Last Monday evening, in a small dark theater space on Manhattan's Lower East Side, a group of young people gathered and started talking. They shared stories about growing up, trying to fit in or stand out among peers, school troubles and college dreams, boring jobs and squabbles with parents. They were just being themselves. But it was the bravest thing they had ever done.
Before an intimate audience, the members of RAISE: Revolutionizing Asian American Immigrant Stories on the East Coast, proclaimed that they were undocumented. Fifteen members of this self-described "pan-Asian group of undocumented young adults on the East Coast" spoke about their experiences growing up: Americans, yet excluded from citizenship, their families fractured by fears of deportation, labor exploitation and an anxious search for identity.
In their storytelling performance, #UndocuAsians, each youth described a different path to the United States. Some were too young to remember much other than their bewilderment upon being dropped into an alien society. Some thought they were just on a vacation until they eventually realized those tourist visas had expired. All missed home. Each clung tightly to memories of far-away grandparents, aunts and cousins -- sometimes with only a photograph to remind them of a family member who died before they could reunite.
Razeen Zaman, 23, journeyed from Bangladesh to New York as a toddler, but only discovered her undocumented status as a teen when she started working and was denied a paycheck because she didn't have the right papers. Years later, when she graduated college, her ambitions sank into legal limbo, her future suspended indefinitely as she lacked the papers she needed to start a career.
Neriel David Ponce, 18, remembered his enthusiasm when he came from the Philipinnes at five and settled in a modest Staten Island neighborhood. "I thought I was rich" he said. But toward the end of high school, he realized that his college dreams were falling apart, because his undocumented status foreclosed opportunities for financial aid most citizens take for granted.
For Maritza Lam, 23, being undocumented meant dialing back on the "American dream." The Peruvian-Chinese-Queens transplant lives a reality worlds apart from the Asian American archetype of the model student. In her narrative, she explains, "I had to choose between using that money for school or for my family, and after almost two years of college, I decided my family needed it more. I had to leave school, and I started working in restaurants."
Tony Choi, 24, spoke of the anxiety that haunted him during what should have been his bright college years. He moved across the country to attend college in Kentucky on a scholarship, but was followed by nightmares of getting snatched up by immigration agents. Meanwhile, cancer loomed over his mother, hundreds of miles away in New Jersey. "I was alone, I was isolated, and my mom was sick," he recalled. The consuming fears drove him to create an "escape kit," filled with first-aid materials and maps, just in case.
In the end, Choi didn't run; he marched, joining other undocumented youth last year in a cross-country walk for immigration reform. Last June, a rush of grassroots campaigning helped push through a limited initiative to provide undocumented youth temporary legal status, but the future remains in limbo. He's still campaigning for legislation to enable students like him to permanently legalize, along with broader reform to let people like his mother work and raise their families here, free of fear.
Coordinated with support from the Asian American Legal Defense Fund, the project behind #UndocuAsians, Raise Our Story, is part of a movement to raise the visibility of undocumented Asian American immigrants in the immigration debate. While the massive population of migrants from Latin America occupies much of the political space in Washington, immigrants from Asia -- many of whom came through visas rather than crossing the southwest border -- are one of the fastest growing immigrant communities and make up more than one million of the country's estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.
The political invisibility of Asian Americans goes beyond immigration policy. Historically, policymakers have ignored them as a voting bloc, the media has painted them as a two-dimensional "model minority" of assimilated middle-class newcomers, and their communities have been culturally distant from the world of lobbying and protests.
But Asian American youth today are building activist networks and outgrowing the silence of past generations.
In addition to shedding light on the economic and social hardships facing Asian American communities, the youth of RAISE understand their experience in a way their parents perhaps never could, having grown up at the pivot of many societies and generations, in a shrinking world of globalized media culture. Many of their generation represent a wave of refugees of the Asian financial crisis of the late-1990s, which devastated the region's "emerging" economies.
Raise our Story reflects this fractious diasporic panorama, rendering the turmoil of globalization in a bold new language. Speaking in English inflected with notes of Tagalog, Chinese and other mother tongues, the storytellers' words posed a challenge both to the law and to the cultural grammar of "documented" America. At the same time, their polyglot voices affirmed a sense of justice that defies borders.
"I think young people like us -- we have a particular role," said Emily Seonhye Park, who came with her grandmother from South Korea at 15 but ended up living on her own at 17, following the abrupt separation of her family. As the audience shuffled out, she said that since young people often have more resources to defend themselves from deportation, "we can afford to be more courageous than our parents or our grandparents. So we should take advantage of that, and try to move forward, because, if we don't advocate for ourselves, who's gonna do it?"