HomeAsian AmericansActivist Esder Chong reflects on 10-year anniversary of DACA

Activist Esder Chong reflects on 10-year anniversary of DACA

by Lia Reichmann, AsAmNews Intern

Ten years ago, an immigration policy introduced by then-President Obama would change Esder Chong’s life. Now, she’s working to transform the lives of other undocumented immigrants.

Chong immigrated to the US with her parents from South Korea in 2005 at the age of six. From then on she was raised in central New Jersey. During the 2008 economic recession, her family lost their visa and overstayed it, officially making them undocumented immigrants.

Chong and her family’s story is one that is more common than you’d expect. Data from the Center for Migration Studies, a nonpartisan think tank, showed that visa overstayers represent around “46 percent of the 10.7 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.”

In 2012, Obama introduced the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program, which protects eligible immigrants who came to the United States when they were children from deportation. Since then the program has granted 800,000 people DACA status, allowing them to get things like a driver’s license or a social security number. Only those that meet the criteria set by the program become eligible.

Chong applied for and received protection under DACA in high school. She said she started understanding what it meant to be an undocumented immigrant when she was applying to college.

“I couldn’t apply for FAFSA, and I wasn’t eligible for state or federal financial aid loans, grants, a lot of scholarships were limited to LPR’s or citizens,” Chong said. “And so I struggled with that, like in terms of the academic part of my life, without status.”

During her senior year, Chong was accepted to Rutgers University-Newark. From there she earned a national scholarship through the Dream.US, an organization that partners with American colleges to provide financial aid to DACA recipients.

Chong and her family’s story is one that is more common than you’d expect. Data from the Center for Migration Studies, a nonpartisan think tank, showed that visa overstayers represent around “46 percent of the 10.7 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.”

During her freshman year at Rutgers University, Chong created the student organization RU Dreamers and became an immigration advocate. It was the same year Donald Trump was elected President, which she said put more pressure on the organization.

“I just wanted a space for myself and other undocumented students on campus to have the opportunity to share out our fears, our hopes, and just use it as a space to rant.” 

At the organization, Chong became the student liaison between Dreamers and the Rutger’s University administration. She worked with the administration to hire an immigrant rights lawyer for all three campuses after President Trump rescinded the DACA program. Together they also were able to establish an Undocumented Student Service Office with additional staff members to help support undocumented students.

RU Dreamers also collaborated with state and local organizations to push for bills that would provide financial aid and to expand access to higher education for DACA recipients. 

Chong speaking at an event. (Photo courtesy of Esder Chong)

Chong said that it was both challenging and rewarding to be a part of RU Dreamers during college.

“I had to balance myself being a DACA recipient, and also being affected by this stuff [and] it was mentally challenging, for sure. I was also a leader on campus and leading this organization, so the dozens of students that would sort of come to me and express their concerns, fears, anxieties, I had to sort of take it on too,” Chong said. “But it was also rewarding, [the] bonding through community trauma and the solidarity that I experienced with the students, but also with the administration that was so supportive of the work we were doing and what we were advocating for.”

It has been ten years since Obama introduced DACA. Many immigration activists have begun to campaign for legislation that would provide citizenship for all undocumented immigrants. Chong believes national leaders need to consider more immediate solutions first.

“I think a realistic alternative solution like lawful permanent residency status, like pushing for residency for all would grant the undocumented community a right to work, the safety net to live in this country indefinitely without the fear and stress and uncertainty that comes with just waiting and waiting for Congress to pass a citizenship granting legislation,” Chong said.

She added this is something that movement leaders need to seriously consider on “a local, state and national level.”

“And this goes for Asian DACA undocumented folks, goes for Latin X, black undocumented folks, it goes for all the members of our community, where if the affected members of our community were afforded the means to make an informed decision I believe that more would choose a strategy for residency for all than citizenship for all,” Chong said. “When you look at the movement leaders, messaging and push it’s all about citizenship. Right. But I think they’re overlooking the immediate needs, and upcoming needs of our community, which is like health care, things that affect the daily lives of these folks.”

Chong chalks the heavy push for citizenship for all up to the lack of “representation of undocumented immigrants in movement leadership.”

DACA recipients only comprise 6 percent of the 11 million undocumented immigrant population. Chong is concerned that DACA recipients are “speaking on behalf of the [other] undocumented population.”

“I really want to turn our attention to those who don’t have DACA [statust]. “DACA is and has been under threat for the past five years. A probably a negative court decision will come out on July of next week and it’ll probably be rescinded again by the Supreme Court by next summer,” Chong said. “For actual immigration reform, we need to shift the spotlight from DACA to the 11 million. And then what do we talk about not citizenship for all this catch phrase knee jerk reaction that we have had for the past 20 years, but a residency for all solution. And I think it’s it’s just DACA recipients, citizens, [and] allies speaking on behalf of the 94% of the undocumented population without DACA [status] is foolish and just not right.”

Since creating RU Dreamers in 2016 Chong has graduated from Rutgers-Newark with a Bachelor’s degree, Harvard Graduate School of Education, and received her first masters from Tsinghua University as a Schwarzman Scholar.

Chong is currently working as a project consultant for a startup philanthropy consulting group, Boldly Go Philanthropy, that helps support philanthropists’ “social issues and address inequities.”

Chong said that without DACA she could not have been able to complete or pursue “educational” or “professional opportunities.” 

“I’m not denying the transformative effects that DACA had on a couple of us in the community at large but again, DACA was an exclusive program and it was too and for the most marketable, in our community at large,” Chong said.

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