Undocumented South Pas High Graduate Shares her Story

President Donald Trump’s decision three weeks ago to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) next September prompted 2014 South Pasadena High graduate Shine Cho to disclose her status as a ‘DREAMer’ in an open letter published in the high school’s Tiger newspaper. DREAMer is the term that was adopted by undocumented children of non-US citizens living in this country after the introduction of the Dream Act in 2001.

“I am undocumented,” she writes. “I went for years not talking about this–yet it constrains me in such concrete and daunting ways.”

Last week, Cho began her final year at the University of California at San Diego, where, in June, she will graduate with a degree in political science. After receiving her diploma, she will have three months before she is stripped of her rights as a dreamer. “I’m on a tight timeline,” she acknowledges.

Set on becoming a journalist during her time at SPHS (she was the editor-in-chief of Tiger), Cho has recently become interested in becoming an immigration lawyer, writing in the open letter that she is “determined to hold onto my dreams of attending law school to defend the most vulnerable among us.” She plans on studying for the law school entrance exam for two to three months (test administrators recommend six, but Cho’s work permit will expire before then) and taking the test at the end of summer. “Hopefully I do well, because that is really going to be my one and only chance,” she said.

This is just one of the many struggles Cho has to face as a DREAMer.

Presented below are edited excerpts from a recent interview in which Cho spoke at length about her journey.

About discovering that her family was being deported

“We got this letter from DHS saying our Visa application was denied. I remember being 10 years old, coming home after school from Marengo Elementary, and I thought it would just be like every other day. Every normal day, I would go home and sort through the mail with my mom. That’s what we always did. And I remember just opening up this letter and her asking me what it meant, and just having to sit there and read it. I don’t even know if at the time I knew what deportation meant. I remember this look on her face of being so afraid. My mom is a really strong woman; I’d never seen her look like that.”

“When your VISA application is denied, the letter is really scary. It said we had to leave. That it was unlawful to overstay but that we could come back and try again in 10 years. I was 10 years old at the time, I’m 20 right now!”

How her family responded to learning its VISA was denied

“It was a lot of pressure on my parents. It really was a conversation I do remember having, like, ‘Are we really going to go back?’ My brother was just accepted into college, he was a senior at South Pas High. He was graduating in 2007. It was like, ‘Are we really going to go back when David just got into college (UCLA) and we’ve really just built a life here?’ And obviously we didn’t; we stayed.”

Her reaction to accusatory comments directed at the parents of DREAMers

“I don’t blame them for [bringing Cho and her siblings to the United States] at all. I think right now there is such a narrative of, ‘it was the parents’ decision, we shouldn’t put the blame on the children.’ I think any parent if they wanted a better life for their children would have done the same thing. I love them for it. They gave me a life I could have never had in South Korea, despite it being difficult here. I’m grateful.”

The frustration in the undocumented community about not being represented in government

“I’m really tired of being a political football that no one wants to touch. Immigration is always going to be a back-burner topic because the people who are most affected by the issue cannot vote. We are definitely not the people who can give you the money. Like, I’m definitely not going to be donating to a SuperPac any time soon, I’ve got bills to pay. I think that’s what’s so saddening about the topic is that because there isn’t an incentive for politicians to prioritize it it’s always something that’s going to be pushed aside.

“I’m really tired of being pushed around. This is not something I can fix on my own—if it was, I would have done something about it by now. This is beyond me, and I feel like I’m doing my part now in terms of raising awareness about it. I’ve never spoken publicly about it. Now is the time to do it because we really only have until March.”

About the pressure on kids of undocumented immigrants

“I know there have to be other families that are in similar situations. I think that most of the burden always falls on the children, on the students who are most capable of speaking English and understanding what’s happening and having that responsibility of telling their parents in that same example of me reading the letter to my mom.”

The invisible condition of being undocumented in high school

“I think the best way to help the situation is to reach out to [undocumented students]…if there’s a way for us to talk to counselors, to edge it into those conversations. Like, ‘let me know, let’s talk about it, let’s get you resources.’”

“You have to reach students first because otherwise they’re not going to step forward. You remember what high school is like in that there is so much insecurity, you don’t want to be different, all you want to do is fit in, you don’t ever want a reason to stick out. And so, I think that it’s especially important to consider that when there are families definitely going through hard things in this city that we’re not talking about because we just want to talk about our academic success—which is all good—I do worry about the students that are in similar situations and don’t know what to do, who don’t have older siblings and are really just caught up in the situation.”

What the SPUSD can do to reach out to undocumented students within the city

“I think sometimes South Pas loves to hold our kids up to their academic accomplishment almost to a fault. It allows everything else to be sort of swept under the rug. I would say to administrators, teachers and counselors, that if there is a way they should absolutely make this issue a priority. Because for students who do want to live here and contribute here, and are graduating from your schools and doing other things, what are they going to do?
I had siblings to help me, I spent a lot of time researching, but not everyone’s going to do that. I think that as a school, the responsibility is more than just clapping when kids do something great but also really making sure that when they need something you’re providing it for them. Even if it’s something small—I don’t expect a full-on student services center just for this issue, because it impacts such a small group of people that I can’t comfortably be out here asking administrators to dedicate more resources and money towards this when there are so many other things this money can go towards.
“Counselors have so many other responsibilities already, but especially when they know that they have a first-year English speaking student or a student who is second generation like their parents are immigrants, they need to edge that into their conversations, like, ‘If, by any chance, you have other issues regarding your status, let me know so we can help you.’

“I was really encouraged to read a parent’s comment online, that said their kid came home one day and said they talked about it in their class. That’s awesome, that’s all I really wanted, for people to talk about the issue at hand rather than just say, ‘Oh, she went to school here.’”

About her decision to announce her immigration status publicly

“Tiger reached out to me. I really did want to talk about this for so many years but I just didn’t know how to bring it up.

“I just said yes without too much hesitation because this is something I want to talk about in our community. South Pas has given me so many opportunities to accomplish my sense of the American Dream. Honestly, how many immigrants get to say they’ve had the same privileges of living here, of growing up here. It was also something I wanted to write about.”

Fearing that her identity would be picked up by immigration officials, Shine Cho asked not to be photographed. Her brother, David (Class of ’07), became a minor celebrity when he was featured in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal as an outspoken activist for the DREAM Act. He is currently a consultant at a private firm in Los Angeles.