For Hyun Jung Kim, an undocumented immigrant from South Korea, last Thanksgiving in Anchorage, Alaska, was typical. “We had a big turkey and Jell-O salad,” she says. “As a family, we gathered, and had a meal together, and celebrated, and were thankful that we are all together.” Kim spent her formative teenage years in this American household, forming tight bonds with her five host siblings and their parents. “I call them my American parents; they call me their adopted daughter,” she says. “My son calls them pop and granny, and they think of him as one of their grandkids.”
Yet if Congress doesn’t resolve the plight of Dreamers — young people who came to this country as children — Kim could be torn from both this family she loves, and from her 2-year-old son, who was born in this country.
Kim was 13 when her parents sent her to the United States for educational opportunities. She spent her junior high and high school years on student visas in Hawaii and Alaska, and attended the University of Montana, where she majored in Japanese. After graduation, she returned to Alaska and went to work for a company that promised to sponsor her green card and start her on a pathway to citizenship. But the company never filed the paperwork, and Kim didn’t find out until the day her one-year temporary work visa expired. “So my status fell out after one day,” she says. “I wasn’t expecting it. I was undocumented.”
To complicate matters, Kim became pregnant. But since she was undocumented, she wasn’t authorized to work. She applied for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA), a 2012 policy that allows qualifying undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country as children to defer deportation for renewable two-year periods and to work legally in the United States. But her immigration attorney warned her that if she was caught holding a job before her application was accepted, she could be deported. It took nearly Kim’s entire pregnancy to receive DACA authorization, during which time she did whatever she could to provide for herself and her unborn child. “I did babysitting, housesitting, pet sitting,” Kim says. “I sold a lot of stuff that I had. I did whatever I could, and got a lot of help from friends. They would bring me food and pay me to be their designated driver.”
In every aspect of our lives, we are Americans, but without papers.
When Kim’s DACA status was approved, in September 2015, she began work at a law firm. But while she was waiting for her renewal to be approved, President Donald Trump announced that unless Congress came up with a solution his administration would phase DACA out by March 2018. That put Kim in an impossible situation. Her son’s father is completely absent from the child’s life, but his name is on the birth certificate. This means that if Kim is forced to leave the country and tries to take her son with her, the child could be taken away. “It’s not just my future, but my baby’s too,” she says. “Without the consent of the biological father, I’m going to be a criminal for taking my child.” Keeping DACA alive, Kim says, is “the last chance.”
Kim would like Congress and other Americans to support the 1.3 million young people currently eligible for DACA — a number that is expected to grow to 1.8 million as more youth age into the program and as more people complete their high school education. Ninety percent of the DACA-eligible population 16 years old and older are employed, and combined these Dreamers pay $3 billion in taxes every year. Their labor also adds almost $2.5 billion a year into the U.S. Social Security and Medicare funds, supporting critical social welfare programs that benefit all Americans.
“We don’t ask for freebies,” Kim says. “We work hard. We pay taxes, even though we can’t get those Social Security benefits. In every aspect of our lives, we are Americans, but without papers.”
Kim says that a lot of people don’t understand that DACA recipients can’t simply get in line for citizenship. Without sponsorship from an employer or an immediate family member, there is no immigration line to get into for someone like Kim. “I’ve talked to people who are very surprised that there’s no way for me to become a citizen,” she says. In particular, she points to one close friend — a supporter of the current administration — who has joined Kim in criticizing the program’s impending cancelation.
Kim says she only wants to work and raise her son in the city she calls home, beside the people who consider her their family. “We’re everywhere,” she says of so-called Dreamers. “I could be your neighbor, I could be your friend.”