Four uniformed agents bashed down Tony Choi's dorm room door. He started awake as they stormed in. Four unfamiliar figures surrounded him. He was
confused. But there was no time to react. They yanked him out of bed. He was still in his pajamas. He screamed as they dragged him away.
Then, they vanished as suddenly as they had appeared.
It took a minute for reality to sink in: this was the same nightmare he'd been having ever since the fall semester began.
It was 2008 - Choi's sophomore year at Berea College, in Kentucky, where he majored in political science and Spanish - when everything went awry.
The country was in the midst of an economic crisis. Choi's college, facing a shortage of funds, was forced to cut his scholarship stipend. At the same
time, his mother in New Jersey had just been diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer and had stopped working. His education prospects seemed dire, and he
felt powerless. Worse, Choi was an undocumented immigrant..
The stress built up on Choi. He grew paranoid and insecure. He constantly imagined that government agents were out to arrest him.
"I was isolated and 700 miles away from home. My family couldn't help me. I was very, very afraid," he said. "I just kept having panic attacks. I would
freak out that someone would find out (about my immigration status). I think that's what started the nightmares."
Choi continued to have similar dreams at least once a week throughout fall. They'd become so recurrent that he was convinced they would become reality.
"I read stories online about immigrant families being detained or whatever, so I was like, I need to prepare to get the hell out of here," he said.
With that, Choi plotted his grand escape, to be triggered if anyone at Berea should learn of his status. He planned to escape, by foot, 120 miles from
Berea, KY, over the state border to Cincinnati, OH.
"I went down to Walmart and bought a first-aid kit and a blanket," he described. "I printed Google maps. They're about this thick," his thumb and index
finger measured a quarter-inch. "I couldn't walk on the Interstate (highway), so I wanted to know which back roads I could take to Cincinnati."
Choi's ready-to-go escape toolkit, that would let him flee the state between the moment when an acquaintance realized he was undocumented and moment when
the authorities would actually show up at his door, included flashlights and extra batteries, a change of clothes, and water. He also packed $100 in
"I'd camp out in the wilderness. That's why I would have blankets. I would be sleeping out in the open," he said. "I mean, I was paranoid."
"At Cincinnati, I'll catch the train to New York," he figured, "and then from there back home to New Jersey," he said.
* * *
I met Choi five years later at his office at the MinKwon Center for Community Action in Flushing, Queens. He commutes two hours daily by bus and train to
and from Little Ferry, New Jersey.
Once a predominantly white neighborhood, Flushing has undergone major demographic change since the 1970s, when first the Taiwanese, then the Koreans, and
the mainland Chinese surged in.
Today, Flushing is one of the largest Asian enclaves in New York City. Shop signs and advertisement boards along Main Street, Flushing's central drag, are
mostly printed in Chinese.
The people flooding the narrow sidewalks of Main Street are largely topped by black hair. They jostle for space among the merchants peddling goods like
fruits and vegetables, Chinese herbs, two-dollar pirated DVDs, made-in-China phone accessories, and leather shoes that spill out onto the sidewalks. The
conversations overheard are usually conducted in Mandarin or the Wenzhou and Fuzhou dialects. Many residents, especially older ones, don't speak English.
The air, someone told me, smells like China, the sour, fishy odor of wet food, markets, garbage and grease blended together.
An undocumented Asian person can easily blend in in this busy neighbordhood. Marilyn Bitterman, the district manager of Queens Community Board 7, estimates
that around 40,000 undocumented people live in her district, which includes downtown Flushing. In total, 11.1 million undocumented immigrants were residing
in the United States in 2011, according to the Pew Hispanic Center in a latest report. This is roughly the equivalent of the entire population of Ohio, the
seventh-most populous state in the U.S.
Choi suggested taking breakfast at the McDonald's on Main Street, next to a Chinese herbal pharmacy. Choi's hair was cropped atop his round face like Bart
Simpson. His blue T-shirt was left tucked out over a pair of jeans.
Pop hits from the American charts greeted us as we stepped in. I reminded him over the loud music that he'd be talking about his illegal immigrant status
at a public place. He shrugged. There's not a white person in the restaurant.
Choi, 24, was born and raised in Seoul, South Korea. In 1997, during the Asian financial crisis, his family's lumber company went bust, forcing them to
declare bankruptcy. Their home was foreclosed by the bank.
"I remember coming home one day from school and seeing all of the things in my house having pink stickers on them. All of our appliances and furniture," he
recalled. "I was like, why are they on my bed, on my desk, and everything. I didn't know what they meant. I asked, but my mum didn't give me an answer. My
family doesn't like to explain things to me." It was only when he grew older that Choi realized that the bank was auctioning those items off.
"Whenever people would call for my father, I would always have to tell them that they'd called the wrong number. He was trying to avoid the debtors," Choi
continued in a flat American accent. At that time, Choi received two to three of these calls each day.
His family moved in with his paternal grandmother a few weeks after, but they couldn't bring anything with them.
Social stigma was associated with bankruptcies in South Korea. Choi's paternal relatives refused to help his father, despite being wealthy landowners
"We couldn't see any avenue of social advancement in Korea. So we moved to Hawaii when I was 9, and lived there for a year before we moved again to New
He paused. I waited a while as he took a bite on his McMuffin. The four elementary school-aged Hispanic kids at the adjacent table climbed up and down
their chairs and raced around in a game of tag.
"We didn't plan on being undocumented for 14 years," Choi finally continued. "We entered using the tourist visa, with the intention of adjusting our
status. But the opportunity just never came. None of my parents' employers could sponsor their work permits which would have set them on the path to a
"I was angry with my mum for not being able to provide for me what my US citizen friends had," Choi added. "It was only when I was in college that I
realized it's not entirely her fault, and that the system's so broken it's forced us to become undocumented."
"I've always known that I'm undocumented. I've known it since the day my B-2 visa expired," he said, referring to the tourist visa for temporary entry (not
more than six months) into the U.S.
He was, however, forbidden by his family from revealing this secret to anyone outside. The horror of being sent back to South Korea was deeply ingrained in
him from young.
A pair of South Korean brothers who went to Choi's church in New Jersey received deportation orders after their identities were exposed, though Choi was
unsure who gave them away. Rumors rippled through the small and isolated Korean community in New Jersey about the hideous conditions of immigration
detention centers. "Sometimes they drug you going onto the plane," Choi said he had heard.
A report released last November by Detention Watch Network, a national coalition working for the reform of the U.S. deportation system, lists the Hudson
County Jail in New Jersey as one of the ten worst detention centers in the country. People reported waiting up to months for medical care. They complained
about inedible food, the use of solitary confinement as punishment, and denied access to legal assistance. The brothers bought their own tickets back to
South Korea after they completed college, in order to avoid being deported by the government.
"My parents, my sister, they told me, 'Don't ever tell anyone about your immigration status,'" he said. "And whenever I would bring the topic up, they
would be like, 'Do you really want the police knocking down our doors?'"
"It's scary, knowing it's a secret you always have to hold, that you always have to fear."
* * *
Asian undocumented immigrants have traditionally been less visible and vocal than their Hispanic counterparts. Most of the undocumented immigrants who have
gone public in the media about their status are Hispanic. In contrast, one rarely sees Asians talking about the issue on television.
In her acceptance speech, the Democratic nominee took on her Republican rival by throwing Donald Trump’s own words back at him.
The unicorn of American politics, the “real Hillary Clinton”—the Hillary Clinton I’ve known for nearly 30 years—that Hillary Clinton likes to wear low-heeled shoes to a butt-kicking.
“A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons,” she said of her Republican rival, Donald Trump, while accepting the Democratic presidential nomination, the first woman in U.S. history to head a major-party ticket.
It was a sound bite for the ages, searing and on point.
“Do you really think Donald Trump has the temperament to be commander in chief?” she continued. “Donald Trump can’t even handle the rough and tumble of a presidential campaign. He loses his cool at the slightest provocation. Imagine, if you dare, imagine him in the Oval Office facing a crisis.”
The comparatively less flashy, less spirited former First Kid managed to show her mom’s softer side at the DNC on Thursday.
Yes, yes, yes. Chelsea Clinton is not the most charismatic orator—as the Twittersphere was happy to point out during her brief address on Thursday night. She is like her mother that way. There’s something not quite natural about her self-presentation. She’s not stilted, exactly. But she can come across as too cautious, too reserved, too conscious of other people’s eyes upon her.
But, let’s face it, as the lead-in to Hillary’s big nominating speech, a little bit of boring was called for. Unlike some of this convention’s high-wattage speakers, there was zero chance Chelsea was going to upstage Hillary with a barnburner or tear-jerker. Chelsea wasn’t there to pump up the crowd. Her role was to comfort, to explain, to cajole, with an eye toward giving Americans a glimpse of her mother’s softer side.
The father of a Muslim American who died in Iraq confronts Donald Trump.
Khizr Khan began his speech at the Democratic National Convention on Thursday with words I wish he didn’t have to say: “Tonight we are honored to stand here as parents of Captain Humayun Khan and as patriotic American Muslims—as patriotic American Muslims with undivided loyalty to our country.”
I wish he and his wife didn’t have to stand there as the parents of a 27-year-old Army captain who was killed by suicide bombers while serving in the Iraq War. And I wish Khizr Khan hadn’t felt the need to declare his patriotism and loyalty to the United States of America. Those truths should have been self-evident.
The state of the union is not strong when an American feels compelled to clarify such things. In better times, Khizr Khan, who was born in Pakistan and moved to America from the United Arab Emirates, might have begun his speech with what he said next: “Like many immigrants, we came to this country empty-handed. We believed in American democracy—that with hard work and [the] goodness of this country, we could share in and contribute to its blessings.”
Narcissism, disagreeableness, grandiosity—a psychologist investigates how Trump’s extraordinary personality might shape his possible presidency.
In 2006, Donald Trump made plans to purchase the Menie Estate, near Aberdeen, Scotland, aiming to convert the dunes and grassland into a luxury golf resort. He and the estate’s owner, Tom Griffin, sat down to discuss the transaction at the Cock & Bull restaurant. Griffin recalls that Trump was a hard-nosed negotiator, reluctant to give in on even the tiniest details. But, as Michael D’Antonio writes in his recent biography of Trump, Never Enough, Griffin’s most vivid recollection of the evening pertains to the theatrics. It was as if the golden-haired guest sitting across the table were an actor playing a part on the London stage.
“It was Donald Trump playing Donald Trump,” Griffin observed. There was something unreal about it.
Can Hillary Clinton’s projection of steadiness resonate with an unsettled country?
PHILADELPHIA—It was a hot and stormy week at the Democratic convention, one that began with discord and ended with invocations of togetherness. “People are anxious and looking for reassurance,” Hillary Clinton, the newly anointed Democratic nominee, told a cheering convention crowd—“looking for steady leadership.”
This was the theme of speaker after speaker at the Democratic convention: steadiness, calm, shelter from the storm. The party’s stars took the stage one by one, railing against divisiveness and doomsaying and fear. They painted a picture of a new American normal: optimistic, stable, square, patriotic. A silent majority of tolerant, diverse, cosmopolitan people, hopeful and unthreatened by suspicion or difference. A transgender woman, an illegal immigrant, a Muslim veteran’s father: This, the convention asserted, is the face of a country that has been through the discombobulating wringer of social and demographic change, and come out the other side smiling and holding hands.
A church facing setbacks elsewhere finds an unlikely foothold.
At the end of 2013, in the low-slung, industrial Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung, a bevy of officials came to attend the ribbon cutting of a huge former hotel that had undergone a top-to-bottom, multimillion-dollar renovation. Speaking before the throngs of celebrants who blocked the flow of traffic, Taiwan’s deputy director of the Ministry of the Interior praised the group that funded the renovation and presented them, for the 10th year straight, with the national “Excellent Religious Group” award.
“For years you have dedicated your time and lives to anti-drug work and human- rights dissemination,” said the director, echoing praise offered by the mayor’s office and the president’s national-policy adviser.
The Fox host’s insistence that black laborers building the White House were “well-fed and had decent lodgings” fits in a long history of insisting the “peculiar institution” wasn’t so bad.
In her widely lauded speech at the Democratic National Convention on Monday, Michelle Obama reflected on the remarkable fact of her African American family living in the executive mansion. “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women, playing with their dogs on the White House lawn,” she said.
On Tuesday, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly discussed the moment in his Tip of the Day. In a moment first noticed by the liberal press-tracking group Media Matters, O’Reilly said this:
As we mentioned, Talking Points Memo, Michelle Obama referenced slaves building the White House in referring to the evolution of America in a positive way. It was a positive comment. The history behind her remark is fascinating. George Washington selected the site in 1791, and as president laid the cornerstone in 1792. Washington was then running the country out of Philadelphia.
Slaves did participate in the construction of the White House. Records show about 400 payments made to slave masters between 1795 and 1801. In addition, free blacks, whites, and immigrants also worked on the massive building. There were no illegal immigrants at that time. If you could make it here, you could stay here.
In 1800, President John Adams took up residence in what was then called the Executive Mansion. It was only later on they named it the White House. But Adams was in there with Abigail, and they were still hammering nails, the construction was still going on.
Slaves that worked there were well-fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government, which stopped hiring slave labor in 1802. However, the feds did not forbid subcontractors from using slave labor. So, Michelle Obama is essentially correct in citing slaves as builders of the White House, but there were others working as well. Got it all? There will be a quiz.
Hillary Clinton accepted the Democratic nomination in Philadelphia, ratifying a promise made there 240 years before—that all are created equal.
PHILADELPHIA—“Daddy,” my daughter recently asked me, “Why are there no girl presidents? Is it because boys are stronger than girls? Because they’re smarter?”
It left me speechless.
On Thursday night, in the city where the Founders declared all men created equal, I found my answer. It’s because no major party has ever tried nominating one before.
“Tonight, we’ve reached a milestone in our nation’s march toward a more perfect union: the first time that a major party has nominated a woman for president,” Clinton said as she accepted the nomination. “Standing here as my mother’s daughter, and my daughter’s mother, I’m so happy this day has come.”
It wasn’t the theme of her speech. But it was the unspoken subtext that ran through it. And Clinton took pains to frame the achievement not as the triumph of some subset of Americans, but as a victory for all Americans. She proclaimed herself both “happy for grandmothers and little girls,” but also “happy for boys and men—because when any barrier falls in America, it clears the way for everyone.”
The Democrat promised voters she’d do her job intelligently and doggedly—and help them be the heroes of their own lives.
The Democratic convention, which culminated on Thursday night with Hillary Clinton, was inverted. Usually, supporting actors cover policy specifics and flay the opposing candidate. The nominee comes on at the end and offers a vision.
Hillary Clinton doesn’t do vision well. So, wisely, her campaign turned the paradigm on its head. The emotion, the vision, the rhetorical power came from others: from Barack Obama and Joe Biden and ordinary people like disability rights activist Anastasia Somoza; Khizr Kahn, whose son died in Afghanistan; and the families of slain police officers and victims of police violence. Clinton did what she’s good at: She talked about public policy and she proved that she’s not at all intimidated by Donald Trump.
The placards at the Democratic National Convention had more than symbolic importance.
PHILADELPHIA—In a week’s new cycle filled with email scandals, hidden plots, foreign political hacking schemes, walk-outs, and calls to imprison the presidential nominee, at least one part of the Democratic National Convention appeared genuine. The signs, symbols, buttons, and placards that saturated wardrobes, convention photographs, and Wells Fargo Center trashcans are real and nontrivial examples of unity, conviction, and genuine belief in the power of politics.
On Monday night after Michelle Obama’s show-stopping speech I found myself scouring the convention floor for one very particular item. The objective of my quest was a two-foot-long purple sign that simply read “Michelle,” and had been held up by thousands as she spoke. I hadn’t thought much of them when delegates and viewers—all coordinated, of course—pulled the signs out during their cheers for her speech. But I exited the floor to discover a flood of texts and Tweets from black women in my life—my mom, my wife, and my friends—who wanted their hands on a sign. As I searched, I saw other questers looking among the ruins of nacho containers and under footprint-dusted bleacher seats for the same thing. While my own quest was doomed to fail, most of the successful treasure-hunters I saw, with their arms full of stacks of “Michelle” signs, were beaming black women.