By Alex Dobuzinskis, Reuters
South Korean-born Hyun Kim feels American to his bones, but the undocumented immigrant has failed to seek protection from deportation under a program launched by President Barack Obama to shield young people brought to the United States as children. The 20-year-old Kim, who dreams of attending a U.S. college and works as a barista in the Virginia town where he grew up, is like many of the more than 100,000 Asian immigrants who are eligible for Obama’s program but have not applied.
Many cite shame over their unauthorized status as well as trouble locating documents as reasons they are not applying. “I’m doing nothing with my life, just working these small-time jobs,” said Kim, who believes he is eligible but has been delayed by difficulties obtaining the required paperwork. “All I do when I go home is sleep and pay rent.”
The program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which was started four years ago, grants temporary legal status and the right to work to immigrants who entered the country before turning 16 and before mid-2007. For many individuals, it makes it easier to attend college. It does not, however, provide a path to citizenship.
Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has stirred the immigration debate, vowing to build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico and deport an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants if he is elected. A broader effort by the Obama administration to shield from deportation 4 million unauthorized immigrants who are the parents of U.S. citizens and lawful residents was blocked by a federal judge last year.
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue a decision on the administration’s appeal by the end of June. The DACA program has resonated in the Hispanic communities that make up the majority of the nearly 730,000 undocumented immigrants in the United States who have obtained protection from deportation under the program.
The same cannot be said of Asian communities. While an estimated 80 percent of eligible Mexicans and Central Americans have applied for DACA, according to the nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice less than 20 percent of Asians have sought protection.
Backers of Obama’s initiative say the failure to reach eligible Asians highlights the limits of the program, which they say is seen by some immigrants as a partial victory because it provides protection for only a two-year term that they must renew. In all, hundreds of thousands of young immigrants are thought to be eligible for the program but have not applied, according to the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.
Kim said his parents brought him to the United States as a 2-year-old and that he has kept his illegal status a secret from all but his close friends. When asked why he’s not in college, laziness is the lie he tells, rather than revealing that he burns to study to become an information technology specialist. The long-time Annandale, Virginia resident first heard about DACA from a roommate more than two years after the program was launched. He said he has spent the last two years trying to collect the necessary documents, including proof of entry at the Texas airport where he landed in 1998. Kim said he lost his original South Korean passport and is waiting for his mother, back in her home country, to mail him documents so he can complete his DACA application within weeks.
Missing paperwork is a common refrain for young immigrants eligible for the program who have not applied, cited by 22 percent, according to a 2014 study co-authored by a Harvard University sociologist, Roberto Gonzales. But the main barrier is cost, with 43 percent of those surveyed citing the $465 application fee. Fear and shame also play a role, researchers said. Fifteen percent of eligible immigrants are afraid to reveal their status to the government lest they risk being deported, according to Gonzales’ study.
Aman Thind, immigration director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Los Angeles, said when her group goes to predominantly Asian churches to talk about the DACA program, they often are told no one there is undocumented. “There’s not just fear, but also embarrassment about being undocumented,” Thind said.