When Esder Chong takes her seat in the U.S. House of Representatives chamber for President Trump’s first State of the Union address Tuesday night, she hopes her presence will make a statement: that DACA is more than just a Latino issue.
“If I can add another face and sense of diversity on this undocumented issue, I hope it will make people think differently about this issue and who Dreamers really are,” the 19-year-old Korean DACA recipient and sophomore at Rutgers University-Newark told Yahoo News.
Chong, who will attend the president’s highly anticipated speech as a guest of Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., is one of two dozen DACA recipients and others affected by Trump’s immigration policies who will be in the audience Tuesday night. The speech comes nearly five months after the Trump administration announced its plan to terminate the DACA program, and amid a tense stalemate between Trump and Congress over whether and in what form to extend it. Most recently, the White House backed a proposal to create a pathway to citizenship for nearly 2 million so-called Dreamers like Chong in exchange for sweeping policy changes intended to cut back both legal and illegal immigration. These would include increased funding for a border wall and other enforcement measures, terminating the diversity visa lottery program and imposing restrictions on family migration.
“We’ve really had enough of holding Dreamers as a bargaining chip and an excuse to pass their own radical agendas,” Chong said Monday, in anticipation of what Trump might say about his immigration proposal Tuesday night.
“Esder is an outstanding scholar [and] athlete who is an asset to her community and to her classmates,” Pallone said in a statement regarding his decision to invite Chong. She “is exactly the type of young person we should be encouraging and supporting, not deporting. New Jersey is Esder’s home and she shouldn’t live in fear because of partisanship and procrastination in Congress. I’m proud to have her as my guest at the State of the Union and I deeply appreciate her courage in telling her story.”
Chong was six years old when she and her family came to the U.S. from South Korea and settled in Highland Park, New Jersey. Her mother, a registered nurse with a work visa and a job at a local hospital, had originally brought the family over legally in 2005. But a few years later, when the economic recession hit, Chong’s mother lost her job, and with it, her visa sponsorship. The family no longer had legal status.
It wasn’t until Chong was in high school that she regained a measure of security under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, created by President Obama in 2012. Under DACA, the New Jersey teen could now work, drive, and simply live without fear of deportation. With the help of several scholarships, she was able to enroll at Rutgers University-Newark, where, during her freshman year, she founded RU Dreamers, an advocacy group for undocumented students.
“High school was not an environment where I could be comfortable to come out and speak about my situation,” she said. “I just wanted to make the campus a more inclusive environment for immigrants.” She also joined the school’s track and field team, and as a sophomore is already a news editor for the campus paper, “The Observer.”
“When I first heard about the rescission of DACA, I was obviously frustrated and then I started calculating when my DACA expired,” she said. When she realized that her current protection — which must be renewed every two years — would expire in the fall of 2019, the semester when she expects to graduate, she “became very nervous and anxious.”
“It was almost demotivating,” she said, echoing a sentiment expressed by other students with DACA status. “All the hard work and energy and money and effort I put into studying and doing all these things on campus, running for track, the newspaper, this organization, seemed kind of meaningless because upon graduation I might not get a job or go to law school.”
Chong said that anxiety is shared by the other members of RU Dreamers. “We’re just waiting for a comprehensive legislation to come around,” she said.
Among the other DACA recipients in the House chambers Tuesday will be UCLA student Denea Joseph, who was invited by Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin’s guest, Cesar Montelongo, a third year MD-PhD student at Loyola University Chicago’s Stritch School of Medicine.
Almost all the Dreamers in the audience will be accompanying Democratic members of Congress except one. Adrian Escarate, a Miami-based professional tennis coach who was brought to the U.S. from Chile at 3 years old, will attend the address as the guest of Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida.
“I’m honored to have Adrian be my guest for the State of the Union,” Curbelo said in a statement. “One of my chief legislative priorities this Congress and the last has been to forge a compromise on immigration that delivers a fair, permanent solution for young immigrants like him. I was encouraged by the immigration outline the White House released yesterday, and look forward to working with colleagues from both sides of the aisle next week to make sure Congress fully recognizes America’s Children — young men and women like Adrian who are contributing greatly to our country.”
Dreamers aren’t the only ones who’ve been impacted by the Trump administration’s immigration policies. Members of Congress have also extended invitations to people like Nery Martinez, a father of two U.S. citizens who has lived in Las Vegas since fleeing civil war in his native El Salvador in the 1990s. Martinez, who will attend as a guest of Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen of Nevada, together with his wife is in the U.S. under temporary protected status, or TPS, a program intended to shield refugees from persecution, violence or natural disasters, which the Trump administration recently terminated for citizens of El Salvador, Nicaragua and Haiti.
Cindy Garcia, a U.S. citizen whose husband, Jorge Garcia — a father of two with no criminal record, who’d been living in the U.S. since he was 10 — was deported earlier this month, will also be attending, as the guest of Michigan Democratic Rep. Debbie Dingell. Garcia is one of several relatives of immigrants who’ve been detained or deported under Trump.
Though Chong is still currently covered by DACA, the gravity of the situation currently facing undocumented immigrants really hit home last week, when an Indonesian man who overstayed his visa and feared arrest by the ICE took sanctuary at a church in Chong’s hometown of Highland Park, joining two others who have been in the church for some time.
“Just the fact that ICE was in my hometown really made it a reality that every day this legislation isn’t passed it is separating families and putting us at risk of deportation,” Chong said, referring to herself and her fellow Dreamers as well as to her parents, who are also undocumented.
“Dreamers, including my parents, are Americans in virtually every way … besides not having papers,” she said. “I don’t know what an American is if I don’t fit that definition.”
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