tuesday’s decision included undocumented minors who were brought to the U.S. before their 16th birthday and met another set of guidelines related to education and criminal background, among other requirements. In 2016, Asian countries ― namely South Korea, China, India and the Philippines ― were among the top 10 countries of origin for DACA-eligible populations.
Yet Asians don’t speak out much about it. As an activist, Choi is attuned to the many reasons why. He pointed out there’s a litany of factors.
“Asian nonprofits might not be as good at outreach, even though there are organizations doing wonderful work,” he said. “Resources are often not being pooled into Asian groups. We’re isolated. We haven’t come to terms with the fact that immigration is our issue. There’s also always been a sense of shame.”
Undocumented Asian immigrants are now outpacing Mexicans in many areas of the country, with Chinese, South Koreans and Indians among the fastest growing segments.
Jo-Ann Yoo, executive director of the Asian American Federation, told HuffPost that there is little infrastructure in terms of resources, nonprofits and politicians in place to help Asians navigate the process. She cited nonprofit National Korean American Service & Education Consortium, which made DACA one of its primary issues and educated the Korean community on applying, as a type of organization that other Asian ethnicities would benefit from but might not have access to.
“This was their constant push,” she said. “There was a lot of education and making sure people were not afraid. They engaged people for a sustained period.”
How Defending DACA Has Created New LGBTQ Leaders
“You see more queer people taking up leadership positions. We face marginalization in multiple corners ― there’s only so many times before you speak out.”
For DACA recipients, ending the program would mean they are now at risk of not being able to work in the U.S. and could face deportation, but LGBTQ DACA recipients also face the prospect of going to countries that may not be as tolerant.
Sharita Gruberg, an associate director of the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress, told HuffPost it’s not only deportation that presents a threat ― immigrants also face dangers while being detained. LGBTQ individuals are more than two times as likely than the general population to be sexually assaulted in confinement, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Choi said that because of these threats, new leadership has arisen out of necessity ― and that the LGBTQ community has really stepped up. “We’re all pretty devastated,” he said. “At the same time you see more queer people taking up leadership positions. We face marginalization in multiple corners ― there’s only so many times before you speak out.”
Choi ultimately remains undeterred and he knows he has to continue to help leading a movement.
“It’s always a factor looming in the back of my mind. If I were to go back to Korea, what would I do? How would I fit in?” he said. “But I am determined to stay because this is my home. ”