Steve Li was living up to his – and his parents’ – American dream until his untold past caught up to him.
The 20-year-old City College of San Francisco student was chasing his goal to open a medical clinic serving the immigrant community, when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials knocked on the door of his Ingleside apartment more than a month and a half ago.
Now he faces deportation to a country where he has no friends or family. While experts say his situation is not unusual, his case now has the support of thousands.
“One day I was getting ready to go to school to see my friends and teachers, and the next day I was locked in jail with criminals and gangsters and being treated like I wasn’t a person,” he said during a telephone interview from a detention center in Florence, Ariz.
Li, whose legal name is Shing Ma Li, was born in Peru but always thought he was in the United States legally because his tourist visa has a 2012 expiration date.
What his mother, Li Maria Ma, 50, never told him was that the tourist visas his family was granted in 2002 didn’t mean they could stay for 10 years.
“I told him hopefully he would finish studying here in the U.S. and give back to the country,” she said.
The American dream
Li’s parents, Ma and Xin Guang Li, 55, emigrated from China to Peru in the late 1980s to escape financial hardships and the country’s one-child policy. Steve Li was born in the Latin American country, but the family fled in 2002 because of political instability.
The family’s tourist visas allowed them to travel to and from Peru for a decade, but they could only stay in the United States through the end of 2002. They applied for political asylum but were denied in 2003 and they lost their appeal in 2004, said Li’s lawyer, Sin Yen Ling.
Applying for asylum may have ultimately doomed their chances of ever staying, Ling said.
“Once you put in an application you’re putting yourself on (ICE’s) radar screen,” she said. Steve Li and his parents were taken into custody on Sept. 15. His parents “were released but are on electronic monitoring” and could be deported to China, said ICE spokeswoman Lori Haley. Haley would not address why Steve Li was separated from his parents and sent to an Arizona detention facility.
“I feel very sorry for my son because he never committed any wrongdoing,” said Xin Guang Li. “If there is any wrong it should be the fault of the parents.”
The law may not be on Steve Li’s side, but his friends and City College colleagues are. So are more than 7,000 Facebook users who signed up to support him in the last week and a half.
“We set it up so we could explode public officials’ inboxes so they could … do something about it,” said Marilyn Luu, 21, a City College student who created the Facebook page.
Meanwhile, Steve Li’s Asian American Studies professor, Sang Chi, 36, wrote a petition to drum up support. And today his friends launched a phone campaign to get supporters to contact California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.
On Thursday, the City College Board of Trustees adopted a resolution supporting Steve Li because many youths whose parents enter the country illegally end up suffering the consequences, said Lawrence Wong, a board member.
Wong added that “Steve Li fits the profile” for the DREAM Act, which, if passed by Congress, would grant undocumented immigrant children citizenship if they entered the United States before age 15 and are attending a two- or four-year college.
As of Oct. 5, more than 1.6 million people were awaiting deportation, Haley said. In the 2009 fiscal year, 387,790 were removed from the United States, including 865 to China and 1,188 to Peru.
Ling said cases like Steve Li’s are “very, very common,” and she hopes she can get support from California’s legislative leaders to intervene, citing a similar case involving a Harvard student.
“I’ll thank my lucky stars if” Steve Li gets to stay in the country, Ling said.
The real American
Today marks the third week and third day Steve Li has been incarcerated in Arizona.
He remembers Sept. 15 clearly. That was the day he learned the truth about his residency from the ICE officers who came at 7 a.m. to the compact apartment he shared with his mother.
“They came inside and told me if I knew why they were here, and I said I didn’t know,” he said. “They told me I had an order of deportation and that they were coming to take me somewhere.
“I kept asking myself why, why this was happening, what I had done wrong because I had no criminal record, I was just a hard-working student at school trying to get a degree.”
Steve Li, who once studied nursing, now passes time in jail working eight-hour days washing dishes for $1 a day,just enough to call his family and lawyer.
“I never knew I was a fugitive,” he said. “If I knew this was my case I would have tried to fix my status, but I never had a chance to do that.”
Because Ma lost her job while in jail and is moving out of their apartment, most of her son’s belongings are at the house of one of his closest friends, Christian Hip, 20, a City College student who is Chinese and has family in Peru but was born in the United States.
“Since the first day I said I wanted to be like him. I wanted to copy his slang, I saw him wearing skinny jeans and I said, ‘Oh this is so American’ and I wanted to dress like that,” Hip said. “I feel like he is more American than I am.”