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Another side of illegal immigration

Unlike their parents, who generally remain silent and live in fear and shame, young Asians and Pacific Islanders are joining to advocate immigration reform.

March 17, 2013|Steve Lopez
  • Geun Joo An, left, and Kevin Lee received protection last year under the Dream Act. Lee is a community organizer at the Korean Resource Center in L.A.
Geun Joo An, left, and Kevin Lee received protection last year under the… (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles…)

Denise Panaligan, a UCLA sophomore, didn't tell her mother where she was headed Wednesday morning. She knew that if she told the truth, her mother would worry.

     Panaligan, in blue jeans and white T-shirt, boarded a bus and traveled to Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles, where she met up with her friend Anthony Ng. They were the only two Asian Americans at an immigration reform rally conducted in English and Spanish.

     Panaligan, 19, confessed to me that she was nervous.


Because she had never stood up in public and admitted that she and her family had moved here a decade ago from the Philippines without papers. Like many of her peers who came to the United States as children, Panaligan had no idea she was undocumented until she was ready to apply for college and needed a Social Security number.

     But on Wednesday, when the master of ceremonies called her name, Panaligan pushed back her fear and stepped to the microphone.

     "It breaks my heart," she said of her parents' sense of "shame and guilt" over the family's illegal status. "They would apologize to me every day for the experiences I go through, being undocumented, when I should be thanking them for having the courage to leave everything behind for that American dream."

When the topic is illegal immigration, the focus is usually on Latinos. But more than 1 million of the nation's undocumented immigrants are Asian and Pacific Islanders, with an estimated 416,000 of them in California.

The older generation of undocumented Asians tends to stay silent. But Panaligan and other younger members of that group — who have benefited from the temporary protection President Obama extended last year to qualified young people under the Dream Act — think this may be a good time to seize on an opportunity.

They note that 73% of the Asian Americans who went to the polls in November cast votes for Obama, with immigration reform cited as a huge factor. They have seen Republican leaders reconsider the party's hard line on immigration. And they have seen national polls indicating majority support among U.S. citizens for a pathway to citizenship.

That's why Panaligan and others of her generation have decided to give up family secrets — not in defiance of their parents, but in a spirit of advocacy for them. And they are taking to the streets with Latinos, whose narratives parallel their own.

     "What is happening with the immigrant rights movement is reminiscent of the civil rights movement, and undocumented youths are in many ways leading it," said Betty Hung, policy director at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center.

     When she was done speaking Wednesday, Panaligan got a round of applause and a hug from a young Latina with a story nearly identical to hers, except for one thing. Panaligan's family is from the Philippines, and her new friend's family is from Peru.


Kevin Lee, 22, moved with his family from South Korea to Riverside when he was 9. He soon discovered that his parents had some weird rules about life in America.

"When I'd go outside with friends, I didn't feel different at all. But when my mom and dad would leave for work they'd always tell me to lock the doors, and whenever anybody knocks at the front door, you have to look out the back door to see if there's law enforcement."

That was his first clue that something was off.

"I used to have an outgoing personality back in South Korea, but these experiences made me very shy."

He was about 16 when he discovered what was going on. Other kids were applying for driver's permits, but when he asked his parents about getting a license himself, which required proof of citizenship, they finally told him what was up. He later learned they had hired an immigration lawyer for a lot of money to help, but that he accomplished nothing.

"Never speak about your status," his mother warned.

Lee did not take it well. Being a teenager was hard enough without a crisis over his national identity.

"At school they'd always ask for my Social Security number and I'd always have to say, 'Oh, I forgot it.' I was so shameful of my status, I couldn't tell them I didn't have it, and I was so concerned the school would contact law enforcement or ICE and they'd ship me back to Korea," Lee said. "I really resented my parents at first."

But as he got older, he said, he realized that his father's long hours and low pay at a grocery store, and his mother's hustling for tips as a waitress, were for his benefit.

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