A March to the Beginning

Photo credit: OffThaRecord/Steer

When Esther reaches the steps of the Supreme Court on Tuesday, she will have walked over two hundred miles to get there. Since October 26, Esther, an undocumented Korean-American immigrant who asked to be identified only by her first name, has been marching from New York City towards the beginning of the SCOTUS case that will determine the fate of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

After the Democratic Debate in Houston, immigration activists grew concerned that the national media was turning away from immigration and towards impeachment — a move that seemed especially worrying in the lead-up to the DACA case. The program was first initiated by President Obama in 2012 and rescinded by the Trump Administration in 2017. It created a temporary stay for people who came to the U.S. as children and had a strict list of eligibility requirements centered around age, education, and criminal history.

“Someone suggested we march from NY to DC,” said Jung Woo Kim, a DACA recipient and one of the march’s organizers. “From the Statue of Liberty to the Supreme Court.” The marchers reached D.C. on Sunday and allowed themselves a day to rest and make posters before turning up at the steps of the court Tuesday morning.

In some ways, DACA is simply a drop in the bucket, covering less than six percent of the undocumented population in the U.S. The program directly impacts seven-hundred-thousand recipients, often known as Dreamers, but reverberates far beyond them. In addition to allowing recipients to stay in the U.S., DACA enables them to receive college scholarships, work permits and bank loans. It has changed not only the economic, educational and residential stability of recipients but the lives of their families and communities.

Denia Perez, an attorney and legal fellow at Make the Road NY, an immigration justice organization, said that until she received DACA status it felt as though she were living in a permanent state of limbo. “I had so much anxiety and was always really uncertain about whether or not I could use my degree — about what my life would look like,” she said.

Although the SCOTUS case has been its galvanizing force, the two hundred and thirty mile #HomeIsHere March is broader than DACA. Its message — in signs that read “Defend TPS” (Temporary Protected Status, a designation the Trump Administration has been stripping away) and “Citizenship for All” — is clear: participants are marching for much broader citizenship gains. Protecting DACA, they say, is only the first step. Some marchers have DACA protections, others are undocumented without any protections and some are citizen allies.

Lyra Kim, an undocumented Korean-American who is ineligible for DACA, said that after the program was passed in 2012 it slowed some of the immigration reform movement’s momentum. “Now that DACA’s under threat, we realize that these temporary protections didn’t mean anything, and what we should be fighting for is a more permanent solution: citizenship for all,” she said. “As a non-documented, non-DACA person I feel this is just the beginning.”

The march was organized by a number of immigration justice organizations, most notably Make the Road NY and NAKASEC, a Korean-American advocacy group. “From the beginning we had about 20–30 core marchers,” said Sam Yu, second-generation Korean American and NAKASEC’s communications coordinator, when I spoke to them on the fourteenth day of the march, shortly after the group left Baltimore. “Now, as we’re getting closer, we’ve had more people join us. We expect it to get to 200 hundred by the time we get to D.C.”

Part of the reason that DACA has been such a politically contentious issue — and why Trump himself wavered over its rescission — is because Dreamers have long been putting their visibility on the line in an attempt to hold the government accountable. For the members of NAKASEC, the march was a crucial way to put a different face on the issue of undocumented immigration. Asian Americans, “are definitely impacted by these issues, and the numbers show they’re represented, but everyone thinks this is a Latinx issue,” said Yu.

Esther, who is a DACA recipient, referenced an incident last year, when, during the Democratic response to the State of the Union, Representative Joe Kennedy III supportively addressed Dreamers in Spanish. “Not all undocumented youth speak Spanish,” she pointed out. “Language access comes up a lot because so many people think all DACA recipients are Latinx.”

Roughly two percent of DACA recipients are Asian, and the majority of them are Korean-American. Minkwon, a Korean-American social justice organization, has estimated that one in eight Koreans in America are undocumented; as of last year, nearly 30,000 Korean-Americans were eligible for DACA.

Esther said that invisibility is a double-edged sword. “In some ways, because we’re not thought of as undocumented, we’re afforded the ability to hide a little more. But, conversely, it can feel lonely,” she said. “Even on this march, church members have said, ‘We’re so surprised to see you here! We were saying why are there Asians?’”

Some Korean-Americans said that they were the first undocumented Asian-Americans many of their fellow Latinx marchers had ever met. “That’s why this march is so meaningful to me. It’s not only Asians, not only Latinx [marchers],” said Jung Woo Kim. “It’s beautiful. We have to share food, shampoo, lotion, sleeping bags. Every morning we check in, debrief; we share our stories. For me, it’s really amazing. I’ve made friends with DACA moms from El Salvador and Guatemala. We’re like family now.”

On the way to D.C., through autumn leaves and downpours, marchers have trekked “on everything,” said Yu. “We’re on sidewalks, we’re on streets, we’re on highway shoulders.” Bundled in beanies and sweatshirts and tennis shoes, the marchers walked anywhere from ten to twenty miles a day in heavy rain and freezing winds. They were frequently sheltered by community members along the route — most often churches, who offered floors to sleep on as well as dinners and breakfasts. During snack breaks the soundtrack ranged from Selena’s “El Chico del Apartamento 512” to “Arirang,” a famous Korean folk song.

Though they have now arrived at the courthouse steps, the marchers know that their journey is far from over. The court is not expected to release a decision till spring of 2020 at the earliest. “In terms of what lies ahead, we are here to defend DACA and TPS, but we know our communities need more than that,” said Yu. “Regardless of what happens on the 12th we’re going to keep going, and keep fighting.” It was a refrain echoed by many of the marchers: that no matter what the court rules, the decision will be part of a much longer fight.

“Even people with DACA, we have family members who didn’t qualify and we understand that we are privileged to have this — albeit temporary — protection,” said Perez. “We all understand that we need to keep DACA and also need to build on it and have something more stable for all of us.”

She pointed out that DACA has enabled her to go to law school and give back to her community as an immigration attorney. “If it weren’t for the privileges DACA has afforded me,” she said, “I don’t think I’d be in the position I’m in to be a resource for people like me in this way.”

For Esther, receiving DACA status meant being able to know what her life could look like, and what its possibilities — getting to drive, getting to go to college, getting to work — could be. “I think that was the first time I got to experience what living a full life could mean: living to live and not living to survive,” she said. “There’s a difference between survival and thriving, and DACA gave me a chance to think beyond survival. I got to dream.”

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Freelance Journalist

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Teresa Mathew

Teresa Mathew

Freelance Journalist

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