Ju Hong looked tired. Uncharacteristic stubble peppered his chin and there were shadows under his eyes when we met at a Temescal coffee shop. But then again, he’d had a crazy week. Most Cal students spend the warmer months taking summer courses, doing internships or catching up with hometown friends and family. Hong, an ASUC senator-elect and political science major, spent time in jail.
Police arrested 21-year-old Hong and six other undocumented student activists for blocking a major street at a July 12 San Bernardino immigration rally. They were released 12 hours later , but might now be at risk for deportation. An ICE agent told the activists they might be ordered to an immigration court hearing in a few weeks, Hong said.
The act of civil disobedience was meant to empower undocumented youth and protest immigrant mistreatment,Hong wrote in a public statement. Among the central issues at the rally was support for the California Dream Act, which would enable undocumented students to qualify for state-administered financial-aid programs. Part of the bill was signed into law on July 25 by Governor Jerry Brown.
Hong has watched undocumented friends forced to take time off school to save enough money to pay rising tuition fees. Some even had to drop out altogether because college was too costly without financial aid. Other undocumented students have been arrested and deported. There are too many stories, Hong said, including his own.
“This is my last year at Cal. After I graduate, now what? Even with a degree from UC Berkeley, I cannot legally work,” Hong said.
“Ju’s been so tired of the situation,” said Lisa Chen, Asian Law Caucus community advocate. “He needed to do something, and this is what he felt like he needed to do. So when he called to tell me he planned on getting arrested, I was not at all surprised. It was only a matter of when, not if.”
Hong said that the Dream Act movement is growing, “And I want to push a little bit more.”
Before the activism
Hong came to the United States with his mother and older sister when he was 11. Family friends met the new arrivals at SFO and took them to the Union Square Cheesecake Factory. The eighth-story view of the city bewildered Hong.
“I couldn’t eat at all,” he said. “Everything was big. There were so many white people, black people. In Korea, everybody’s Korean, they all speak Korean, the culture is the same. So it was such a new experience for me. Everything was so busy. Oh my goodness, everything was so overwhelming.”
Hong adjusted soon enough. He later attended Alameda High. He ran cross country and played on the basketball, volleyball and rugby teams.
Tin Tran, Hong’s best friend, said Hong has always been a very outgoing and friendly person. “He has this willingness to talk and smile, laugh and make people laugh. It makes him so approachable,” Tran said.
Tran said he would hang out at Hong’s home and rarely see his friend’s family around.
Hong’s mother has two jobs. “She wakes up around 6 a.m. and comes home around 11 p.m.,” Hong said. “She does that for six days. She only gets rest on Sunday. Then she goes to church. She’s a strong woman.”
Hong’s sister, who rises at 4 a.m. and comes home at 8 p.m., also splits her time between two jobs. She left community college some years ago due to financial difficulties, and now works to support her younger brother’s education at Cal.
On the rare occasion that Tran would see Hong’s mother and sister he said, “It’s always a smile. Always hugs. It’s humbling to see that they’re really kind, even though they’re working so much. They would always offer fruit and snacks. The hospitality was off the charts. That made me feel welcomed. That drew me closer to Ju.”
As an upperclassman in Alameda, Hong buckled down on academics with an eye on getting into a good college. Hong began filling out college applications but didn’t know what to put down for his social security number. He asked his mother about it.
“That’s when she told me I didn’t have one,” Hong said. He then learned that he was undocumented. He and his family had come to the U.S. on tourist visas and stayed past expiration.
Hong didn’t know at first what being undocumented meant. He applied for college anyway and won admission to UC Davis. “I was so happy,” he said. “I was literally crying. I worked so hard. That acceptance letter showed that I deserved to go to that prestigious university.”