After two planes flew into the twin towers in New York City, Kathy Khang received a telephone call from her father. He wanted Khang to take the plunge and apply for U.S. citizenship.
Khang’s parents had emigrated from South Korea in 1971, when Khang was just a baby. Her parents applied for citizenship, got it, and assumed she would be included. But when Khang became a teenager, her parents realized that she wasn’t a citizen. Kang didn’t see the point then of applying; she had a green card, a Social Security card, and all the documentation she needed to live and thrive in America, so she put off the paperwork headache.
As an adult, she received a journalism degree from Northwestern University, pursued Christian ministry, married a dentist, and raised her children in the well-to-do Chicago suburb of Libertyville. She bought local to support the surrounding economy, volunteered at the community church and in her kids’ public schools, and worked full time at an evangelical nonprofit that ministers to college students. By all measures, she was fully integrated into American society.
She would like to see immigration reform that allows them to be fully integrated into their community and into American society as a whole.
Then came 9/11, and Khang’s father became worried. “My father said, ‘You have to get citizenship because you don’t know what they’ll do to you.’ ” For most of Khang’s life she had regularly faced small acts of discrimination that made her feel like a perpetual foreigner, comments like “Wow, your English is so good” or “Where are you really from?” But after 9/11, her father feared that her official foreign status could put her at risk of more pernicious discrimination. Still, Khang says it wasn’t until Barack Obama was elected president that she began to have “serious regrets about not being able to vote and not being able to say I had a part in history making.” She also realized that the values of citizenship dovetailed with her faith, which emphasizes family, community, and caring for others. Khang began to ask: “What would it mean for me to actually leverage my privilege as somebody who grew up, was educated, here? What does it look like to be a part of the community and love it like a family?” At long last, she applied to become a U.S. citizen.
But Khang found the application process so intimidating that she wondered if the system had deliberately been made difficult. “You’re going through security. You’re speaking through thick bulletproof glass. You’re yelling. They’re yelling. You don’t know if they’re yelling at you because they don’t think you speak English or because they can’t hear you,” she says. But Khang also realized that she had a much easier time than most. It pained her to see how difficult the process was for those who didn’t have the needed documents available, who couldn’t prove residency, who couldn’t navigate the system electronically, who couldn’t take time off work, or who didn’t have the money to pay for it all.
The experience deepened Khang’s support for immigration reform. At her campus ministry, she sees how undocumented students face difficult challenges. When the Christian fellowship goes on a mission trip, these students must either jump through hoops to secure the proper documents to travel or cannot join the trip. When they are invited to a leadership conference in another state, they fear that even this simple road trip with their college buddies could lead to their arrest and deportation. Many of these students are gifted and well-suited for the ministry, and her campus ministry may want to hire them. But their undocumented status stands in the way of any job offer. To Khang, these students represent the future of her organization. She would like to see immigration reform that allows them to be fully integrated into their community and into American society as a whole. It is a matter of social justice, Khang says. “How do we allow people to live with integrity and dignity?”