Tereza Lee, overcome by emotion, held back tears as she recounted a childhood traumatized by the constant fear of deportation. She had been brought to the United States in 1985 by her parents, who were undocumented. Decades later, memories of that pain remain.
“I grew up with this nightmare every single day,” Lee said.
With Congress locked in debate over whether to extend the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Lee recently renewed her calls to protect from deportation some 700,000 undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.
The immigrants are known as Dreamers, and Lee is considered among the very first.
“We are your neighbors and your friends and your co-workers,” Lee said last week at the International Institute of New England, an immigrant and refugee resettlement agency based in Boston. “The system we have right now doesn’t work and is unjust.”
A 34-year-old mother of two, Lee is now a US citizen. But 16 years after US Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois used her case to lobby — unsuccessfully — for the original Dream Act, she is outraged that others like her remain subject to deportation, despite national polls showing overwhelming support to provide them a path to citizenship.
“The public is demanding it,” she said.
In 2012, President Obama granted temporary protections that allowed young undocumented immigrants to obtain work permits and apply periodically for permission to remain in the country.
In September, the Trump administration announced it was rescinding the program. Just like that, hundreds of thousands of immigrants who had grown up in the United States, gotten jobs, attended college, and assimilated into American society faced the prospect of being deported.
Last week, a federal judge in San Francisco ordered the administration to renew the program while a lawsuit against it moves forward. However, the government does not have to accept applications from people who were not granted protections before Sept. 5.
The legal uncertainty around the program is something that Lee, a native of South Korea who married an American citizen, knows well. Her parents fled penniless from their homeland after the Korean War and settled among thousands of their displaced countrymen in Brazil. There, they once again found misfortune when her father’s bank account was emptied through fraud.
Lee was 2 years old when she flew with her family to the United States on a tourist visa after her mother sold her wedding ring and other jewelry to pay the airfare. They found a basement apartment in Chicago, where they had no furniture and slept on hammocks. Some days passed without food, Lee said.
It was not until she entered school that Lee saw how vulnerable she was. For all Lee knew, she was simply a child in inner-city Chicago whose father, a Presbyterian minister, struggled to build a congregation and cobble together enough income to buy Lee more than one set of clothes.
At 7, Lee and her brother were summoned for a family announcement.
“I have a very important, serious message. You can’t tell this secret to anyone outside the family,” her father said. “We are undocumented.”
Lee had no idea what the word meant, and she didn’t understand the risks the family faced. But as she grew older, they became clear. Avoid speaking with others, the siblings were told. Don’t answer the phone. Be careful around your friends.
They grasped the full weight of their situation in 1998, when Lee’s brother was hit by a speeding car as the family left a Christmas concert, where Lee had accompanied her high-school choir on piano.
Worried about revealing the family’s undocumented status, Lee’s father told police the accident was his son’s fault. The boy was hospitalized, and the full cost of his care fell upon the parents, who had no health insurance.
“Even though we considered this place to be our home, I realized we didn’t have any rights in this country,” Lee said.
A few years later, Lee’s case came to Durbin’s attention through one of her teachers. The girl had become a self-taught piano prodigy, even playing once with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but she had no hope of attending college. The applications asked for her parents’ Social Security numbers, and they had none. If she applied, the secret would come out.
Lee confessed to her teacher that she was undocumented.
“Please do not report me to the police,” she pleaded.
Instead, Durbin intervened.
“He decided to write legislation, a personal bill on behalf of me,” Lee said. “For all I knew, we were the only undocumented family.”
Cheryl Hamilton, director of partner engagement for the International Institute of New England, said Lee’s story is timely and important.
“Tereza reminds me of countless immigrants and why common-sense immigration reform can’t come fast enough,” Hamilton said. “We see this every day in our communities — immigrant families being broken apart and young people’s dreams being deferred indefinitely.”
After repeated disappointments, Lee is pinning her hopes on congressional Democrats who say extending DACA must be part of a federal spending bill, which faces a Jan. 19 deadline to avoid a government shutdown.
Lee said she is optimistic that DACA protections will eventually be reinstated.
“The Dream Act is a seed that has been planted and has been growing and will continue to grow,” Lee said.
Lee’s mother now has a green card, and for the first time in 30 years was able to use that documented status to reconnect with her family. And now she can hear with the help of health insurance and hearing aids.
Lee, retelling that story, began to cry.
Lee said she is perplexed by Trump’s vacillation on DACA, and she is resentful of those who are adamant that children who were brought here by undocumented parents should be deported.
“I have a love and hate relationship with this country. I love it because this is my home and where I grew up,” Lee said. “I hate that we are still faced with issues — racism and inequality between different social levels.”
She has no divided feelings about her cause.
“It’s so personal to me,” said Lee, who lives in New York. “I feel a sense of responsibility to my undocumented brothers and sisters.”