Photo: Ju Hong, an undocumented student, wins student senate seat at UC-Berkeley
Born in Seoul, South Korea in 1989, Ju Hong came to the U.S. when he was 11. He is now an elected member of the University of California-Berkeley’s student senate. He’s extensively involved with campus activism, and plans to attend law school. There’s just one problem. Ju is undocumented.
Like so many before him, Hong was unaware he and his family were not authorized to be in the U.S. until the day he was filling out college applications, and realized he needed a social security number. Not knowing the number, he asked his parents, and that’s when they told him.
When he was 11, his family flew to America on tourist visas. Though the visas expired over time, the family remained in the country, and became part of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
Though he had been a relatively outgoing person, upon discovering his status, Hong said he withdrew, and would not answer questions about his future.
“I became a totally different person,”he says. “I became totally distant from people. I avoided questions like, ‘what college are you going to?’ ‘Why don’t you have a driver’s license?’ ‘Why don’t you have a job?’ ”
Not wanting to completely write off the continuation of his education, he enrolled at Laney Community College in Oakland, California. He was able to due so through an affidavit under state law AB540, a bill passed in 2001 by then-Governor Gray Davis. The bill allows undocumented students to attend public universities and pay in-state tuition.
Still, Hong kept to himself and avoided any discussions of his immigration status. Then he began hearing about other undocumented students coming forward and speaking up for themselves. That’s when everything changed once again.
“I was inspired—[other undocumented youth] were taking such a great risk,” Hong says. “I realized that there were people out there just like me, who were having a difficult time as undocumented students,” but they came forward.
In 2009, Hong, who was returning to his former outgoing self, “came out” in a YouTube video. With that reveal and new burst of confidence, he ran for student body president at Laney, and won. He was the first Asian-American and first undocumented president of the student body.
He went on to transfer to Berkeley, and ran for the a seat in the student senate there as well. In April, Hong found out he won, and now hopes to be the voice for those that feel like he once did.
“A lot of AB540 students feel like they’re alone, like they don’t have any support. I want to show them that they do. My main constituents were undocumented students. They appreciate the fact that I bring their voices to our campus, and to make sure that they continue to have access to higher education.”
As for the future, Hong hopes to become an immigration lawyer in order to help fellow immigrants find their way through the maze that is the legalization process.
“I’m really at a level where I’m ready to take a risk to push the Asian American community to help push the DREAM Act,” he states. “So many people are suffering in our community. I don’t want that to happen in the next generation.”