DACA, A Student's Story: 'They Are The Types Of Immigrants You Want In Your Country'

Sep 16, 2017
Originally published on September 17, 2017 12:34 am

Dan Lee rarely talks about his status as a DACA recipient. Apart from having close family and friend confidants, the secret of being in the country illegally has weighed heavily on Lee ever since he learned he didn't have the proper paperwork in high school while applying for a job.

In an interview with NPR's Michel Martin, Lee remembers being 15 and thinking "What is the point of me doing anything if I'm not going to able to have a career or be able to, I guess, be 'normal'?"

Lee's parents brought him to the U.S. from South Korea in the hopes of giving him an American education. From what he can gather from his parents, they tried to pursue citizenship but ended up falling victim to an immigration scam.

Lee is part of about 20 percent of DACA recipients who came to the U.S. from Asia. South Koreans make up the majority of that demographic.

Because of DACA, Lee was able to get the documents needed to get a job and apply for school. Today he's a fourth-year political science student at American University in Washington D.C.

With news that President Trump has rescinded DACA with a six-month delay, he wanted to speak out.

"There are 800,000 people just like me," Lee says. "People who have full-time jobs, attending school. They are the types of immigrants you want in your country."

Interview Highlights

On why his immigration application didn't go through

My parents, they were scammed by a supposed immigration attorney and [they] didn't speak English. They didn't know how the American system worked. They didn't know the laws here and they just assumed, "Oh, if we hire an attorney, everything will work out." Turns out it didn't.

On his life before DACA was introduced

I see that Congress has tried to tackle immigration reform so many times and they've mostly failed over and over again and I realized that there's just simply no hope and I was going like, "What is the point of me even trying in school? What is the point of me doing anything if I'm not going to able to have a career or be able to, I guess, be 'normal'?"

On waiting to learn the fate of DACA

It's like when you're on a chair and you lean a little too back and you're just about to fall, right? And it's like feeling that perpetual falling feeling. I just want to be able to know if I'm going to be able to keep what I built here. I want to be able to one day own a house, have a family, have a job and watch football on Sundays peacefully.

On challenging claims that DACA recipients are criminals and welfare babies

In order to receive DACA, you need to pass a criminal background check. Not only that, you have to pay money to apply for DACA. It's close to $500, and compounding with the fact that you have to give your biometrics and the fact that you're not eligible for any sort of social benefit in the United States.

NPR producer Denise Guerra produced the audio version of this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Recently, we heard from a young immigrant from Mexico - the country from which the vast majority of DACA recipients arrived. Some 79 percent are from Mexico and most of the rest came from elsewhere in Central and South America. But among the recipients who don't come from there, most came from South Korea.

Dan Lee is one of them. He was born in Korea, and he's now a fourth-year student of political science at American University. He was nice enough to join us here at our studios in Washington, D.C. Dan Lee, thanks so much for being here.

DAN LEE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: First, would you just tell us a little bit about your story. How old were you when you came and why did your family come?

LEE: I was about 6 or 7-ish when we immigrated to the U.S. My parents - they grew up in South Korea. And they have a crush on the American education system, which they regard as one of the highest in the world. According to them, we came here on a tourist visa or one of the visas out there.

And we wanted to stay here for educational purposes and eventually go back. But they saw how well my little brother and I were adjusting in the United States, and they decided, you know what? We'll apply for an immigrant visa. And we'll apply for a green card eventually.

But unfortunately, things didn't work out because my parents - they were scammed by a supposed immigration attorney. And, you know, my parents didn't speak English. They didn't know how the American system worked. They didn't know the laws here. And they just assumed that, oh, if we hire an attorney, everything will work out. Turns out, it didn't.

MARTIN: Do you remember how old you were when you realized that your legal status was precarious?

LEE: I always knew it in the back of my mind. But it didn't really hit me until I was looking for a part-time job in high school. And I applied for a job. And I thought I aced the interview and everything. And then they're like, great, we'll need your documents, you know, your Social Security number. And I asked my mom like, hey, mom, where's all my documents and stuff like this? And my mom's like, yeah, you don't have any of those.

MARTIN: Do you remember thinking then about what it would mean for your future if you didn't have those documents? Do you remember kind of recognizing the impact of that?

LEE: Well, when I realized I was undocumented around like 15, like, that's when it really hit me. And I started doing a lot of research on it - on like what it means to be undocumented. Like, why do people call us illegals and stuff like that?

And I guess it was a tumultuous time. I was very, like, afraid for my future because I realized, oh, wait, I can't get a job. I'm not a eligible for any financial aid. I wanted to have a career in civil service, and I realized I couldn't do any of those things. And it was very depressing.

This was before DACA was introduced. So I thought, oh, no, like, given the historical data, like, I see that Congress has tried to tackle immigration reform so many times and they've mostly failed over and over again. And I realized there's just simply no hope.

And I was going like, what is the point of me even trying in school? What is the point of me doing anything if I'm not going to be able to have a career or be able to, I guess, be normal?

MARTIN: Did that have an effect on you? I mean, did you stop going to school or did you...

LEE: I did.

MARTIN: So how did you get back on track? You obviously did. I mean, you did wind up going to college.

LEE: My family has always been a very strong supporter. And I guess my brother also really did help a lot because he would say, like, you can't just wallow in self despair because, you know, one day, there's going to be an opportunity that's going to come by and you have to be ready to seize it.

MARTIN: What made you decide to come here today and talk with us? I mean, were glad you did. But what made you decide to come and talk with us?

LEE: You know, like, how people say don't let yourself live in fear? And you see all these, like, activists out there going like, I won't let myself live in fear. And I was thinking to myself like, what are you talking about? I live in fear (laughter). Like, this is, like, I can't just say that. And, like, I haven't actually told anybody that I was a DACA recipient until my girlfriend actually. And I realized it's almost liberating and that feeling is incredible.

MARTIN: What's your hope for the future? What's the hope - what's your hope for your future?

LEE: What do you mean hope for my future?

MARTIN: What's your hope? What do you hope will happen? What do you want to do?

LEE: I just want to, I guess, live that normal life where this issue isn't popping up and putting us in limbo because what I think is one of the worse fears or one of the worse aspects of this entire situation is - it's the waiting. It's the unknown and the uncertainty.

And there's a lot of, you know, back and forth between the White House and Congress right now. But it's the fact that we don't know what's going to happen. I wish they could just say it to get me out of this limbo.

It's like when you're on a chair and you lean a little too back and you're just about to fall, right? And it's feeling that like perpetual falling feeling. I just want to know if I'm going to be able to keep what I built here. I want to be able to one day own a house, have a family, have a job and watch football on Sundays peacefully.

MARTIN: That's Dan Lee. He's a fourth year student of political science at American University here in Washington, D.C. He's a DACA recipient. He was kind enough to join us here at our studios in Washington, D.C. Dan Lee, thanks so much for speaking with us.

LEE: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ESBE'S "FLOAT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.