An Undocumented Youth

Last fall, I was captivated by a man I met at a screening of a PBS documentary called, America By the Numbers, which is all about the changing face of America and its impact on the elections. He was one of the speakers and, as he spoke, I was struck by how much he knew about immigration and its influence on presidential politics.

Wong at age 11.

Wong at age 11.

He talked in a thoughtful, soft-spoken sort of way. And, as he presented a slew of statistics, the conversation soon turned to undocumented immigrants, and more specifically, to him. Quite matter-of-factly, this expert on immigration mentioned that he, too, had been an undocumented immigrant.

The entire audience, 100 or so of us, did a collective double take. Did we hear right? Had this scholarly young man, a faculty member at a prestigious university, just say he grew up as an undocumented youth?

Yep, it’s true. His name is Tom K. Wong and I was so taken with his story that I had to interview him. So, just before the holidays, we sat down and chatted about his life, his dreams, and his mission to help other undocumented immigrants become citizens, too.

I learned so much in our short time together, but the biggest takeaway for me was realizing that when most of us think of undocumented immigrants we picture a Latino face. A Mexican face. But in doing so, we are missing the point.

Undocumented immigrants come in all shapes and sizes and from all parts of the world.  True, there are many undocumented Latinos living among us.  But there are also countless undocumented Asians, Europeans, and Canadians. They don’t all “climb over a wall” to get here. Nor, are they all smuggled into the country. Some arrive on planes or trains. Legally at first, with a visa, and then the visa expires and they’re still here.

For the undocumented children, who were brought here by their parents, this may very well be the only country they know. They have friends here. They’re going to school here, and playing kickball, too. And often, they don’t know the truth about themselves.

There are many paths to becoming an undocumented immigrant.   But there are so very few to becoming a citizen.

And, the undocumented are not all migrant workers, maids, janitors, and the like. Some have white-collar jobs. Like Tom, who is on the faculty of the University of California, San Diego.

I hope you’ll read my interview with Tom that I wrote for my new Hey Neighbor! blog. His is quite a fascinating story.

Please be sure to read Tom K. Wong on Life as an Undocumented Youth  and do let me know what you think! Here’s a preview:

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…(Click here to read more.)

32 thoughts on “An Undocumented Youth

  1. Great story, Monica. Thanks for the introduction to Tom Wong. Being an African-Caribbean immigrant myself, I can totally relate. There are so many more faces who share this story of displacement and isolation, and ultimately triumph (in the work that they do to bring greater awareness). We can never know too much about each other and how we comprise this beautiful tapestry that we call America.

    • Thank you, my dear, for saying it in such a beautiful way. I love telling these stories for I hope they can add to the conversation and help people see how diverse the faces of the undocumented are. 🙂

  2. Sorry to be so late getting here, Monica, but what an incredible story! Strangely Wong’s experience reminds me a bit of how I felt as a kid, having our home raided by the FBI–though for totally different reasons, of course. So glad you had the opportunity to interview this fine American. We need more immigration narratives like this to be shared. Take care, my friend.

    • Thanks, Kathy. His is a great story and I can definitely see the similarity to yours. I’m hoping by telling his, other undocumented will feel empowered to “come out.” In a way, they live with secrecy and sometimes, shame of their status, which is very sad indeed.

  3. Fascinating interview with Tom Wong, Monica — thanks for putting a more personal side to the immigration dilemma. I, too, am torn. As a native-born citizen, but the descendant of immigrants, I know I’m exceedingly fortunate to be an American. My ancestors came and assimilated — spoke broken English, made a living, etc. Frankly, I rather wish they’d passed on their language to me (I’d love being bilingual!). But Bev brings up some interesting points — not everyone can or should live in the United States. We can’t possibly support the masses, and it would be unconscionable to play pick-and-choose with who gets in and who’s left behind. I’ll be interested to hear the proposals for solving this one!

    • Thanks for reading my story about Tom Wong, Debbie. It’s a tough subject and for 11 million people, it’s personal. I’m like you: native-born but with parents who came here from another country, at a time when it was easier to become a citizen and to assimilate. It’s true that not everyone can come or live in the states. But, not everyone wants to come. Not everyone can. I have lots of family in Venezuela, where the government is volatile. Many would love to come but it is difficult simply because there’s a quota of how many visas are allotted each year. Not enough. If you’ve reached a certain age, you’re not allowed into to come because the US government is afraid you might need healthcare or die here. And then, there are the relatives who don’t want to come at all. Who want to stick it out because they dream of a better Venezuela with a democratic government. I just hope it’s not a pipe dream.

  4. I just read your interview, Monica and I think Tom Wong is fantastic for paying it forward, for talking about it so other undocumented youth know there is no shame in their lives and for showing his parents he understands their decision to stay. Not all young women in a relationship in high school would say ” I will marry you.” How wonderful is his wife? 11 years later, they are still together. He is doing so much by offering a simple sum of $100 to those in need of a start toward citizenship. I hope many more take heart from his story and continue to come forward with their own stories.

    • MM, you are the best! I’m tickled pink you read my post about Tom. He’s such a cool guy. I recently met his wife, too, and she was so genuine and sweet. Together with their three little boys, they make a lovely family. And, you’re right about paying it forward. Tom told me that he has gone to a number of student gatherings and has shared his story, and by doing that, it has encouraged undocumented students to come out of the closet. He’s been gathering their stories and maybe one day he’ll turn it into a book. Everyone has a story to tell.

  5. I must admit to being torn by the whole “illegal immigrant” issue. I was blessed enough to have been born in this country, and I recognize it as a blessing every single day. I don’t blame ANYONE for wanting to come here, live here, raise their children here. I believe the melting pot (or chunks of stew, rather) of people from so many different cultures makes America a better place, and I absolutely want there to be a path for citizenship for most immigrants, ESPECIALLY those brought here as children. (I’d be delighted to export citizens like Honey Boo and Donald Trump, as a trade for people like Tom Wong.)

    And yet. Everybody in the entire world canNOT move to the US, so how do we handle that? Who do we let in, who do we keep out? There’s also the issue of people who move here and do not even make an attempt to assimilate. There are people I personally know who moved here over 40 years ago – worked here, bought property here, raised children here who now have adult grandchildren here – who still cannot communicate in English. There are business communities where the signs are not in two languages, but all “other:” Armenian, Korean, Spanish. This is something that divides, rather than unites.

    • Bev, these are all valid points. My family moved here about sixty years ago. My mother learned to understand English, but she rarely spoke it, so you can count her among the people who’ve lived here a long time but had trouble communicating. It wasn’t for lack of trying. She took English classes. But for her, and probably a lot of other immigrants, she was extremely shy about the way she sounded in English, and how she struggled for the right words. Thus, most of the time when we were out, she kept quiet. It’s harder for adults to adapt to a new language, especially when, within their own family, they’re free to speak in their native tongue.

  6. Interesting Blog Monica and after writing this I am off to read the article.

    Over this side of the pond we have a big influx of East Europeans, many are here because their countries have joined the EU and they have free travel. But others have been smuggled in via the backs of lorries etc.

    The UK is seen by many as the land of opportunity, they travel through many western European countries just to get here, when those countries have just as good a standard of living as we do here in the UK. Also as with the USA many come here quite legally as students for example and for one reason or another never get round to going home.

    We have I believe over 115 different languages spoken here in this city now, and as you said in your post many of the people who have moved here have had children and those children only know here and know nothing of where their parents come from.

    There is nothing wrong with people wanting something better but the world wide movement of migrants has never been higher and with the ease of travel these days it will get a bigger problem no doubt. Migration puts a strain on many services, health and social welfare being a good couple of examples.

    Here in Peterborough we have an employment problem amongst the resident population who are unable to gets jobs simply because those from Eastern Europe will do the job for less ans are happy with that because they are still far better off than when they were back in their home countries.

    Some time ago I watched an event where people were taking American citizenship in a ceremony, there were people of all colours and backgrounds there but it struck me that they all had one thing in common and that was pride on their faces.

  7. heading over to read right now. I am old enough to remember the outcry toward the end of the Vietnam War with the ‘Boat People’ and the influx of the the Vietnamese both legal and undocumented. Many don’t remember this, most people especially on the West Coast though were enraged for nearly a decade.

    • I remember hearing about the Boat People, Val. Those were different times when people seemed to get more up in arms about things. When the Occupy movement started it felt like the sixties all over again, but they seem to have fizzled out. Sigh.

  8. This is one issue I hope our President will work on, Monica. Immigration reform is after all one of his campaign promises and he is already doing so much -reaching across the table, nominating Republicans to key positions, when there were doubts he would. I am so tired of the opposition toward giving children of undocumented immigrants, legal status because as you stated this is the only life they know and it would be completely unfair to remove then from a life they have grown accustomed to. Many forget they have ancestors who arrived without papers and sadly they protest the most. This needs to work. What a fantastic post and I’m off to read your interview. What a fascinating life Tom would have had.

    • MM, soon the debate will start in Congress about the Dream Act and immigration in general. I would love to see our congressmen become fully informed on the issues before they vote. Not sure how likely that is, since many just seem to tow their party line, do or die.

    • The undocumented who work in this country must do so under the table. They get paid in cash and, as a result, they don’t pay taxes. Perhaps, if there was a path to citizenship, we might gain taxes from a whole new source. When my parents moved to this country in the 1950’s it was so much easier to become a citizen. I’m grateful they were able to do so.

  9. Great post, Monica! I get so tired of all the stereotypical nonsense spewed about “illegals” mostly on facebook and often by my own relatives, which somewhat amuses me because in their ignorance, they forget that our own great-grandfather was an undocumented “illegal” brought over to the United States from England as a young boy. Hopefully your blog posts help educate people.

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