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Illegal Alien

As a child, I loved to swim. I found the feeling of gasping for air to be exhilarating, because it reminded me that I was alive. As I felt my heart pump harder to percolate oxygen to my fatigued muscles, all I knew in that moment was the pain. Nothing else mattered—it was a struggle against myself, a struggle to beat back the relentless waves of fatigue and fear of failure. My father taught me what to think in those moments of seemingly everlasting weakness—“dulyeoumen ma-eum ae,” Korean for “fear exists only in the mind.”

Heeding his own advice, my parents brought me to the United States when I was seven. They had everything they wanted in South Korea—a stable job, a loving family, and a country they knew to be home. Yet they were unsatisfied. They wanted to give me a better life and to experience how big the world is. We left with three suitcases filled with clothes and two photo albums—one with pictures from Korea and one for the memories we were going to make in America.

We settled in an area of Queens highly populated by immigrants. I began second grade and discovered an early passion for science. After school, I stayed buried in my phonics book, trying to learn the squiggly letters of the alphabet, while waiting at the cosmetics store where my mom worked. When we got home, I spent hours every day after dinner watching shows like “Ed, Edd n Eddy” and “Dexter’s Laboratory,” repeating each sentence aloud to desperately try to mimic every syllable, sentence structure, and sound.

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I was bolstered by a community that rewarded and fostered hard work. Throughout elementary school and junior high, however, I had always known that our presence here was not welcome. One summer evening, I remember hearing my mother’s sobs from the kitchen table in our small one-bedroom apartment. It was late, but not late enough that my father had returned from working his double shift at the Korean restaurant. “Wae ge rae?” I asked. (“What’s wrong?) I gingerly embraced her as she told me there had been “problems with our papers.” I didn’t have the first clue about what that meant, or how it would impact our future. Throughout my childhood, my parents intentionally hid concerns about our status from me. We never spoke of it much; “the problem”—that was how we referred to it, with no explanation or elaboration.

When I was a sophomore in high school, I was accepted to a summer internship at a prestigious research institution in Manhattan. In the middle of the program, the director approached me during lunch with a concerned look on her face. “Could you please come with me?” The sharp clicks of her heels turned into thumps as we entered the carpeted floor of her office. She sighed and looked at me—“I’m sorry, but I’m afraid our institution doesn’t allow foreign aliens to participate in our program.” The words hovered in the air, delayed only by my brain’s refusal to take in their meaning. I felt the confidence and determination drain out of me. I could only manage a feeble “Okay, I understand.”

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I confronted my parents that night about what I had been told, and it devastated them. That night was the only time I saw my father cry. To my parents, my success and future was the reason they left their home; my success was inextricably linked to their happiness.

When my parents and I immigrated to the States, we came legally. We petitioned the government and made arrangements to adjust our status through a sponsorship from an eligible American citizen. It turned out that the individual who had sponsored us (my mother’s employer) was not eligible to do so in the first place because she had not paid her taxes promptly. My parents had done nothing wrong. They had followed legal procedures and came to this country to claim a share of America’s promise—the idea that if you work hard and are honest, you can make it. Yet, only a few months after we filed for permanent residency, we were informed of our sponsor’s transgression and ineligibility, and told that the only legal option was to leave the States, and wait out the 10-year ban before re-applying.

For many, undocumented by definition means “border crosser” or “criminal.” However, a substantial portion—between 33 and 50 percent—of undocumented immigrants are visa overstayers. For many, this makes no difference—whether one crossed the border or overstayed their visa, a criminal is a criminal. Legally, however, overstaying a visa is a civil offense—akin to not paying your bills or violating a formal contract. This distinction is especially relevant during this election cycle, where presidential candidates and news organizations alike seemingly throw around these terms without nuance.

The distinction matters because being undocumented is not a singular experience. How an undocumented immigrant experiences her status depends on a multitude of factors, including country of origin, port of entry, race, ethnicity, educational attainment, income, gender, sexual orientation, and more. This is why calling an undocumented immigrant an “illegal” is not “calling it like it is”—it’s factually inaccurate, and contributes to the inflammatory rhetoric that surrounds the issue today.

Ultimately, my story is one of millions. Millions of lives, experiences, and challenges. But for me, this is personal. I feel a responsibility to share my story because many undocumented immigrants are voiceless, including my parents. They face discrimination, lack of access to health care, and a perpetual fear of the unknown. And many, like my parents, have been swept up by an immigration system that makes it impossible for people to “get right with the law” even if they wanted to. This issue affects real human beings; future discussions must reflect the dignity that they deserve.


Jin Park ‘18 is a Molecular and Cellular Biology concentrator living in Cabot House.

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