In the aftermath of President Trump’s decision to nix an Obama-era immigration program allowing young, undocumented immigrants to stay in the United States, Tony Choi doesn’t know his fate — but realizes one possibility is he’ll be deported to South Korea.
Speaking to the Washington Blade by phone while taking part in a rally just outside Trump Tower in New York City, Choi said he felt uncertainty since news reports emerged Trump would phase out Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
“I’ve had a few weeks to think about it, but for the first two weeks, I was incredibly stressed out that my life was swinging on a pendulum, and I felt like I couldn’t do anything about it,” Choi said. “I didn’t know what could happen.”
Choi, a gay 28-year-old native of Seoul, South Korea, came to the United States as a child in 1998 with his family as an undocumented immigrant. When former President Obama created DACA in 2012, Choi obtained documentation under the program.
A graduate of Berea College in Kentucky, Choi is one of an estimated 800,000 immigrants in DACA as well as 75,000 LGBT immigrants who are eligible for DACA, 36,000 of whom are enrolled. They’re known as DREAMers based on legislation known as the DREAM Act, which would grant them legal status.
Potential deportation to South Korea unless Trump reverses course or Congress passes an immigration bill allowing him to stay in the United States weighs heavily on Choi as well as thousands of other immigrants who face uncertainty about their future.
“It’s been 20 years since I’ve last set foot in Korea,” Choi said. “All my extended family is here in America or elsewhere. I don’t know what I would do. My language skills aren’t really up to par and I would have to serve in the Korean military because of mandatory conscription. It’s something that I really, really wish didn’t happen.”
Being gay in Korea would be no walk in the park for Choi. In addition to mandatory conscription, homosexual acts are barred and subject to punishment in the Korean military.
Choi said the stress of potential removal from his home in New York City, where he works as the social media manager for the American Asian and Pacific Islanders group called 18 Million Rising, has manifested itself physically. Among the ailments he cited were not being able to sleep more than four hours at a time, sinus trouble and stiffness in his neck.
“I felt like my body was falling apart, just like everything in my world was,” Choi said. “Everything that I had built in the past five years would be coming to an end.”
The Trump administration announced Tuesday it would phase out DACA over a six-month period ending March 5. Although no new Employment Authorization Documents will be granted, DACA recipients with such authorization will be allowed to stay in the United States until that paperwork. After that, they lose their immigration status and their fate is unknown.
Trump explained his decision to rescind DACA — after making a campaign promise to cut back immigration on one hand, but telling recipients they can “rest easy” on the other — by making the dubious claim the program is unlawful. In fact, immigration law grants the executive branch authority for “establishing national immigration enforcement policies and priorities,” which includes deferred action on removals.
Negative consequences cited as a result of DACA by Trump were equally dubious. They included the humanitarian crisis under the Obama administration at the U.S.-Mexico border in which children from Central America were sent without their parents to the United States. Trump also suggested DACA contributed to the rise of the transnational crime gang MS-13, whose members are principally of Central American origin.
Trump made the decision on the day Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said would be the deadline before he’d amend a 2014 lawsuit pending before federal court to end DACA through litigation.
But Choi, citing calls from faith leaders, members of Congress — even Republicans — to maintain DACA, rejected the idea litigation was responsible for Trump’s decision and said the president capitulated instead because of internal pressure.
“We’re here, I think, because Trump is caving into the influences within his administration that are very anti-immigrant,” Choi said. “As you can see from people like Stephen Miller, Jeff Sessions, they are pretty heavily anti-immigrant within the administration, and they would like to see America shoot itself in its feet rather than letting us live with dignity.”
Amid discontent with the decision to roll back DACA (75 percent of the American public supports allowing recipients to stay, according to a Sept. 5 Morning Consult poll), Trump has said Congress should pass a comprehensive immigration bill that would fix immigration law in favor of young, undocumented immigrants who obtained status under the program.
Choi, whose work documentation expires in December 2018 is clinging to the hope of congressional action within the six-month period before DACA is eliminated — which is unlikely in a Republican-controlled Congress — to ensure he and other DREAMers can remain in the United States.
“We’re really going to have to pivot to Congress to really find ways to find a solution for us,” Choi said. “It’s like living on a ticking time bomb because the program is supposed to end in six months. And six months, that’s not a long time, and to expect the Congress to come up with something when the House and the Senate are being held by Republicans, it’s very difficult, but what else can we do? We came this far.”
On the same day he announced he’d end DACA, Trump said he’d “revisit” the issue if Congress doesn’t come forward with a legislative solution. It remains to be seen if Congress will produce a solution, and, if not, whether Trump will change his administrative decision.
One action Choi said isn’t available to him under immigration law — despite his presence in the United States for 20 years and education at a U.S. college — is applying for U.S. citizenship to eliminate the risk of deportation. The lack of the option, Choi said, is what keeps undocumented immigrants in that status.
“There is no line that we can stand on,” Choi said. “Immigration law is very complex, and frankly, very broken in terms of people who want to become U.S. citizens. So there is no line we can stand on. There is no application that we can just magically go out and get rid of our undocumented-ness. We’re not undocumented because it’s all fun and games; we’re undocumented because our circumstances drove us here.”
Among those participating in rallies throughout the country Tuesday as the Trump administration announced it would roll back DACA were LGBT immigrants covered under the program.
Sheridan Aguirre, a 23-year-old queer undocumented immigrant who’s covered under DACA and resides in Austin, Texas, took in the protest outside of the White House on the day Trump made the announcement.
“DACA means the world to me,” Aguirre said. “It’s allowed me to graduate from the University of Texas, it’s allowed me to be able to provide an income for me and my partner and so if it were to be taken away, it would really disrupt my life and the life of my family.”
Born in Iguala, Mexico, Aguirre came to the United States with his mother in 1996 as an undocumented immigrant at the age of 1. The two joined his father who was already in the country working as a migrant worker picking cotton. After Aguirre enrolled in school and took part in advanced placement classes, his family decided to stay.
“I have no memories of living in Mexico,” Aguirre said. “There’s nothing left for me in the place where I was born and especially now, particularly in Aguirre, Mexico. That’s the site of the murders of organizers and activists, the Ayotzinapa 43, and so since then, the city has changed dramatically, and if I were ever to be deported, I know it would not be safe for me to live authentically in my place of birth.”
Aguirre, an activist with United We Dream, said Trump’s decision to end DACA “is rooted in white supremacy” and part and parcel of the president’s actions against other minority groups, such as the travel ban on Muslim majority countries.
“It’s really about making sure that brown and black young people are not able to be a free part of the country where we call home,” Aguirre said. “It’s about putting us in danger of being incarcerated and being deported and having our families targeted.”
LGBT groups across the board have condemned Trump for eliminating DACA — calling it a betrayal of those who signed for up the program and are now at risk of deportation. As Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern points out, the reversal of the U.S. government’s position on DACA eligibility is similar to Trump’s elimination of transgender military service, which imperiled transgender troops who came out after the Obama administration lifted the ban on transgender service last year.
Among the LGBT groups taking action is the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance. On Tuesday, NQAPIA delivered to Trump 971 postcards from LGBT Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and allies in favor of preserving DACA.
“DACA was never a perfect program, but it was a step in the right direction,” NQAPIA Executive Director Glenn Magpantay said. “President Trump’s mean-spirited cancellation of DACA will force 800,000 people to live in even greater fear. Talented and hard-working DACA young people are the ones who are truly making America great. Again the president cuts back on the American dream and contributors to our economy.”
In the meantime, Aguirre said he’ll rely on ties to his community and family to get him through an uncertain time and a new immigration status.
“I really try to draw back on the fact that we’ve lived here for 20 years, and that’s not going to change,” Aguirre said. “I know that I have my community. I know that I have allies that are here with me to fight alongside me.”
Choi said he’ll try to keep pressure on Congress — and potentially encourage Trump to reverse course on DACA — as he remains with few options and the real risk of losing his home.
“We came this far,” Choi said. “A lot of us we built our livelihoods over the past five years, and it’s not just us. There are people who depend on us. Some of us have children, some of us have families that we support, so this is not a fight that we need to simply give up and go away. We really need to rally around and engage our members of Congress, really. We have the power to do this.”
Michael K. Lavers contributed to this report.