The Nightmare of an American Dream with Jaeki Cho

Yo, I’m not posting these photos just to show off my impeccable jawline or the premature style choices of my bygone years.

These images were taken not too long after my family received permanent resident status AKA their “green cards.” For those who don’t know, a green card is the ultimate step for legal residency in America prior to the right to obtain citizenship. It serves as proof that its holders are lawful permanent residents, granting them benefits including permission to reside and take employment in the United States. My family was part of the wave of immigrants that arrived in America at the tail end of the Clinton era. We witnessed the tragedy of September 11 and helplessly watched as George W. Bush and his cabinet led the country to war. The turbulent period delayed the immigration process for thousands of families including my own. In parts of Queens, where I grew up, this was-– and still is–- a shared experience between numerous households.

 

I still have clear memories of those cold winter mornings waiting outside the social security office every year, ‘cause “non-residents” were required to renew their social security annually. I still remember the tears and agony of my parents living in uncertainty. It still breaks my heart recalling my father unable to express his frustration to our appointed paralegal at our attorney’s office (who, by the way, repeatedly misspelled our names in the documents).

After multiple attempts, referrals, and money spent, my entire family of four became permanent residents before I turned the age of 18. This allowed me to apply to private universities ‘cause it granted me student aid. Without that FAFSA and Sallie Mae, newly arrived immigrants can’t afford Fordham, NYU, or Cornell. It also gave me the freedom to travel. That second image was taken in Spain, smell me? But what would have happened if I couldn’t attend Fordham: Would I have interned at Complex? Would I have written for VIBE, Billboard, or KoreAm? Would I have gotten a job at XXL? Would I ever have managed musicians? Would I have had the confidence, courage, or belief to produce Bad Rap the film? Would I have met the group of friends and colleagues I have now?

 

Not all of my friends were as fortunate as I was. Some returned to their native countries, some married citizens and got sponsored, some joined the military and became permanent residents while others stayed in perpetual limbo either working at cash-paying, non-corporate gigs or resorting to a life of petty crime.

 

Then the Obama administration attempted to pass the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. If successful, it would’ve enabled anywhere between thousands to millions of individuals to obtain their green cards. With years in the making, we knew that the DREAM Act was a long shot and Republicans were quick to shut it down.  

 

Since 2001 to 2011, various forms of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act was introduced, attempted, but failed to pass. If successful, it would’ve enabled millions of teenagers and young adults to obtain green cards. Eventually, in 2012, the Obama administration enforced Deferred Action for Children Arrivals (DACA) as an executive memoranda. DACA granted temporary legal residency for those who 1) immigrated before the age of 16 or were younger than 31 years of age by June 15, 2012, 2) received their high school diploma, 3) lived in America for at least five years, and 4) were clear of any serious criminal record. As a result, I saw many friends finally get their driver’s licenses, finish schools, and even land corporate jobs at esteemed companies. Just imagine living day to day with no rights to vote, no social security number to report your income, no access to higher education, and no law to protect your existence. Navigating such a life must’ve felt like a long-winded bad dream wandering in the darkness with no map or flashlight for direction.

What the Trump administration is doing now is both inhumane and classist. It goes against the philosophy of this nation’s core value, which welcomes all immigrants to join forces like Voltron. Here’s the irony: If a rich foreign national can invest a minimum of half a million dollars as a business owner and create ten full-time jobs in the U.S., he or she can receive permanent residency. It’s one of the many reasons why there’s an influx of Chinese immigrants buying property from coast to coast. Rescinding DACA is taking away the rights of young adults that only know America as their home. So technically, a non-English-speaking multi-millionaire who owns a condo that he only uses six months out of the year and runs a dubious company has more rights as an “American” than a hardworking immigrant kid who went through every step of the U.S. public school system and holds a bachelor’s degree from a prestigious university.

This particular situation is especially heavy duty for me. I wasn’t born in this country so I’ll consider myself an 1.5-generation immigrant until I’m buried. I’m a naturalized U.S. citizen, who went through the rigorous process of obtaining a permanent resident status. I could’ve been under DACA and experienced the same sentiment that thousands are facing during this time of turmoil.  I thank America for giving my family the opportunity to persevere and establish our home. I don’t always agree with this country’s national discourse or the government’s decisions, but I wouldn’t choose to live anywhere else (maybe when I hit a much higher tax bracket). On that note, to all citizens of this country, remember: You or your predecessor were an immigrant at one point. Reasons may vary, but there’s no such thing as a glorious immigration. You leave your home for opportunities, with hopes that your new home is better. People under DACA came to the U.S. when they were less than 16 years old with parents that wanted to find a better home. And this is supposed to be the home that’s “better”? Come on, B. We need to be more righteous and embody the notion of egalitarianism and fairness, not just giving lip service. That’s aiming at politicians and everyone in the U.S. society benefiting from immigration.

 

It’s difficult to speak about one’s immigration status even amongst friends. So to all my homies under DACA, please keep y’all heads up. We’re here for you.

Originally submitted for Issue 8 of Undo Magazine. 

Author: JAEKI CHO

 

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