For Asian Undocumented Immigrants, a Life of Secrecy

While the Latino community has a number of high-profile, openly undocumented spokespeople, young Asian immigrants who call America home are struggling with few resources and fewer role models

A street in the Flushing section of the Queens borough of New York. The district manager of Queens Community Board 7, which includes downtown Flushing, estimates that around 40,000 undocumented people live in her district. (Frank Franklin II/AP)

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 emergency cash.

"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 themselves.

"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 Jersey."

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 green card."

"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.