Migrant families desperate to flee gang violence and an administration determined to stop illegal immigration are adding up to a crisis on the border
When I immigrated to the United States, people told me stories about America that scared the socks off of me.
“Guns are legal and criminals will shoot you in the streets if you go out after 9 p.m.,” someone said. “Just read the news about street gangs and mass shootings!”
“Kids there are over-sexualized and will pressure you to have sex and use drugs,” another said. “Even little girls wear makeup and bikinis.”
“You’re going to get fat eating all their American food,” said one Taiwanese-American woman. “See?” She lifted her arms, and her upper arm fat jiggled. “I was skinny like you until I moved to America!”
“American churches are dying off,” some pastors said. “They’re perverting the true gospel and losing young believers. Can you believe their sermons are only 20 minutes long?”
But the story that most terrified me was when a friend told me, “Americans are super racist. They hate people who are not white. And they hate Koreans the most.” (Now that I think back on it, I think he had lived in Los Angeles during the 1992 LA riots.)
At the time, I was a 14-year-old Korean living in Singapore. I had a tightknit group of friends within my gymnastics team, girlfriends with whom I chatted on the phone for hours, and a secret crush on a fellow gymnast whom I pretended to despise. Life as an immigrant in Singapore was comfortable, and by then I had so easily adopted the “Singlish” (Singaporean English) slang that most people couldn’t tell I was Korean.
Then my father decided to immigrate to the United States to pastor a Chinese immigrant church he founded. Within months of that decision, we were walking out of a plane into Dulles International Airport, dragging four giant suitcases. The night before my first day at an American public school, I couldn’t sleep. For years I had devoured books about school life in America, and now that I was finally attending one, everything I had read about—American culture, American lingo, American snacks—felt simultaneously familiar and otherworldly to me. My mind replayed over and over what my friend had said about racist Americans.
Like many other fresh immigrants, I worried that I’d never feel at home in the United States. I was not one of those blond, dimpled book characters with the long Anglo last names. I was going to school in hand-me-down clothes, with my Asian accent, not knowing anyone, not belonging to any cliques. I was an alien. And I was afraid I would always be an alien.
Like many other fresh immigrants, I worried that I’d never feel at home in the United States.
I write this now as a well-integrated, 31-year-old naturalized citizen, albeit still with an accent. And I write this as a journalist currently reporting on immigration and listening to all the anti-immigration rhetoric on the internet and in the White House. I believe that most Americans view immigrants favorably—they just expect them to come legally—but I’m disappointed to hear that so many of my fellow citizens say they don’t even want more legal immigration because, so they say, their country is already “full.” Whatever happened to “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free?”
Before I moved to the United States, I had also heard positive stories about America. People told me Americans are friendly, that strangers actually say “good afternoon” to each other on the streets and bless you when you sneeze. And I found that to be true. People were friendly. Everyone gave me big smiles when the teacher introduced me as the new kid in class. They smiled at me in gym class, smiled at me in the cafeteria, and smiled at me at the lockers.
But that was the problem: I realized very soon that all these nice people did was smile—and then, as though satisfied they had performed their duty, turned back to their own friends. They didn’t try to get to know me, draw me into their social circles, or invite me to their homes. All they did was give me their big, gleaming-teeth smiles, and the only time I felt noticed was when I sneezed in class and everyone from all corners of the room turned to bless me. After a while, their smiles just felt patronizing to me, and I stopped smiling back.
For the first few weeks, I spent lunchtime in the library reading about outer space, because nothing felt worse than sitting by myself in the cafeteria, surrounded by groups of schoolmates who ignored me. I noticed that the other new American kids easily made friends, and I wondered why I couldn’t. I didn’t realize how lonely I was until a science teacher saw me looking at a picture of my Singaporean friends and asked me whether I missed them. I nodded, then, to my great embarrassment, burst into tears.
Over time, I eventually made friends, mostly with people who for various reasons were also excluded from the main social groups. Many were immigrants as well. One was from China, and she became my best friend after I was the only one to approach her in pre-calculus class. Her mother had married a white American guy, and she pressured my friend to succeed. “You’re the reason I gave up everything in China to immigrate here,” she would berate her daughter whenever she said or did something “ungrateful.” Even now, as a married executive in a big pharmaceutical company, my friend still hears her mother using that line to guilt her.
I also befriended a girl from South Korea whose family was poor and undocumented. When she couldn’t join the track and field team because she lacked some documents, she ran home with tear-streaked cheeks. Eventually she started skipping school. Why bother, she said, when she wouldn’t be able to use her diploma to find a decent job? She bitterly resented the other immigrant kids who had legal status in the United States but didn’t appreciate it—such as that diplomat’s daughter who sat alone and sullen in every class, angry that her parents ripped her away from her friends in Korea.
Later as an adult I became close friends with an international student from South Korea who earned her law degree from the University of Southern California. I was with her throughout her long journey trying to find employment and gain legal status in the United States—and I watched as people took advantage of her. One Korean-American lawyer told her he’d sponsor her H1-B visa (a temporary visa for foreign workers) if she would intern for him for free. She “interned” for him for more than a year without pay while continuing her studies at UCLA with a student visa, but then he backtracked and claimed he had promised her nothing.
Another Korean-American lawyer, smelling my friend’s desperation, swooped in to promise the same thing. On a daily basis for the next several months, she verbally abused my friend, who worked for her for free. Later, an immigration lawyer made a mistake on my friend’s application for an H1-B visa, making it almost impossible for her to stay legally in the United States. This friend had no intention to break the law, so she returned to Korea, having spent thousands of dollars and hours of free labor trying to become a legal U.S. resident.
This is our immigrant experience. Some of us came here not by choice, while some came with purpose. Many without documents live in fear of immigration authorities, at the mercy of an elusive immigration reform Congress has yet to pass. Unlike natural-born citizens, we pay and work for the ability to belong here—and if there’s something we can remind people who were born American, it’s that we know our citizenship is not an inherent right, but a privilege, and most of us treat it as such.