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“This is my mom. We are from California.”

These were the only words I could utter before Senator Kamala Harris embraced my mom at a rally for a Clean Dream Act in 2017. It was the first rally either of us had ever attended. My mom usually avoids standing in the sun for fear of getting too much of it but there she was, holding up a sign demanding a pathway to citizenship for me, her undocumented daughter.

When then-Senator Harris hugged us, I thought she embodied exactly the kind of compassionate leadership that we all needed. She danced and chanted with us. She promised my mother that she would protect me. Four years have passed. Harris is now the Vice President, and I am still undocumented. 

Like Kamala Harris, I grew up in California in an immigrant family. I followed my mom to the United States when I was 10 years old. My mom was almost always working when I was growing up — 9 am to 9 pm every day, seven days a week. I was the only member of the family who could speak English, so I would try my best to translate and help with business. Otherwise, my childhood was normal. I busied myself with school and after-school activities.

I did not realize that I was “different” on the basis of documentation until my peers began getting their drivers’ licenses and applying for colleges — and I could not.

As a girl, my happiest memories were waiting for my mom to get home so we could eat her kimchi stew together. I did not realize that I was “different” on the basis of documentation until my peers began getting their drivers’ licenses and applying for colleges — and I could not. I was angry, but mainly I was embarrassed.

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Childishly, I blamed myself and my mom instead of the immigration system that had placed us in this precarious situation, and the circumstances, missing paperwork and bureaucratic backlogs out of our control. That is how harmful the immigration system is — it made me hate myself. Eventually, I became involved with the Korean Resource Center, a local community organization and became part of the NAKASEC network. I learned that there were 11 million others like me, living each day in fear of being torn away from family and deported, and 11 million reasons why all undocumented community members need a pathway to citizenship now. 

To secure both the livelihoods and safety of our Asian American and Southeast Asian communities from the current wave of hateful attacks, the federal government needs to first recognize our humanity and grant us citizenship. Unless the government recognizes our rights, the hateful will continue to harass us, beat us, or even kill us in the streets while a system of white supremacy will continue to subject us to racist violence.

Citizenship is not simply protection from deportations or a means to access healthcare, a driver’s license or to earn a degree in higher education. It is the foundation on which it is built, fundamentals like the right to move freely, or the right to claim my belonging to the country I grew up in. We must acknowledge that immigration is a basic human right. We fight for citizenship for all because these rights are non-negotiable.

Even as we face exploitation, incarceration and deportation, immigrant communities have rallied, organized and voted because they wanted our leaders to be bold with immigration legislation. Not only is it time for Democrats to recognize the strength of our movement, but it’s also time for this change to be led by the most powerful Asian and Black daughter of immigrants in the country.

As I watched Senator Harris hold my mom at the rally in 2017, I felt years of embarrassment transform into a fierce hope on behalf of all undocumented children like me. Not only was she a woman of color, but she was also a champion on behalf of all marginalized identities. Now, Vice President Harris is the President of a 50/50 Senate at a critical time in our country — a time when families and communities across the United States are experiencing hardship and heartbreak because of the pandemic and years of record deportations.

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There is a lot that Vice President Harris can do to be the champion of immigrant women. Harris’s most influential role in the Biden administration may be in the Senate. As Vice President, not only can she fight to include a pathway to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants in the upcoming budget reconciliation process, but she can also cast the tie-breaking vote. As the daughter of immigrants, she has a choice — she can rise with our community, or she can continue to watch as the Biden administration carries on with daily deportations.

Geurim Park
Korean Resource Center in Los Angeles