The young man who shouted as President Obama spoke at a San Francisco rally last week was going to be a UC Davis student but couldn’t afford the tuition.
Ju Hong wanted to study business at the university of his “dreams,” but his circumstances as an undocumented immigrant blocked a path to Davis that his grades had opened.
Born in South Korea but yearning to be an American, the 24-year-old has been pushing back ever since. Unlike past generations of undocumented immigrants who suffered in the shadows, Hong has been speaking out to anyone who would listen – including the president of the United States.
Hong, who accepted a White House invitation to attend Obama’s speech at Monday’s immigration rally, wasn’t necessarily planning to say anything. He hoped Obama would say something about halting or modifying policies that have his administration on track to deport more immigrants than other U.S. president.
The latest stats indicate that the Obama administration will have deported 2 million immigrants by the start of 2014, after five years in office. George W. Bush’s administration deported 2 million in eight years.
“I really wanted to hear how he would address the lives of the people,” Hong said in a telephone interview. “His anti-immigrant deportation policies are hurting families. I was expecting to hear about what he was willing to do, concrete steps.
“But it was the same old speeches he gave in 2008.”
As Obama rehashed immigration talking points that have failed to secure comprehensive immigration reform in Congress despite public support, Hong admits that the thought of speaking out was frightening.
“It’s nerve-wracking just sitting behind the most powerful man in the world,” Hong said. “But when Obama talked about Thanksgiving, he talked about spending time with family. Well, I have a family I care about deeply and I’m concerned about their safety. I thought about the safety of people taking courageous actions to speak out on this issue. I thought about people in detention centers. I thought about Obama’s policies that are tearing families apart.”
As an undocumented immigrant, Hong couldn’t attend his grandfather’s funeral in South Korea, because he would not have been able to re-enter the United States.
Remaining silent became more frightening than speaking. “All these things added up,” Hong said. “I had to say something.”
You know the phrase “speaking truth to power?” Hong spoke truth to the president of the United States.
“Mr. Obama, my family has been separated for 19 months now. You have a power to stop deportation for all undocumented immigrants in this country, “ Hong shouted.
Hong was labeled a “heckler” in headlines across America, but he really isn’t. Heckling, according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is shouting annoying or rude comments. Heckling is inherently disrespectful.
Hong was exhibiting a love of country through a courageous expression of free speech that native-born Americans would do well to emulate. He embodied true courage by saying what was in his heart as his knees were shaking.
He also made himself a target – not of conservatives, but progressives angry with Hong for focusing on an inconvenient truth: Obama hasn’t done nearly enough on immigration considering the support he has received from immigrant communities.
Many progressives whisper that in private while focusing their public wrath on the GOP-controlled House for blocking an immigration vote this year.
Between government and think tank estimates, there are anywhere from 800,000 to 1.4 million people like Hong, brought to the U.S. illegally by parents or guardians. They would be eligible for a path to citizenship under the federal DREAM Act.
The truth is, the Democrats did nothing on immigration when Obama was in office and they held a majority in the House. The truth is, Obama’s own policies have done much to harm immigrant communities – and yet the president gets a pass.
I have to admit that my initial reaction to Hong was not positive. I thought he was disrespectful and that he should be going after House Speaker John Boehner. But then I talked to him, and Hong’s sincerity shamed me.
He shames all of us who pass judgment from a comfortable distance while people suffer under broken immigration laws. He shames Obama, too. It was nice that the president stopped security from removing Hong. But it would have been better if Obama actually listened to him.
Like many undocumented immigrants, Hong had no idea about his “illegal” status when he first arrived in California at the age of 11. His mother brought him and his sister to America on tourist visas. Hong said she tried to go the legal route and did extend their visas for a time.
But he said an immigration lawyer who charged them several thousand dollars botched their case. When he learned that he was undocumented, Hong was a senior in high school who was smart enough to get into UC Davis. But his status made him ineligible for financial aid. He couldn’t get a driver’s license then. He said he felt like a nonperson.
“It was shocking and disappointing,” he said. “I was very upset about the limitations and the opportunities I would not get compared to other American students.”
Undaunted, he enrolled in community college, changed his major to political science and, in 2009, he and other young immigrants proclaimed their undocumented status on You Tube.
Ever since, they have made immigration reform their mission. These are college-educated kids, some of whom want to serve in the U.S. military.
Hong eventually saved enough money, and got enough help, that he graduated from UC Berkeley. But he still cannot legally be hired.
Hong and others in his position love America, even as America pushes them away for transgressions that were not of their choosing. To the comfortable and the complacent, these young people can seem extreme and out of step.
But are they?
Back in the 1960s, young civil rights marchers were viewed as radicals who should bide their time. “Now look at people like Rep. John Lewis (the civil rights leader),” said Jose Antonio Vargas, a noted journalist who is also an undocumented immigrant. “He is seen as a beacon of righteousness … But that’s what Ju is doing. He is fighting for his every inch of existence. It’s a display of extreme patriotism.”
Considering his place at the forefront of a political controversy, Hong is unaffected by all the commotion. And he is undeterred from his goal of one day being an American.
“I don’t have basic human rights, but I want to make sure my voice is heard,” Hong said. Last week, he succeeded.