Publicly coming out with her undocumented status in recent years, Keish Kim currently attends Freedom University, an ad hoc institution that seeks to provide higher education for undocumented students.
Keish is also the co-founder of Georgia Undocumented Youth Alliance (GUYA), which successfully contested amendments that would have further restricted the availability of higher education for undocumented students in Georgia. Though immigration has been a hot topic for many years, Keish represents a unique perspective as an undocumented Korean American.
When Americans think of undocumented immigrants, most don’t immediately think of Koreans. Can you share with us some of your own personal struggles as a young Korean American undocumented immigrant?
There are many struggles living as an undocumented immigrant in this country, but I think living as a Korean American undocumented immigrant adds extra layers of obstacles. Because I am an undocumented student and because I am a Korean undocumented student, I felt that I did not have a community to fall back on. Revealing an undocumented status is taboo even within the Korean community.
Because most don’t think of undocumented Koreans or even undocumented Asians, it creates a toxic environment for existing API undocumented immigrants. Koreans rank 7th among undocumented immigrants in the US. 16% of Asian Americans are undocumented. Our people are still pushed back further into the shadows and are left to fend for themselves. I think this is my biggest ongoing personal struggle, and it is also one of the biggest struggles many silent, still invisible API undocumented immigrants face.
Were your parents supportive of your decision to “come out” and be vocal about fighting for immigration rights?
Not at first. They were very afraid for me. They feared that once I came out, I would be caught and eventually deported. They also did not look kindly upon the amount of time I spent organizing for immigrant rights. They wanted me to be behind a desk studying in order to obtain maximum amount of scholarships for school. As time passed and they began to see the things I was doing through newspapers, they acknowledged that I was doing the right thing. They also know that being active has taught me so much and has transformed me into a different person. It took a while, but I have earned their trust and gained their support.
With all the risks of being deported or imprisoned, why did you decide to come out as an undocumented immigrant? Moreover, what or who pushed you to become an activist rather than a bystander?
I have been scared for a very long time. I was never able to express myself or do the things I wanted without feeling like a criminal or a suspect. Living in that fear since grade school, it becomes a part of you. And sooner or later, you lose yourself in that darkness unless you face the fear yourself. My dream of attending a university was taken away from me just a month away from the move-in date. My years of hard work were all of sudden invisible. Nonexistent. I had been stripped of everything: my dreams, my goals, and my identity.
When I first met a group of undocumented activists, I realized that I did have a voice. The risks of getting arrested or deported are still very real. But what I realized after I met other undocumented youths last year was that I cannot keep the government and society from erasing me or my voice. I came out as an undocumented immigrant because I could no longer lie to myself. I wanted to stand up to my fear and take charge of my life. I became an activist because I wanted other Asian undocumented youth to see that there is a Korean undocumented out there as well and that they are NOT alone in this struggle.
What is GUYA’s mission, and what is your involvement with the organization?
As one of the co-founders of GUYA, I wanted to raise awareness of immigration issues in our state through various methods of education, political tactics or resource-sharing. We as an organization believe that every human being has the right to education and the pursuit to lead a better life without being targeted due to sexual orientation, religion, skin color, nationality, race or immigration status. We hope to equip our communities with resources and tools in order to strive for higher education. We also hold various workshops in order to raise awareness, bust myths, and hopefully bring change to the society one step out of time.
In terms of immigrant rights, do you think it’s important for people on both sides of the fence to use the word “undocumented” instead of “illegal”?
Absolutely. I believe no human being is illegal. The word “illegal” leads to the criminalization of a whole population. Being an undocumented immigrant is a civil violation rather than a criminal one. The use of the “I”-word promotes racial-profiling and violence. An illegal immigrant to the public only brings up an image of a drug-dealer, rapist, or murderer loose in our society who brings damage to the system at the expense of taxpayers. However, we are human beings just like everyone else in this world. Criminalizing and simplifying an issue that affects hundreds and thousands of people makes it easy to point fingers. Using the word “illegal” dehumanizes a whole population. I believe that no human being is illegal. No human being should be described as “forbidden by law.”
Can you give us some insight into the current situation in Georgia surrounding new legislation that will further restrict higher education for undocumented students?
The current policy in Georgia’s university system bans undocumented students from the top five public institutions including the University of Georgia. This ban has been in place since 2011. It has effectively rejected undocumented youths from attending these institutions solely based on their immigration status. GUYA and our immigrant communities recently defeated two state legislations (Senate Bill 458 and House Bill 59) that would expand the ban to all public universities and colleges in the state of Georgia. Months of organizing safely killed the bills for this past session, but who knows what the legislators are planning for next year. We will need continuous support not only from the community members in Georgia, but other states as well in order to lift the current ban and prevent future hateful bills.
Video of Keish Kim talking about the proposed SB 458
You are currently enrolled at Freedom University. Please explain to our readers how Freedom University works. Is the school accredited? Will you receive a degree at the end? How does the school retain its facilities, contract professors, and recruit students?
Freedom University is a volunteer-led organization that provides college-level education to students regardless of their immigration status. This was in response to the University Board of Regents ban on undocumented students. The school is currently not accredited, but the faculties are doing their best to fulfill its students’ needs and requests. Freedom University is not striving to offer degrees. The professors hope to become a stepping-stone for students rather than transform FU into an accredited institution. As I have stated before, it is 100% volunteer-led. Faculty members dedicate their own personal time prepping, conducting and grading the classes. We have an application on our website in which students can then apply and go through the application process. And we are always in need of books and donations to keep this project up and running!
During the Civil Rights Movement, the Freedom Riders (who were mostly college students) played a pivotal role in getting the government’s attention and helped pass landmark legislations, and they accomplished this without using social media or online petition sites. Fast-forward to 2012. How are you, GUYA, and Freedom University building awareness and fighting against the injustices facing undocumented students? And why should people—undocumented and documented—get involved?
Our generation was born into an incredibly technological-savvy world. Social media and online petitions play crucial roles in the work that both GUYA and Freedom University do. Facebook and Twitter make sure we have our audience informed and updated. These cyber relationships are necessary for petitions in order to save a family from deportation. Believe it or not, those Facebook calls for “SIGN, CALL, SPREAD” actually saved many families. So make sure next time you see those links, please sign and call and spread it among your networks. One signature does make a difference in someone’s life. Blogs and videos also play a critical role in raising awareness within our community. Since both organizations target students and youth, we find it efficient in spreading news articles, events, and updates much faster through social media.
Immigration affects us more than we think. It is important for the community to start asking questions and researching more about immigration because it may impact you more than you think. The more that community members bring up the issue of immigration, the more visible the need for immigration reform will be for the politicians. The more that people realize how their lives are personally affected by this issue, the more signatures, calls, and emails will come demanding for change.
Lastly, how has working with GUYA and Freedom University affected you personally? Do you plan on continuing a career in immigration issues?
I am not afraid of who I am. I am not ashamed of the sacrifices that my parents made to give me a better life here in America because they, as all immigrants once did, believe in the American Dream. I have met so many brave women and men in our society. My work with GUYA and FU has saved me from losing myself in the darkness. I realized that I am not alone, and I cannot just quietly wait and expect change.
Do I plan on continuing a career in the social justices sector? Maybe. For me, being in a university and studying and experimenting what I love comes first. I think I will be more certain about my passion once I have the freedom to learn.
[Photos: Courtesy of Keish Kim]