UC Berkeley student Ju Hong: Undocumented and unafraid
August 3, 2011 11:00 am by Diana Arbas
Ju Hong looked tired. Uncharacteristic stubble peppered his chin and there were shadows under his eyes when we met at a Temescal coffee shop. But then again, he’d had a crazy week. Most Cal students spend the warmer months taking summer courses, doing internships or catching up with hometown friends and family. Hong, an ASUC senator-elect and political science major, spent time in jail.
Police arrested 21-year-old Hong and six other undocumented student activists for blocking a major street at a July 12 San Bernardino immigration rally. They were released 12 hours later, but might now be at risk for deportation. An ICE agent told the activists they might be ordered to an immigration court hearing in a few weeks, Hong said.
The act of civil disobedience was meant to empower undocumented youth and protest immigrant mistreatment, Hong wrote in a public statement. Among the central issues at the rally was support for the California Dream Act, which would enable undocumented students to qualify for state-administered financial-aid programs. Part of the bill was signed into law on July 25 by Governor Jerry Brown.
Hong has watched undocumented friends forced to take time off school to save enough money to pay rising tuition fees. Some even had to drop out altogether because college was too costly without financial aid. Other undocumented students have been arrested and deported. There are too many stories, Hong said, including his own.
“This is my last year at Cal. After I graduate, now what? Even with a degree from UC Berkeley, I cannot legally work,” Hong said.
“Ju’s been so tired of the situation,” said Lisa Chen, Asian Law Caucus community advocate. “He needed to do something, and this is what he felt like he needed to do. So when he called to tell me he planned on getting arrested, I was not at all surprised. It was only a matter of when, not if.”
Hong said that the Dream Act movement is growing, “And I want to push a little bit more.”
Before the activism
Hong came to the United States with his mother and older sister when he was 11. Family friends met the new arrivals at SFO and took them to the Union Square Cheesecake Factory. The eighth-story view of the city bewildered Hong.
“I couldn’t eat at all,” he said. “Everything was big. There were so many white people, black people. In Korea, everybody’s Korean, they all speak Korean, the culture is the same. So it was such a new experience for me. Everything was so busy. Oh my goodness, everything was so overwhelming.”
Hong adjusted soon enough. He later attended Alameda High. He ran cross country and played on the basketball, volleyball and rugby teams.
Tin Tran, Hong’s best friend, said Hong has always been a very outgoing and friendly person. “He has this willingness to talk and smile, laugh and make people laugh. It makes him so approachable,” Tran said.
Tran said he would hang out at Hong’s home and rarely see his friend’s family around.
Hong’s mother has two jobs. “She wakes up around 6 a.m. and comes home around 11 p.m.,” Hong said. “She does that for six days. She only gets rest on Sunday. Then she goes to church. She’s a strong woman.”
Hong’s sister, who rises at 4 a.m. and comes home at 8 p.m., also splits her time between two jobs. She left community college some years ago due to financial difficulties, and now works to support her younger brother’s education at Cal.
On the rare occasion that Tran would see Hong’s mother and sister he said, “It’s always a smile. Always hugs. It’s humbling to see that they’re really kind, even though they’re working so much. They would always offer fruit and snacks. The hospitality was off the charts. That made me feel welcomed. That drew me closer to Ju.”
As an upperclassman in Alameda, Hong buckled down on academics with an eye on getting into a good college. Hong began filling out college applications but didn’t know what to put down for his social security number. He asked his mother about it.
“That’s when she told me I didn’t have one,” Hong said. He then learned that he was undocumented. He and his family had come to the U.S. on tourist visas and stayed past expiration.
Hong didn’t know at first what being undocumented meant. He applied for college anyway and won admission to UC Davis. “I was so happy,” he said. “I was literally crying. I worked so hard. That acceptance letter showed that I deserved to go to that prestigious university.”
Tran said that only a few classmates had gotten into the school. “UC Davis was just rejecting people left and right. There was this 4.0 kid who did volunteer work and wrote a great personal statement. We were all surprised: ‘Dang, you didn’t get into UC Davis?’” Tran began to laugh. “When Ju got in, he was ecstatic.”
The celebration didn’t last. Hong said, “Even though I knew I couldn’t get a job or financial aid, my mom said, ‘If you really want to go that school, go for it. Don’t worry about the money.’”
The reality, though, was that his family couldn’t afford it, especially not without financial aid.
Back at the coffee shop, Hong held an invisible admissions envelope in his hands and stared at it as he told this story.
“So I closed the package, put it in the desk and just let it go,” he said, his hands putting the invisible envelope away, letting it go. “It was a bittersweet moment.”
Learning to be a leader
Hong enrolled at Laney College, where he eventually became both the first Asian-American and youngest student body president. (That’s how we met. I reported on the Associated Students of Laney College (ASLC) under Hong’s leadership for the Laney Tower, the student newspaper.)
Brian Cervantes, ASLC president-elect, remembers Hong as “a charismatic young man,” but reserved some criticism for Hong’s youth and inexperience. Hong was 19, serving a student population of which 57% was 25 years old or older in 2007, according to the district’s most recent data for student demographics.
Hong also served low-income students and their families; students of color from black, Latino and Asian communities and international students. “It was quite an honor,” he said, “It was a lot of pressure, too, because I’m an Asian and I’m young. So people tested me in many different ways.”
“I liked him as a kid, as a young man,” Cervantes, 39, said, “but he wasn’t ready for that type of leadership. I mean, you used to sit in those meetings and you saw how poorly ran they were. The topics we talked about didn’t have any substance, or we never came up with solutions for those problems.”
Cervantes also criticized what he saw as Hong’s single-issue focus on the Dream Act movement. “It’s admirable, but as president you have to look at the bigger picture. I was always trying to push Ju to work on the broader issues that affected all students at Laney.”
Hong said that he’s familiar with Cervantes’ honest if tough feedback — the two talked nearly every day during their time together on ASLC — and that his presidency was definitely a learning experience. Hong dealt with the broad demands of student leadership, like learning how to influence education policy, work closely with campus administration and speak to media. (“I had to talk to you,” he said, laughing, “and you always asked me tough questions.”)
All this was balanced with life as an undocumented student worker — no driver’s license, under-the-table work. “During his Laney days,” Tran said, “Ju did a lot of biking. I remember talking to him at school, seeing him walk around Laney in Oakland. That night, I would be in Berkeley. I would eat where his family’s former restaurant was, and he was there working until late.”
“In the end, I learned how to be a leader,” Hong said. He’d learned how to balance the needs of such a diverse and outspoken student population and not just the needs of the AB 540 community (AB 540, the California Immigrant Higher Education Act, allows eligible immigrant students to pay in-state tuition, but does not change their immigration or residency status or make them eligible for state or federal financial assistance). Because of this ASLC experience, Hong ran for student government again once he transferred to Cal. “I knew how much impact I could make as an ASUC senator.”
Still, Hong said, Cervantes was right. “In a way, the main reason I ran for student government was to really help out my community. I felt that we needed more API [Asian and Pacific Islander] and AB 540 representation in student government. That’s what got me into activism — the Dream Act, undocumented students and immigrant rights issues.”
Undocumented and unafraid
More undocumented students are coming out and leading the Dream Act movement, but Hong’s public participation is unusual. Undocumented APIs like Hong are generally invisible. The Contra Costa Times reported that Hong “wanted to put an Asian face to a contentious debate that often is focused on Latinos.”
Chen said it’s important to remember that Hong is one of many undocumented API youth. She works closely with ASPIRE, an undocumented API student group. According to the 2010 AB 540 UC report, 47% of the UC system’s AB 540 students identify as Asian. Of these students, 257 are potentially undocumented.
Yet others are unaccounted for. “Many undocumented students are in the community colleges and CSUs. They just don’t have that information readily available,” Chen said.
Still, the API community does not talk about its undocumented members. Chen said, “There’s a lot of shame and stigma that has a lot to do with how the story of being undocumented is talked about. A lot of ASPIRE students say that only fellow group members know about their status. Culturally, we’re just taught to keep family business to ourselves.”
Hong said that he’s different than other Asian undocumented students: “I was raised by a single mother. She always worked, so I didn’t have much supervision. Even though she doesn’t want me to speak out, she’s not always there to tell me what to do. With my own space, I could do things that I really wanted.”
Hong used that space to research AB 540 and the Dream Act. He contacted organizations like ASPIRE, got involved and learned more about the issues. At Laney, he began giving AB 540 workshops. He bought hundreds of copies of Underground Undergrads and resold them on campus as a fundraiser. He came out as undocumented on YouTube.
“And then the arrest happened. It’s a crazy thing,” he said. “It’s a process. It took me a couple of years to get to where I am right now.”
On July 12, Hong rallied with fellow Dream Act activists at San Bernardino Valley College. About 200 people were there. The participants chanted, shared their testimonies and took to the streets.
“As soon as the police came, we sat down.” Seven activists, Hong among them, sat on a large poster with the words, “We will no longer be silent,” and, “No SB 1070,” protesting Arizona’s notorious anti-illegal immigration law. About 20 police surrounded the activists and arrested them.
Hong and his friends were in jail for 12 hours. “We didn’t know how long we were going to stay there,” he said. “There was no clock. The lights were on. We didn’t know if it was morning or at night or anything like that.”
Hong said he felt scared. “We were arrested, handcuffed. I knew there is a risk. I might get sent to an ICE detention center. There was no guarantee that I’d get out.”
But a lot of people on the outside supported him. He had six fellow activists with him, too, and they’d begun chanting, “Isang Bagsak!” Hong writes in his public statement that this Filipino unity cry (“one down, one fall!”) means standing together and fighting for justice.
“By the time they were chanting, ‘Isang Bagsak,’ we were very strong. I wasn’t scared at all after that,” he said.
Tran said he was scared for his friend, though. “The first thing that comes to mind is his well-being. What was comforting was he was doing it for the right purpose, the right cause. He’s sacrificing his well-being for the undocumented community. I can say, ‘I may not like that you’re doing this, but at the end of the day I support you and your purpose.’”
Hong had planned his act of civil disobedience two months in advance but didn’t tell his mother until two days before. “The thing I worried about most was how I was going to tell my mom,” he said. “That’s what stressed me out most. Getting arrested, that was least important.”
Hong told his mother over the phone because he was already in southern California. “She started crying,” he said. “She was worried. But at the end of the conversation, she was very supportive. And she prayed for me on the phone.”
In a few weeks, Hong will find out whether or not he will be ordered to an immigration court hearing and begin the deportation process. “The waiting game is psychologically stressful,” he said.
Hong said he has to be mentally prepared for anything. Fall classes at Cal will be starting up soon. There, he’ll continue working toward a future that would include working as an immigrant rights organizer, going to law school then beginning a career as an immigration attorney. Or, if he gets deported, he has to start a new life in South Korea.
“I’d have to serve two years in the army. I haven’t been to Korea in 10 years, so I don’t know what the heck is going on there,” he said.
Cervantes said he remembered Hong always working under the assumption that the Dream Act would pass. “I was raised in Texas. I’m not conservative, but I’d always tell him, ‘These are the type of people you’re fighting against.’”
Cervantes said he’d feel bad if Hong was deported. “I wish him luck. Hopefully the decision that he made doesn’t come back and hurt him and his family. That’s a hard decision to make. I don’t wish him to be deported. I think he’s an effective member of society. I don’t even think he drinks. He’s always been involved in school and doing stuff.”
Tran tries not to talk about deportation with Hong. “We remain optimistic,” Tran said, “but if Ju were to leave, it would definitely be a heartbreaking experience. Words can’t describe how heartbreaking it would be. For a person of his caliber to be deported would not only be heartbreaking for me but a great loss for our community as well.”
There’s a 50-50 chance that Hong will start his deportation process, Chen said. “If he does, then he’ll fight it, just like everyone else has. And he’ll have a whole community behind him to fight it.”
Hong said that as an Asian undocumented student, it’s his duty to get the Asian community to come out of the shadows and work on the immigration rights issue.
“We have to work together,” he said. “The Dream Act will only pass when the Asian American community comes out on this issue. Also the gay community, white community, black community — support us. If the Latino community is the only one supporting this issue, it’s not going to go anywhere.”
Hong urges everyone to learn more about immigrants’ rights. “I respect whatever your stance may be, but be open,” he said. “Listen to our stories.”