In fall 2011, during my first semester of college, I proudly took the Greyhound bus home for Thanksgiving break. I was not only the first one in my family to go to college, but I was also one of Pacific Lutheran University’s five full-tuition merit scholars. As I nostalgically entered my family’s crumbling low income apartment complex, I stopped by the leasing office to check our mailbox. And my face froze.
After six years of anxiously waiting for a green card, the denial letter for our I-485 application for permanent residence from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services came as the worst news of my life. With a chance of deportation, being the high school cross country team captain, graduation speaker, and jazz pianist would be something I would only reminisce about. The only hope that sustained me when I painfully learned C-A-T and D-O-G in my seventh-grade English-as-a-second-language class was shattered.
My mother lied and said she was actually quite happy about getting the letter. Living in fear and uncertainty for years with a pending status was much more tormenting than the letter, she said. Not being able to find a skilled and affordable Korean immigration attorney after five different firms made me realize something. The skilled weren’t affordable, and the affordable weren’t skilled.
A man on a mission
Despite my circumstance, I decided to get a J.D. myself to become an effective attorney. With this newfound determination, my mission began. Being an undocumented person in the United States meant I was to live a different kind of reality than that of my peers. To avoid deportation, I never gave anyone a reason to doubt I was an American. Because loans or federal student aid money aren’t options for the undocumented, I had to work 33 hours a week during college to afford room, board, and textbooks. When I was exhausted from classes and work, I gave myself a break by getting involved with various clubs. Afterward, I’d return to my dorm room quietly without waking my roommate and study for my two majors.
In June 2012, I found out about former President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), which would give me work authorization and deferment of deportation. This meant I’d no longer have to live in fear of being found out. Filled with hope, I successfully submitted forms I-821D and I-765. Helping my little brother and friends do the same became a healing process as I forced myself to share the most vulnerable part of my life. I even got to assist my father in the E-2 renewal process by submitting an I-290B with evidence to file a motion to reconsider when his I-129 was denied. Despite the difficulties arising from my own immigration status, I discovered that the utmost fulfillment is realized when struggle meets accomplishment.
When I heard they had received approvals, I forgot all about the long hours spent acquiring the years’ worth of bank statements, the stress of obtaining proofs of attendance from each school, and the threat of deportation. I remembered, instead, the lessons I’d learned along the way: Compassion for the conflicted; resilience toward adversity; and, above all, the importance of having a malleable perspective.
A unique window to the law
To be sure, I won’t become a typical lawyer. In fact, I’ll bring in a perspective that no attorney in this nation is accustomed to. I lived a vastly different kind of reality than that of my peers, and it’s because of, not in spite of, these factors that I graduated college in the top tier of my class, being the first to hold the president’s office in all three international honor societies. Though I couldn’t afford LSAT classes, I achieved a high score on my own, using borrowed materials from public libraries. Though I couldn’t borrow any money for my legal education, I received a full-tuition merit scholarship from the best law school in Arizona. I no longer believe that being undocumented is a disadvantage to me. My unique stance in the socioeconomic fabric of America gave me the experience and the outlook I have today, and that is precisely what I’ll be bringing to this nation.
Until DACA, there’s been virtually no way for undocumented individuals like me to enter the profession of law. The USCIS’s E-Verify system, which is intended to root out undocumented people from hiring processes, as well as the American Bar Association’s regulations, had systematically made such an occurrence impossible.
Soon, I’ll be one of this nation’s very first DACA-status licensed attorneys, with a skill to achieve something out of nothing but determination and a small opportunity. For all these reasons, I am determined to make a transformative impact in my sphere, our communities, and this great nation.
THOMAS E. KIM is a third-year student at Arizona State University—Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law in Phoenix and the incoming chair of the ABA Law Student Division.