Support for immigrants more important than ever, says Ju Hong of Halmoni documentary

Photo above: Ju Hong speaks at the 2011 APALA Convention along with Kim Geron (second from left), Vice President of the California Faculty Association. Photo credit: Michelle Lapitan

by Kate Snyder

Following the June 23, 2016 Supreme Court decision (4-4) in United States v. Texas, the case challenging expanded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA), we were able to sit down with Ju Hong, a former University of California at Berkeley student activist, and subject of the documentary Halmoni, who has continued to be an outspoken advocate for undocumented immigrants.

NEA: What spurred you to become a DACA activist?

Ju: I was born in South Korea. My Mom and dad ran a small successful business in Seoul and we had a decent life until the economic recession hit South Korea in 1994. My family’s business closed like many others. My parents divorced, and I lived with my Mom and older sister in an apartment the size of a cubicle. Most often, we ate one meal a day. I remember those difficult times. In 2001, when I was 11, my Mom made a bold decision to move to the United States to seek a better life for the three of us.

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We moved to this country, and it was a better life. We had a great community. I went to public school, made good grades, and I was ready to go to college. Anything seemed possible. It wasn’t until I was filling out my applications and I couldn’t find my social security number that my Mom finally told me the truth. We had arrived in this country on a tourist visa which had expired and we were here without documentation.

I was one of the millions of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. I didn’t know if I would be able to go to college, get a job, help support my family or have the life of which I had dreamed. Worse, I lived in fear that my family or I could be deported at any moment.

Through the help of others in my community things worked out for me, but could have easily gone another way. I understand the fear, anxiety, emotional and physical toll an uncertain immigration status takes. I am committed to changing the lives of those people by changing the laws in my country—the United States.

NEA: People cry when they see your documentary, Halmoni. Why do you think it touches people so deeply?

Ju: Halmoni means grandmother in Korean. This film is about my return to South Korea after receiving special permission from the U.S. government because of my immigration status. I hadn’t been back in 13 years and I was able to reunite with my family and see my grandmother who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

The film is about my journey, so it is a story about my struggle, but it speaks to values and experiences that everyone has. This documentary touches people’s hearts around our common experiences about love of family, unification, the sense of home, and a desire for opportunity, equality and justice.

NEA: You shared your documentary on the Asian American Pacific Islander-DACA Video Tour, tell me how that went?

Ju: The AAPI DACA Video Tour included 30 events in 12 cities reaching over 1,000 people between mid-April and mid-June. As different as our immigration stories are, they still have common themes that people who attended the events could connect to. We all share common values of family, a desire to connect and be a part of this community and this country.

NEA: Tell me more about the Dream Riders Across America campaign?

Ju: The campaign was absolutely inspired by the Freedom Riders from the Civil Rights era. Twelve young people got on a bus and shared their personal stories. We focused our travels in the Deep South and really tried to connect to the history of the Civil Rights Movement.

It was great to engage with people throughout the country who do not have the same perspective on the immigration issue. We had passionate conversations about how immigration is tied to so many other issues and really listened as much as we talked.

By putting a human face on this issue – we didn’t talk about numbers – we talked about people and our lives. We touched and transformed ideas about immigration. Some of these communities have put changes to local and state policy in motion.

NEA: So much of your work has involved students and young people, what role do you think you play in movement building?

Ju: Young people have energy, vision and passion to drive people to take action. We can be the fire that motivates and re-ignites the passions of different generations.

Vision, dreams and passion can change policies in a positive way in our communities and our country.

NEA: If there was one victory you could accomplish with your activism, what would that be?

Ju: This is a very timely question. I was really proud when Obama announced DACA. We believe this came from bottom up, from people organizing in their communities- youth, parents and allies coming together.

I want to stop deportations and keep families together.

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