The Flawed Immigration System Might Break Apart My Family

Hwanhee (Hilary) Yoon

Hello, my name is Hwanhee (Hilary) Yoon. I’m seventeen years old, and I’m currently a junior in high school. I am a Documented Dreamer.

My parents brought me and my siblings to the United States from South Korea when I was just 10 months old. Due to the lack of pathways to citizenship, I am still on a temporary visa though I have never left the U.S. since moving here almost 17 years ago. America is all I’ve ever known — I’m more comfortable speaking English than Korean, and because I was so young when I left Korea, I don’t remember a single thing about the country. Everything that I know about Korea is what I’ve learned growing up here in the U.S.

My parents grew up in Korea and the reason they moved to the U.S. was because my dad’s company had sponsored his Master’s degree in Public Administration in the U.S. During my dad’s three-year masters program, my parents realized that this is the place where they wanted to raise my siblings and me, since the education system in Korea is extremely stressful and competitive. My parents wanted us to be able to play sports, learn instruments, hangout with friends and have fun while growing up, rather than studying day and night everyday. However, my dad had an obligation to return to the company. Though it was a difficult decision, my mom decided to stay in the U.S. to raise us while my dad worked in Korea. As a result, our family reunited only once or twice a year for a few years until my dad eventually left his company and moved to the U.S. to be with us. My parents decided to start running a small business on an E-2 (investor) visa. They started with a small cafe in Portland, Oregon without any prior experience in running a business. They gave up their jobs, left their family and friends, and took a chance at making a living here in the U.S. so that my siblings and I could have a better upbringing.

When I started kindergarten, I remember no one in my class could pronounce my name correctly. The first thing my family and I did was research English names so that my siblings and I would have an easier time while going through school. I remember always being embarrassed whenever someone asked me what my “real” name was, or when my parents would speak Korean to me in front of my friends. I wanted to be ‘normal’ and have the life that every American kid got to experience.

My parents gave me just that.

I was involved in almost all the activities and clubs that my elementary school offered — I ran track, I was in student council, I played in band, I sang in choir, and I was involved in volunteering opportunities. Outside of school I received piano lessons, I did figure skating and played on a basketball team. When I entered middle school I was involved in school leadership, played volleyball, basketball, ran track, and was a member of the National Honor Society. I am now in high school, and I am still involved in leadership, National Honor Society, had the privilege of being the President of Key Club and will be Associated Student Body (ASB) President next year. I have also been on varsity basketball and golf teams since freshman year. Through all these activities my parents were there, giving me rides, coming to my games and matches, all the while supporting my two siblings and running their business.

Growing up, I’ve seen my whole family struggle due to the lack of permanent residency in America. I can remember my parents working tirelessly in fear of being denied a renewal of their E-2 visa which could result in losing the residency status for our entire family. I remember my sister crying due to the limitations she faced as a student when deciding on a major to pursue and jobs to apply for, only to find out that numerous companies only consider applicants that are green card holders or U.S. citizens. I remember my brother who left the U.S. when his visa expired.

I also remember the numerous conversations my parents had with me, explaining that we might have to leave America and that everything would be okay no matter what happened. They assured me they would figure out a way for me to stay in the U.S. I watch my parents act fine, when I know how much it hurts them to see everything that my siblings and I have to go through. They watch us cry about the uncertainty the future holds, but act strong for us, even when they haven’t seen their parents and siblings for over 12 years. My grandmother was diagnosed with cancer and my grandfather with Parkinson’s disease, but my parents have not had a chance to go to Korea to be with them all because of me — they do not want to jeopardize losing the E-2 visa status because that would mean that I would have to move out of the only country I call home.

Now that I will be applying to colleges in less than a year, I am fearful of what I will be facing. I always planned on attending college, but now I realize that whether or not I could go to college solely depends on whether my parents could afford expensive international student college tuition. To help me pursue higher education, my parents would not only be sacrificing their financial security, but also the time they could spend tending to my grandparents in their old age and poor health. If it weren’t for me, my parents would not have to worry about these things.

My family and I feel American and I grew up just like our American neighbors around us. We only wish that we could also have the same opportunities as them.

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Improve The Dream

We are a youth-led organization advocating for and supporting the 200k children of long-term visa holders who face self-deportation. Visit ImproveTheDream.org.