In part one, we introduced you to Steve Li, a former City College student who was detained by ICE officials at his San Francisco apartment and then taken to a holding cell in Arizona. He is of Chinese descent, but was born in Peru before his family immigrated to New York when he was 12 years old. Today Li is one of the more than 1 million undocumented young adults in the United States who could benefit from President Barack Obama’s new immigration policy.
Here is part two of Li’s story.
In detention in Florence, Arizona, Li worked eight hours a day washing dishes for $1 in pay. He was allowed outside for one hour daily. He ate oatmeal and beans, and his attire rotated between orange, green and blue jumpsuits. Worst of all, he says, he would get used to seeing certain people, then one day they’d be gone. He had no doubt where they went.
“He was really depressed. You could hear in his voice that it was weighing on him,” says his former professor Sang Chi, who spoke to Li on the phone nearly every other day.
After pressure from Li’s lawyer, Sin Yen Ling; local government officials; and people from Li’s community, Senator Dianne Feinstein introduced a private bill in November of 2010, just before Li was set to be deported, that allowed him to stay in the United States for one year.
A proponent of the Development, Relief and Education for Minors (DREAM) Act, which would provide a path to citizenship to young people who were brought to the United States before age 16, Feinstein hoped for the passage of that legislation, and that Li would be one of its beneficiaries. In December of 2010, however, the DREAM Act failed to make it past the U.S. Senate.
President Obama’s new policy is the latest hope — no matter how temporary — for young adults who were brought here as children, ones who often land at the top of their classes or serve in the military.
After a month and a half of detention, an ICE officer approached Li, this time with a different message: he had received a private bill and would be going home.
Li packed up his gray sweatpants, a black North Face sweater and Vans shoes — the same outfit he had been wearing back in September — and found himself at a Greyhound bus station with 20 others who had been incarcerated with him. The brown paper bags holding their belongings drew stares from the crowd.
Ling immediately bought him a one-way ticket to Oakland. On November 20, 2010, he got off the bus in California. A small group was waiting for him.
“There were a lot of people crying, a lot of hugging,” recalls Li’s friend Alan Herrera. “I was like, who is that? He did look different. He was thin and very pale.”
The difference in Li was more than just physical, Herrera says; he was no longer the guy who was happy no matter what the situation.
“At that point, he didn’t seem the same. He didn’t have that same spirit.”
But Chi, Li’s former professor, remembers what it was like for Li when he got the news he was going home.
“He was so thankful and grateful, all that worry gone of what am I going to do in Peru, what’s going to happen with my family?”
Those questions didn’t disappear when Li left Arizona, however. His private bill expires at the end of each congressional year, and Feinstein must reintroduce it every year for approval. His current bill is set to expire at the beginning of 2013.
How does someone plan for a future in the United States when it could all be taken away? How does he plan for the reality of deportation to a foreign country he doesn’t know?
“I haven’t thought at all about that, and I’m not thinking about that at all because my whole life is here,” says Li. “My goal is to become a nurse. The relationships I’ve made over a decade, my friends, everyone is here. I have nothing back in Peru.”
What he does have is a sense that he needs to do all that he can, now. In the past year, Li has been featured on national television for a question-and-answer session with President Obama, has spoken at a number of conferences about his ordeal, has worked with the Asian Law Caucus and has interned with Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy.
Through it all, the reality of the deportation he faces is never far from his mind, although he doesn’t like to admit it.
“I only once asked him what his situation was, and only once he was like, ‘My bill is temporary and it’ll run out,’” says Herrera. “I could tell he didn’t want to go further into the subject.”
But his friends aren’t just brushing aside the thought of his deportation, as perhaps Li would hope.
“We all know that it’s a temporary solution and we all know that he still faces deportation, but I’m 100 percent sure he thinks about it,” says Herrera. “That’s why I think he’s so busy and so proactive, because he doesn’t want to go back.”
“I think about what’s going to happen after a year, if I should say my goodbyes instead of doing all this, going to school,” Li says. “Or keep studying and keep fighting for something that I don’t know will help or not?”
Li may never know the answer to those questions. And now he must live a new life, without his parents’ constant presence; last April, they were deported to China.
Li’s parents moved to Peru to flee China’s one-child policy and religious persecution for being Christian. There they operated a Chinese restaurant but became targets of anti-Asian sentiment when Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, of Japanese descent, was overthrown by a coup in 2000. Their restaurant was allegedly attacked by rebel forces, and in a separate incident, Li’s mother was assaulted.
In the United States, the family applied for political asylum from both Peru and China. That request was denied in 2003, and in 2004 they lost an appeal, says Ling.
Months before his parents’ deportation, Li was uncomfortable discussing the topic.
“It comes up with conversations with my mom,” he told Mission Local at the time. “She cries at night because she doesn’t know what’s going to happen to me or her. It’s like a big elephant in the room. You don’t want to talk about it because there’s no solution, but it’s just there.”
Today, Li lives alone and receives support from his church and friends.
“It was definitely hard to see my parents go through this,” he says. “It had a big impact. It’s been hard to live by myself and figure out where I will live and the money, but I’m taking it step by step.
“Just imagine if you were in my situation,” Li says. “I think if I keep thinking about it, then I won’t be able to go to school or even focus. So I just keep it on the side.”
Getting on with life isn’t easy for Li, and it’s not just because he faces deportation. At the end of the day, he is an undocumented immigrant, and he must deal with the realities of that.
“After what happened, I have lived not being certain of my future,” he says. “I’m going day by day trying to finish my education right now.”
Lisa Chen, with the Asian Law Caucus, says it’s something they talk about often. “There are the day-to-day struggles of undocumented students — money for school, scholarships. It’s a total shift for him. He didn’t know he was undocumented before.”
Li is excited to start school at UC Davis in the fall and, because of the California DREAM Act, he will most likely meet in-state tuition and GPA requirements to apply for student financial aid benefits. He’s currently working, sometimes as a tutor, and saving up money, but he’s also hoping to find scholarships to pay for his tuition. His ultimate goal is to become a nurse, which he might pursue in graduate school.
It’s people like those he met in Arizona who Li says motivate him to keep battling the deportation of undocumented youth when he feels like giving up. Some months ago he received a letter from a 19-year-old named Xum, whom he had met while he was incarcerated. Xum, who is from Los Angeles, recently graduated from high school and is now set to be deported to Guatemala.
“That’s really depressing and sad to know, that they’re still there and people like them are getting deported, slipping through the cracks,” says Li.
“That could be me, and what would I do?”