Ju Hong - Undocumented student activist Photo by Allison Yin Weddings

Ju Hong

Cal Dreamer finds his voice, and helps others do the same

Ju came to the United States with his family on a tourist visa when he was 11. He learned of his undocumented status when he was applying for college.

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Update: May 2016

“I will never allow my immigration status to hinder me from achieving my dreams.” Ju is now 26 years old, and recently graduated from San Francisco State University with a master’s degree in public administration. Ju is using his education to help other undocumented immigrants and their communities. Congratulations, Ju!

Ju is an undergraduate student at U.C. Berkeley. He was born in Seoul, South Korea and came to the United States at age 11 with his mother and sister. It was not until he was applying to colleges as a senior in high school that he learned a secret his mother had kept from him for years: Ju is undocumented.

Nationally, there are an estimated 1.9 million young people who were brought to the United States as children by undocumented parents and who are denied many rights and opportunities that their peers take for granted. Since learning about his status, Ju has become an outspoken advocate on behalf of undocumented students and their families. He spoke with us about his life journey shortly after California Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation that provides qualifying undocumented students at state colleges and universities with the ability to access private scholarships as well as publicly supported financial aid.

An Impossible Situation in Korea

My parents had a Japanese restaurant in Seoul. At first, the business went quite well. Later on, because of the recession we started losing business and we had to take out more loans.

I remember one night when debt collectors came to our home demanding money. My mom fell down and cried and asked them not to hurt us. But the debt collectors grabbed a chair and threw it at our window. It shattered and the glass was everywhere. I remember that night was the turning point where we couldn’t take it anymore.

After that incident, we closed the business. A few months later, my mom and my dad got a divorce because of all the stress. Ever since then, I lived with my mom and my sister. We tried to find better opportunities in South Korea, but it was impossible.

Ju’s mother decided to leave South Korea for the United States. The family came here on tourist visas intended to allow non-immigrants from other countries to enter the United States on a short-term basis for business or pleasure.

My mom told me one day that we were going to the U.S., and my initial reaction was that I didn’t want to go. I had all my friends in South Korea, my relatives and my family were there, and I didn’t know anything about American culture. I didn’t even speak English. But my mom told me that it would be like a vacation.

Whether I said no or yes, I think her decision was already made. Obviously her intention was to find a better life for me and my sister.

Assimilating into American Life Through Basketball

The family settled in the Bay Area, where Ju’s mom found work in a restaurant. Ju started attending public school in Alameda. While undocumented students often face challenges and barriers when it comes to applying for and enrolling in post-secondary education, K-12 public schools in the United States are required to serve all students without asking about their immigration status.

We were living in Alameda, in a one-bedroom apartment where my mom and my sister and I stayed. Just a couple of days after we got here, I had to enroll in middle school. At the time, I had no idea how to speak English, and so I was immediately placed in an ESL (English as a Second Language) program and started from there.

What amazed me as I started school was the diversity of the people. In South Korea, it was very homogeneous. It was all Koreans. But when I came here, there were African-American people, Caucasian American people, Southeast Asians, Latino American people and more. I was shocked and fascinated to see all of the world in this one place.

At the same time, I was very nervous. I didn’t know how to approach people. I was very shy. But the good thing was that folks from the ESL program came from a similar background, so I felt comfortable as I got to know other immigrants who were in the same situation as I was.

And the other thing that helped me get more comfortable was basketball. Back in South Korea, I used to play basketball a lot. At my new school, playing basketball was a way for me to interact with people even if I couldn’t really express myself. And so that’s how I got to know a lot of people, and I started to speak English, and I started to hang out with different folks. I started to enjoy going to school and meeting new people, and assimilating into this new culture.

Ju Hong — Undocumented student activist

Eventually, I felt really comfortable speaking English, and I was getting good grades. My mom always pushed for me to study hard and get a good education so I could go to college. And that was my motivation.

Ju continued to do well through high school. When it came time to apply to colleges, he asked his mother for his Social Security Number, and she told him he didn’t have one. She explained that the family’s tourist visas had long ago expired, making Ju and his mother and sister undocumented immigrants.

Undocumented: More than Just a Label?

Nationwide, there are an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. Because of their status, undocumented immigrants can’t find jobs in the mainstream economy and they face the risk of being deported at any time. Each year, an estimated 25,000 undocumented students graduate from California high schools.

At the time, I didn’t know what it meant to be an undocumented student. I thought everything would be OK because it’s just a label. So I completed my college applications, and I was admitted to a number of prestigious universities. When I got my first acceptance letter from U.C. Davis, I cried with joy because it felt like all the hard work in school had paid off, and I was thinking of everything I had been through coming to the U.S. and learning English and being from a family that really struggled to get by.

At the time, I didn’t know what it meant to be an undocumented student. I thought everything would be OK because it’s just a label. But then we found out how expensive it would be for me to enroll, and we learned that I couldn’t get any financial aid because of my immigration status.

But then we found out how expensive it would be for me to enroll, and we learned that I couldn’t get any financial aid because of my immigration status. My mom said I shouldn’t worry about the financial problems and said she’d take care of it. But we were already struggling to pay our rent, and it just wasn’t possible. And so I decided not to go. And then I started to learn more about what it meant to be undocumented in the U.S., and that’s when everything hit me.

And then I started to learn more about what it meant to be undocumented in the U.S., and that’s when everything hit me.

At the very end of my senior year in high school, when a lot of other students were talking about what colleges they were going to, I just kind of shut down. I didn’t want to talk about my immigration status or about college with other students. I felt like I was a very different person all of a sudden. Before, I had been very outgoing and I was very involved in a lot of different organizations and different extracurricular activities. But at the end of my senior year, I stopped interacting with a lot of my friends and I slowly became depressed. I started thinking about whether I should go back to Korea. I starting blaming my mom for everything and I was having a very difficult time.

Ju ended up enrolling at Laney Community College in Oakland. A California law passed in 2001, AB540, allows undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities in the state. California is one of just a handful of states providing in-state tuition benefits to undocumented students.

Navigating the Immigration Maze

At first, I felt like I didn’t want to go the community college route because I already was accepted to some very prestigious universities. But then my mom found out about AB 540 and I think that’s when I began to have hope again. And so then I started to find out more about the options that were available to me as an undocumented student. That’s when I first learned about the California DREAM Act and all of the different immigration reforms that people had proposed. And I realized that I could potentially get financial aid if these laws were passed, and I could potentially even stay in the United States and find work and have a real career. And that really blew my mind.

Ju Hong — Undocumented student activist

As I was learning more about all of this, I also was finding stories of other undocumented immigrants. And this was very inspiring for me because I had thought I was all alone. But here were these other people in the same situation and a lot of them were speaking up for changes in the law. When I first learned about my status and that I could face deportation, I didn’t want to talk to anyone about any of this. But when I saw other people risking their lives to share their testimony about their immigration status, I thought it was inspiring. And so now I wanted to express myself and let my voice be heard, not only to empower other undocumented immigrant students, but also to try and make a difference in pushing for legislation that would affect me and my family, and also other immigrant communities, in a very positive way.

Ju started an anonymous blog about being an undocumented student. Before long, he decided to be more public about his status — writing a column for the Laney Community College paper, posting a YouTube video in which he talked openly about being undocumented, and eventually running for president of the student body. He became the first Asian American and the first undocumented student to hold the position.

Finding a Voice, and Helping Others Do the Same

Ju Hong — Undocumented student activist

One thing that was motivating me was that I especially wanted to urge Asian-American communities to face up to these issues and stop discriminating against undocumented immigrants and support the DREAM Act and immigration reform. I had a lot of hesitation about doing this at first because I could have been deported at any time. But at the same time, I was very frustrated and I really wanted to let my voice be heard.

I wanted to empower other undocumented immigrant students to come out, and to understand that they are not alone and that we can support one another.

I was looking at my mom and my sister working so hard, and I was feeling like they deserved a lot better. I deserved a lot better too. The law was treating us as inferior beings and as criminals, and I really wanted to show that this was not the case. I really believed I could change people’s point of view about immigration issues by getting them to listen to my story. I also wanted to empower other undocumented immigrant students to come out, and to understand that they are not alone and that we can support one another.

Ju transferred to Berkeley and started there in the fall of 2010. He quickly became active in student government at Berkeley, winning a seat in the student senate and becoming an advocate for undocumented students on campus.

The university president’s office reports that there are 440 undocumented students on the Berkeley campus who qualify for in-state tuition under the AB 540 law, meaning they have demonstrated financial need and a grade point average of 3.0 or above. On a statewide basis, 40 percent of undocumented students in the University of California system are Asians.

Serving the AB540 Students

When I was in community college, I realized how much impact I could have through student government. Based on that experience, I decided to run for office at Berkeley.

At the time, I was very open about my immigration status. And I wanted to help create a safe space on campus for undocumented students, and develop counseling programs and other resources for AB 540 students.

I ran on a platform of supporting AB 540 students. And even though I was a transfer student and didn’t know that many people at U.C. Berkeley, I had a lot of support because a lot of people care about these issues. And so I was elected.

At Berkeley, Ju has continued his role as a high-profile advocate of undocumented students’ rights. At first, the focus of his advocacy was the California DREAM Act, legislation that would provide undocumented students with access to private scholarships and state-supported financial aid. In the summer of 2011, Ju was arrested for blocking a street with other protesters during an immigration rally in San Bernardino that was intended in part to build support for the California DREAM Act. The act, broken into two parts, ultimately became law that fall with the signature of Governor Jerry Brown.

Activism Helps Make DREAM a Reality

I did a lot of work pushing for the California DREAM Act. I did phone banking, press conferences, petition drives, events and rallies. I spoke at many different conferences, and I wrote my own opinion column for a Berkeley newspaper. I also did interviews with the national media and shared my testimony.

It was incredible because we worked so hard, and it was rewarding to see how activism can matter and how it works when people collectively push for something.

And when the California DREAM Act was passed, it was incredible because we worked so hard, and it was rewarding to see how activism can matter and how it works when people collectively push for something.

Ju will now be eligible for private scholarships as they become available in the wake of Governor Brown’s approval of the California DREAM Act. The financial aid to be provided by the university under the law won’t be available until the end of Ju’s tenure at Berkeley, but such assistance could help him cover the costs of law school or other graduate education.

Ju Hong — Undocumented student activist

Ju’s current focus is on continuing his education while setting his sights on national immigration reform. He explained that even with the California DREAM Act in place, undocumented students still face an uncertain future in the United States because of their inability to find jobs.

I’m studying political science, and I’m really enjoying my major because I’m learning about public policy and law and political systems. And now I think I’m going to pursue a career in law or public policy. I want to become an immigration attorney so I can give back to people and help protect them. And hopefully one day I can be a policymaker and try and fix our broken immigration system.