29 year-old journalist Esther Yu-Hsi Lee remembers the emotional moment when DACA was first announced in 2012
How old were you when you were brought to the United States?
I was two years old when my mom brought me to the United States from Taiwan.
How has being undocumented affected your childhood and teenage years?
The first time I became aware of my undocumented status was in the ninth grade when I was about to take my PSAT and didn’t know that the form had a fill-in column for a social security number. I was so freaked out thinking that I wouldn’t be able to take the test that I asked to use the restroom and went to cry in a stall. An administrator came to find me, thinking that I had test anxiety. Even though I didn’t tell her the real reason why I was crying, she coaxed me back into the classroom where I composed myself and took the test anyway. I figured that even if I wouldn’t be able to get a score back, at least I could prove to myself that I could succeed at the test.
Though being undocumented in my teenage years was annoying because I couldn’t do “normal” things like get a driver’s license, that pales in comparison to being undocumented as an adult. My relatives in Taiwan are all aging or dead and there are countless cousins that I’ve never met. I’ve already missed out on the funerals of four loved ones, including that of my father.
When DACA was first announced in 2012, what was your initial reaction?
My boyfriend’s roommate walked in while I was crying and watching President Obama give his speech on television. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him walk in, see that I was crying, and slowly back away (kind of like Homer Simpson awkwardly backing away into the background shrubbery). It was a hilarious little moment to what was otherwise a huge moment that I knew would affect my life from that point on.
When did you apply for DACA?
I sent in my DACA application in August 2012 and received my employment authorization document (EAD) in January 2013. I applied for my social security number and state identification card around the same time.
What role, if any, has DACA played in helping you achieved your personal, professional and academic goals?
On a professional level, DACA allowed me to become a journalist, which I love. My professional and personal lives have also intersected since it’s a very cathartic experience interviewing and listening to other undocumented immigrants who went through the same experiences I went through.
Growing up in a wealthy, predominantly Asian suburb in Los Angeles, CA, no one talked about their migration experience. Friends or neighbors portrayed undocumented immigrants in very negative stereotypes and parents used deportation as a threat to get kids to behave. It obviously makes no legal sense now, but my mom and other parents I knew used to threaten their kids with deportation by the local police if we didn’t behave.
Still, it’s bitterly ironic to hear first-generation immigrants whose parents “did it the right way” talk negatively about their gardeners and subjects like food stamps. But that experience has humbled me to one day do better than those people and to fight for immigrant rights. In some ways, I’ve succeeded: though journalism isn’t a well-paying field, I wake up every morning with a big smile on my face and feel ready to care deeply about my interviewees. Meanwhile, those folks have great paying, soul-sucking jobs where they drink on the weekends hoping to find meaning.
Because I received DACA after graduate school, I knew that it wouldn’t help me academically, but it brought me so much joy that life could potentially be so, so much easier for other undocumented immigrants who came after me and wanted to pursue higher education. Those people may hopefully never have to experience being taken to the back of a school’s administration office to listen to a school official tell them that they’re a liability or that it was a mistake that they had been accepted, and now can’t enroll, or even worse, that they were an unwanted political issue. All those situations happened to me and my siblings. One school administrator in particular just didn’t understand how it was possible for “an illegal immigrant to slip past authorities all these years.”
What has been the most rewarding and challenging aspect of this experience of applying for and receiving DACA?
The most rewarding experience of receiving DACA is to have stability. You’d be surprised how much having a routine of going to work, chronicling immigrant lives, and getting fired up over paying taxes (really) factored into my version of the American dream. I was always told to be quiet about my status and that I could never be a part of American society, but now I finally feel like people are defining me based on my personality and not my legal status.
One of the most challenging things about having DACA is the feeling of impermanence. Every morning, I feel grateful for having a job that I love, but I still feel like I’m living in a dream that I might have to abruptly wake up from when President Obama leaves office. Since 2013, Republicans have become increasingly persistent about rolling back DACA and DAPA and they might get their way if Republicans take the Oval Office in 2016.
What would you say to those who may be afraid to apply for expanded DACA this February or DAPA in May?
DACA has opened up a whole new side to myself that I never knew I had in me. I now have the self-confidence to pose hard-hitting questions to lawmakers across the political spectrum, an experience that makes me really feel worthy of my graduate school diploma and also appreciate democracy in action. For people who are afraid of the government using their information against them, I implore them to think logically — with so many things going on in this world that demands the president’s attention, I’m sorry to say, but the government is simply not interested in taking them in. In fact, even the Department of Homeland Security, the agency in charge of deportations, doesn’t want to pursue non-criminal immigrants. When I became a White House Champion of Change recipient for my work on immigration last year, I sat at the same table as a DHS official who was very sympathetic to the immigrant experience. She could have called in agents to take me in, but as President Obama has emphasized time and time again, his administration has promised to take a felons-not-families approach to deportation.