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Another side of illegal immigration

Unlike their parents, who generally remain silent and live in fear and shame, young Asians and Pacific Islanders are joining to advocate immigration reform.

Steve Lopez

March 17, 2013

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Denise Panaligan, a UCLA sophomore, didn't tell her mother where she was headed Wednesday morning. She knew that if she told the truth, her mother would worry.

     Panaligan, in blue jeans and white T-shirt, boarded a bus and traveled to Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles, where she met up with her friend Anthony Ng. They were the only two Asian Americans at an immigration reform rally conducted in English and Spanish.

     Panaligan, 19, confessed to me that she was nervous.

Why?

Because she had never stood up in public and admitted that she and her family had moved here a decade ago from the Philippines without papers. Like many of her peers who came to the United States as children, Panaligan had no idea she was undocumented until she was ready to apply for college and needed a Social Security number.

     But on Wednesday, when the master of ceremonies called her name, Panaligan pushed back her fear and stepped to the microphone.

     "It breaks my heart," she said of her parents' sense of "shame and guilt" over the family's illegal status. "They would apologize to me every day for the experiences I go through, being undocumented, when I should be thanking them for having the courage to leave everything behind for that American dream."

When the topic is illegal immigration, the focus is usually on Latinos. But more than 1 million of the nation's undocumented immigrants are Asian and Pacific Islanders, with an estimated 416,000 of them in California.

The older generation of undocumented Asians tends to stay silent. But Panaligan and other younger members of that group — who have benefited from the temporary protection President Obama extended last year to qualified young people under the Dream Act — think this may be a good time to seize on an opportunity.

They note that 73% of the Asian Americans who went to the polls in November cast votes for Obama, with immigration reform cited as a huge factor. They have seen Republican leaders reconsider the party's hard line on immigration. And they have seen national polls indicating majority support among U.S. citizens for a pathway to citizenship.

That's why Panaligan and others of her generation have decided to give up family secrets — not in defiance of their parents, but in a spirit of advocacy for them. And they are taking to the streets with Latinos, whose narratives parallel their own.

     "What is happening with the immigrant rights movement is reminiscent of the civil rights movement, and undocumented youths are in many ways leading it," said Betty Hung, policy director at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center.

     When she was done speaking Wednesday, Panaligan got a round of applause and a hug from a young Latina with a story nearly identical to hers, except for one thing. Panaligan's family is from the Philippines, and her new friend's family is from Peru.

::

Kevin Lee, 22, moved with his family from South Korea to Riverside when he was 9. He soon discovered that his parents had some weird rules about life in America.

"When I'd go outside with friends, I didn't feel different at all. But when my mom and dad would leave for work they'd always tell me to lock the doors, and whenever anybody knocks at the front door, you have to look out the back door to see if there's law enforcement."

That was his first clue that something was off.

"I used to have an outgoing personality back in South Korea, but these experiences made me very shy."

He was about 16 when he discovered what was going on. Other kids were applying for driver's permits, but when he asked his parents about getting a license himself, which required proof of citizenship, they finally told him what was up. He later learned they had hired an immigration lawyer for a lot of money to help, but that he accomplished nothing.

"Never speak about your status," his mother warned.

Lee did not take it well. Being a teenager was hard enough without a crisis over his national identity.

"At school they'd always ask for my Social Security number and I'd always have to say, 'Oh, I forgot it.' I was so shameful of my status, I couldn't tell them I didn't have it, and I was so concerned the school would contact law enforcement or ICE and they'd ship me back to Korea," Lee said. "I really resented my parents at first."

But as he got older, he said, he realized that his father's long hours and low pay at a grocery store, and his mother's hustling for tips as a waitress, were for his benefit.

He stepped up his studies at Chaffey College, transferred to UCLA with his parents supporting him all the way, and graduated last year with dreamer status. Earlier this month, in his community organizing job at the Korean Resource Center, Lee boarded a bus for a tour of California congressional offices. He and his friends and colleagues, Asian and Latino, told their stories in one community after another as they campaigned for immigration reform.

It's a good job and he believes in the work, but Lee said he may soon go back to school.

He's thinking he wants to be an immigration attorney.

::

Mr. Oh, 60, and Mrs. Oh, 53, tell me they are sorry, but they can't let me use their full names. They speak some English but because they're not fluent, they're not comfortable using it at all with me. We're at the Korean Resource Center in Koreatown, where Kevin Lee is sitting in as their translator.

They moved here 12 years ago after their sporting goods business collapsed in South Korea. A job here fell through, and six months after arriving on a tourist visa, they struggled with the decision of their lives.

Go back home and reunite the family, or stay here illegally in the hope of finding work, becoming legalized, and giving their children a chance at a better life.

They stayed.

Even now, when they spot a police car, they tremble. They fear being apart, worried that they will never see each other again. In their 36-unit apartment building in Koreatown, they don't know the immigration status of a single neighbor. Nobody speaks about such a thing.

Mrs. Oh is a server for a catering company that she says works her overtime without compensation and pays no benefits. Mr. Oh is out of work and worried that at his age that may not change. They have no health insurance and pay out of pocket when they go to a doctor, which they avoid if possible.

Was staying in the U.S. the right choice?

Mr. and Mrs. Oh look at each other, and in their glance is something universal: that ability we all have to bury regrets and put hope in our strengths.

"We paid taxes, never committed crimes," says Mr. Oh, who improves his English by reading newspapers, waiting for a day when there might be a pathway to citizenship for those who can speak the language and prove that they are contributing members of society.

Their son wanted to go to medical school and they had to say no. They couldn't afford it, for one thing. And for another, they told him, it was time he knew they were all in the country illegally.

The stress put their son in the hospital. But now, at 27, he's a UCLA graduate and a dreamer.

::

When Denise Panaligan was done speaking at Pershing Square, she chatted with me and her friend Anthony Ng, whose parents brought him here from the Philippines in 2001.

They both know that what their parents did was illegal. But they also know that the U.S. has long sent mixed messages to immigrants, valuing their labor on one hand and condemning them on the other.

"My parents were always, like, do not speak about it," Panaligan said. "The lawyer told us to keep it on the down low."

But she can't do that anymore.

"I'm going to tell them when I get home," she said. "It's hard for them to understand because they're afraid and for good reason. But I hope the more involved I become and the more they're exposed to what the movement is doing, they'll know it's safer to be out of the shadows than in the shadows."

Ng, a 23-year-old UC Irvine graduate who works as a policy advocate for the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, felt uncomfortable about getting protected status as a dreamer while his mother continues to live in fear.

"Our parents were the original dreamers," Ng said. "They came here for a better life, for the American dream…. They came here for us. They benefited us, and I want to make sure they know we're grateful for their sacrifice."

steve.lopez@latimes.com