Hopes And Fears As DACA Goes Back To Court
Jung Woo Kim remembers June 15, 2012 like it was yesterday.
He was 28 then, slowly working his way through Cal State Fullerton. He was at his part-time job that day, at a shop that repaired cell phones, computers and TVs. He was being paid off the books, because he had no legal status — he’d arrived here from South Korea at 15 and overstayed a temporary visa.
That day, some TVs in the shop were tuned to a news channel. Kim saw an image of then-President Obama at a podium, and he heard the news: A new program was being created to help young immigrants like him — undocumented, under 30, and who had arrived in the U.S. as children. Kim couldn’t believe it.
“It was like, ‘Am I qualified?’” recalled Kim, who lives in Buena Park. “I didn’t expect that at all.”
The program was called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, and Kim was indeed qualified. Beginning in August of that year, DACA granted work permits and protection from deportation to hundreds of thousands of now-eligible young people.
Before then, Kim had spent much of his twenties working odd jobs, feeling like he didn’t have much of a future in the U.S. His DACA permit changed that.
“From that day, my life changed upside down like 180 degrees, totally,” Kim said.
Since then, he’s built a career in the nonprofit world. Kim is now co-director of the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium, a Korean American advocacy organization.
In the past 10 years, many DACA recipients have similarly embarked on professional careers. They’ve had families and bought homes. But the future of all they’ve built is uncertain as DACA faces perhaps its biggest court challenge yet.
On Wednesday, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans hears oral arguments in a case that could determine whether DACA can survive.
‘What More Do You Need?’
In 2017, former President Trump unsuccessfully attempted to dismantle DACA, a move that was ultimately blocked by the courts, including the Supreme Court. The next year, in 2018, the state of Texas and several other Republican-led states also waged war on the program, filing a suit challenging the program’s legality.
Existing DACA recipients could stay in the program, but new applicants were shut out and have been ever since.
If the court rejects the Biden administrations’s appeal on Wednesday, DACA will most likely again wind up in the Supreme Court.
Kim said at this point, he’s fed up with living in limbo for the past several years: He works hard and pays taxes, he said — he’s proven himself.
“I think I contribute enough,” said Kim, who ideally would like to become a U.S. citizen someday. “I don’t know what this country wants more from me. To be honest, I want to ask the President and all of the Congress members and the public: ‘What do you need? What do you need, more, from these people to be able to adjust their status?’ “
One extra thing Kim did do is join the legal case in defense of DACA, along with several other DACA recipients. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund is representing 18 DACA recipients, three from California, who are involved in the case as what’s known as “intervenors.”
They originally joined before President Biden took office, when it seemed the Trump administration would not defend DACA against the Texas-led challenge.
Kim and others will be at the hearing in New Orleans. While there are no plans for them to testify in the oral arguments, their stories form part of the appeal.
MALDEF president and general counsel Thomas Saenz said it’s necessary to point out the contributions that DACA recipients have made in these 10 years.
“The country as a whole will lose,” Saenz said, “if we don't find a solution to keep these committed young professionals in our workforce and serving our communities.”
If there’s no way for DACA recipients to live and work here legally, “the danger is that some of them will conclude that they would be better able to pursue their profession and raise their families in another country,” Saenz said.
‘I Want To Be Where My Family Is’
In the end, he said, what happens to DACA recipients may rest with Congress, which in spite of several attempts — even after Trump’s attempt to rescind it — has so far not passed any legislation that would let the roughly 600,000 people covered by DACA keep their protection and work permits.
Jung Woo Kim doesn’t plan to go anywhere. He lives not far from his mom and sisters, all of whom have legal status.
“Where I am at is my home,” Kim said. “I want to be where my family is… it's very simple.”
As he prepared to travel to New Orleans for the hearing, Kim said he’s determined to stay optimistic.
“I really have faith in people, faith in the goodness of people,” he said, “and also faith in common sense.”
If DACA fails in the courts, Kim said, then he’ll keep pushing for legislation, along with other activists. Because more than anything, he said, DACA has changed him as a person. While he once kept quiet, sharing little about his life or status — even shying away from photos in an early interview with KPCC — that’s all changed.
“I feel empowered,” Kim said. “I don't have any shame anymore.”