When Steve Li recently stepped into the Asian Law Caucus office for an unexpected visit, he was greeted with, “It’s the legendary!” followed by several hugs.
But Li never wanted this notoriety, which has come at a steep personal cost.
Li was a student at City College of San Francisco when immigration officials came to his Ingleside neighborhood home in September 2010 and took him away, eventually to a detention center in Arizona. It turned out his parents were undocumented immigrants who had brought Li to the United States as a child.
The government began the process of deporting Li to Peru, the country where he was born but to which he has no ties. Then his friends at City College took to social media to tell his story, and lawyers at the Asian Law Caucus fought to keep Li in the country. His case captured the attention of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who authored a private bill in late 2010 that allowed Li to stay in the country.
Two years later, Li is 22 and a student at UC Davis, but his parents were deported to China last year. Feinstein wrote a second bill to give Li a reprieve until 2013, but that, along with new state and federal measures for undocumented immigrant youths, still don’t provide a clear path to citizenship.
“I’m still in limbo,” Li said. “I check in with (the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency) every month. They know where I am, so it keeps reminding me of this whole experience, that they’re watching me and they can take all this away.”
Li’s parents were born in China and moved to Peru. They moved their family to the United States in 2002 and sought asylum, but that request was denied in 2004. It was a secret his parents kept to themselves – until immigration officials came knocking on their door.
No path to citizenship
Virginia Kice, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman, said her agency’s focus has shifted in recent years to removing “criminal aliens, recent border crossers and egregious immigration law violators.” But that is of little consolation to Li and other undocumented youths who came to the United States as children and want to become citizens.
The California Dream Act, passed in 2011, allows undocumented students who were brought to the United States when they were under 16 to apply for state aid at public universities and community colleges. President Obama enacted the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in June. That program provides temporary, renewable work permits for unauthorized immigrants who are 30 years old or younger and were brought to the United States before age 16.
Through Oct. 10, nearly 180,000 people had applied for coverage under the federal program, and 4,591 had been approved, federal figures show.
Li has applied for the California Dream Act, and now that Obama has been re-elected, he plans to apply for the federal program. Many immigrants are believed to have held off, fearing a Mitt Romney administration would repeal the program and deport those who had come forward.
A ‘dark’ experience
Li has never forgotten the 40 days he spent in the detention center in Florence, Ariz., awaiting possible deportation.
“It’s an experience that is very dark and traumatic,” he said.
The experience gave him a voice to highlight the need for comprehensive immigration reform. He has encouraged students at the Asian Law Caucus’ program Aspire, which works with undocumented immigrants. And last summer, he participated in Dream Summer, a national internship for Dream Act student leaders sponsored by the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education’s Dream Resource Center and the United We Dream network.
“He’s really not changed at all since I first met him, not one bit,” said Sin Yen Ling, who was Li’s attorney at the Asian Law Caucus and now works in New York. “To be really honest, when he first came home I thought, ‘Give this kid two weeks and I’m sure he’ll continue with life and move on and try to leave the past behind.’ But he didn’t.”
Li’s case garnered national attention and has been an inspiration for other undocumented immigrants, including Jose Antonio Vargas, a former Chronicle, Washington Post and Huffington Post reporter who revealed his undocumented status in the New York Times Magazine in June 2011.
Vargas, who was introduced to Li by Ling, let Li stay at his New York apartment for a couple of weeks before Vargas disclosed his status.
“I was just preparing myself for whatever was going to happen with my coming out,” said Vargas, who at 31 does not qualify for Obama’s deferred action program. “At one point, he asked me, ‘Are you ready for this?’ So I said, ‘Well, you had to be ready for it, so I have to be ready for it.’ ”
When Li isn’t advocating for a path to citizenship, he’s adjusting to the demands of college, figuring out how to pay tuition and rent while also sending money to help his parents. He also plans to start an undocumented students’ organization for Asian-Pacific Islanders at UC Davis.
He wishes his parents – barred from re-entry for at least a decade, and possibly for life – could see him graduate. He hopes a federal Dream Act, which would provide a path to citizenship, will one day pass, so he could visit his parents or petition for their return.
“Even if I have documents,” he said. “It doesn’t mean those experiences that my family went through disappear.”