[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #11 in July 2010]
I vividly remember the song “Under the Sea” from the movie The Little Mermaid. It was my first time watching a movie in the theater. It was my sister who took me to the movie when she got her first paycheck. I’m not sure how intentional she was, but my sister also made a powerful impact on me when she took me to the orphanage where she volunteered during her winter breaks. I was 13 years old, and at that time I was just happy to be part of the field trip. But after this short visit, I cared more about poverty, children and women’s issues. Later, I tutored a group of kids in the orphanage when I went to college, and decided to enter a helping profession. Eventually, these early influences from my sister led me to become a social worker.
My sister is 9 years older than I am. She got married when she was 23 and moved out of our family’s home. So it wasn’t until I came to Chicago in 2001 that she and I had the opportunity to share more memories together.
April 2011 marked my 10 year anniversary in the US. In that time, I managed to get my master’s degree in social work, and became a community organizer with low-income seniors. I also met other progressive Korean Americans in organizations like the Korean American Resource and Cultural Center (KRCC). Soon after I came to Chicago, I found KRCC. It was through one of my good friends, and it was very comforting to know there were people I wanted to be friends with. KRCC was founded by a group of low-income immigrant Korean American youth in 1995, but they didn’t have a paid staff until 2000. I remember people talking about selling roses on Valentine’s Day to buy a printer. I went to KRCC for its library about the history of Korean Americans to write papers for school. KRCC offered many different learning experiences through volunteering, participating in group discussions and registering voters. Before I met the people at KRCC, I never thought Chicago could be my second home. After becoming involved with KRCC though, I bought a condo with my sister in 2006. I came to call Chicago home, finally got my green card, and eventually came to work at KRCC as the Youth Program Director.
I came to Chicago because there weren’t many jobs for young college graduates in Korea. At that time, both my sister and my brother lived in Chicago, so I came here to go to graduate school. My sister came to the US four years before me, with my brother-in-law, who attended seminary in Iowa. At the time, Korea was in post-IMF crisis and the dollar was twice as expensive as before. Many people gave up on coming to the US, but my sister and brother-in-law thought God would make a way if they worked hard.
My sister came here on a student-spouse visa. One summer she and her husband decided to take classes together, so she changed her status to student. She did not know that she had to change it back when her studies ended, so she didn’t learn that she was undocumented until my brother-in-law tried to change his status from a student to a work visa. They sought to apply together, but the lawyer said it was not a good idea to apply with an undocumented spouse. They knew then that if they left the country, my sister couldn’t return for 10 years. With no job prospects in Korea, and conversations about comprehensive immigration reform underway in the US, they stayed and remained hopeful about life here.
My sister is very active in her church and conducts Sunday School. She is in Bible Study with another couple. She has a sense of community with other moms—a group of friends whose kids are the same ages. She and my nephews have come to immigration rallies with me. She is very remorseful, which is why she is saving money in case a legalization process is established—so she can hire a lawyer, pay a fine and adjust her status. She wants to return to school for early childhood education and run a daycare center one day.
Several months ago, my sister’s purse was snatched while she was walking down the street. We felt much fear researching whether she could replace her driver’s license, worrying that she might get deported. She needed a license badly because she needs some kind of ID. Also, now that my nephews go to school, she has to drive more frequently. Luckily, my sister was able to get her license replaced legitimately. As a green card holder myself, I often learn about changes in immigration rules via my friends’ experiences. Yet my sister will not be talking to other undocumented people about renewing her driver’s license. Being undocumented can be an isolating experience, though for my sister it came about unexpectedly.
We thought comprehensive immigration reform would occur before a family-based visa sponsorship could bear fruit. Right now, I know my sister feels that she is in limbo as an undocumented person in the US. I don’t want my sister to feel that she is floating. I want her to feel rooted in our community and loved in this land. I live with my sister, my brother-in-law and my nephews; comprehensive immigration reform and the Reuniting Families Act would improve all of our lives. The Korean American community in Chicago is now estimated at 100,000 people, so I know my family is not alone. This knowledge continues to motivate and inspire my work in the community.