Tom K. Wong on Life as an Undocumented Youth
Tom K. Wong is haunted by a childhood memory. It is of being awakened in the middle of the night by his mother, and being taken into the hallway, along with his older brother. There, she held them both tightly and sobbed while helicopters hovered overhead.
“It was bizarre,” says Wong, who still remembers the incident that occurred when he was 10, in their low-income neighborhood in Riverside, California, which was comprised mostly of Mexicans, Salvadorians and Guatemalans. “That night, my mother was really scared. There were helicopters flying around, and lights shining down by our house, but they weren’t there for us. The police were surrounding our neighbors’ house. Yet, it was clear my mother thought the immigration officials were coming to raid our house. I connected the dots later on in life.”
For Wong, who today is an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, connecting the dots included coming to America from Hong Kong with his parents and brother, at the age of two, and staying long after their visas expired. The revelation that he was an undocumented immigrant came when he reached the age of 16. Like most youth at that age, he was eager to get his driver’s license. Instead, he learned that he couldn’t because of his undocumented status, and the news left him reeling or, as he says, “It was like having a bomb dropped on me.”
“A lot of young undocumented immigrants aren’t aware that they’re undocumented,” notes Wong, whose research focuses on the politics of immigration, citizenship, and migrant illegality. “They learn later in life, after they’ve spent a lifetime being a part of the society. In that context, learning that you’re undocumented is completely shattering for one’s identity. At least it was for me. Suddenly, the things I wanted to do I actually couldn’t do because of my identity.”
Besides not being able to apply for a driver’s license, Wong discovered that being undocumented meant he’d have to make other adjustments. Having spent high school enrolled in all Honors and AP (Advanced Placement) classes, he’d now have to put aside his dream of going to college. Instead, he’d join his parents—selling toys at swap meets. He also had to figure out how his new identity as an undocumented immigrant would affect the relationships he’d built with his friends.
“I had to learn to navigate my personal relationships with others,” he says with some regret. “And, I didn’t do it very well. I didn’t tell any of my friends. I felt so lonely and isolated and I had nobody to talk to. I was ashamed. When I finally did tell somebody, I told my best friend, and the response was one that I didn’t expect.”
His best friend stopped speaking to him. But, around this time, when Wong was 18, he started dating Rose Bloomberg-Rissman, a high school classmate who, seeing that he was facing deportation, stepped in to help.
“I don’t think I told her until a couple months into us being a couple,” recalls Wong. “It became real when (in order to become a U.S. citizen) I had to go back to Hong Kong and wait 10 years. I think it was only then that she realized what it meant for me to be undocumented. She proposed to me, though I didn’t say yes right away. It was a tough choice and I was ready to go to Hong Kong.”
But, with their parents’ blessing, they married. Wong, though, wants to make it clear that his decision to marry wasn’t all about the green card. ”Eleven years later, and we’re still married. She’s the mother of my kids (triplet boys). The immediate assumption is that we got married so that I could stay, but I was ready to go.”
Today, Wong is trying to help other undocumented youth. He has reached out to students, sharing his story in the hopes that they would come forward and, in turn, share their stories with him. And they have. In droves. The reason, says Wong, is simple.
“So much of this is cathartic. When you hear someone else’s story and you can sort of connect to that person because yours is similar, it is a healing experience. It empowers them. And people instantly want to get more involved. It’s becoming more and more common.”
Wong is also trying to combat assumptions made about undocumented youth. “We have just around 40 million immigrants in the U.S., and about 11 million are undocumented,” he observes. “The face of the undocumented immigrant is Latino, but there’s Asian, Afro-Caribbean, and undocumented people from Canada, France and Australia.”
Studying immigration politics and policy is personal for Wong, something he does in honor of his parents. “As a Chinese family, we aren’t very apt on sharing our feelings with each other. A lot of why I do it, is to show them my appreciation, my acknowledgement that I understand why we came here the way we did and why the struggle growing up was actually worth it.”
He adds, “Recently, I did a press briefing in Los Angeles about undocumented Asians, and my mom called me because she saw an article in a Chinese newspaper saying this is great. Even though we don’t talk about our situation directly, they get why I do this.”
Wong’s experience as an undocumented youth, or former “DREAMer,” as he calls himself, has led him to want to help other undocumented youth get on the path to citizenship. In addition to his work at UCSD, Wong serves as the director of the DREAM Project, a non-profit that collects the oral histories of undocumented students. Largely through his own personal funds, he also is making available 30 private grants of $100 each, to assist students in the costs of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) applications. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wong is actively involved with the San Diego Dream Team, which plans to host a statewide summit of the California Alliance Dream Team Alliance, the first to be held in San Diego, beginning Friday. The purpose is to strategize for comprehensive immigration reform and other statewide policies.
Wong, who is committed to studying immigration trends and its influence on politics, asserts that immigration will be a major issue in 2013. Which is why for him, his work is just beginning. “It’s a perfect storm for San Diego in a positive way,” he says, “to get people energized and mobilized towards social justice, and I’m just glad to be part of it.”