I report in the Orange County Register on Terrence Park, a student at U.C. Berkeley who is president of the university’s math club, on his way to graduate school at Harvard — and in the United States illegally. Park is one of at least 220 undocumented immigrants studying at U.C. Berkeley, America’s premiere public university. Life is hard for these kids, as Terrence’s story amply demonstrates. An in-depth look at the human cost of America’s divisive, dysfunctional immigration system. Here’s the story in full:
Terrence Park is a top math student at UC Berkeley. He’s on his way to grad school at Harvard. And he’s in the country illegally.
By JIM HINCH / THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
April 21, 2013
Terrence Park was filling out his college financial aid application when he asked his mother a question and learned he was breaking the law.
“What’s my Social Security number?”
Park’s mother didn’t answer. She motioned her son onto the sofa in the living room of the family’s one-bedroom apartment in Tustin. “She was very upset, but she didn’t cry,” Park remembers.
“You don’t have a Social Security number,” Park’s mother told him. “You’re not American. You’re Korean.”
Park sat in stunned silence as his mother told the story. How, following her divorce from Park’s father in Seoul, she left for America with her 10-year-old son and his 8-year-old twin sisters, Emily and Carrie. How an incompetent immigration lawyer misfiled the family’s papers. How, a few months after arriving in America, Park’s family became immigrants who are here illegally.
“Why didn’t you tell me this before?” Park demanded. For years he’d assumed he was a legal immigrant on his way to becoming a citizen. He thought he was no different from the nearly 1,000 other Asian American students at Northwood High School in Irvine, where he graduated in 2008.
He spoke passable Korean but his English was better. He lived on fast food, wore flip-flops, played video games. “I’m more American than Korean,” he said.
“Is this going to be a huge problem for my college?” Park asked his mom.
“Keep studying,” was all she answered.
That was five years ago.
Today, Park is a graduating senior at UC Berkeley. He’s the president of the university’s math club. He has a 3.8 GPA. He was accepted to graduate programs in public health at Yale, Brown, Columbia and Harvard universities. He expects to enroll next year at Harvard, which offered him a $22,000 scholarship.
And he’s still here illegally.
NEW RULES, OLD RULES
On Wednesday, eight U.S. senators unveiled an 844-page proposal to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws. If enacted, the legislation would tighten border security, increase the number of foreign workers allowed into the country and provide a path to citizenship for most of the nation’s estimated 11 million people here illegally.
As debate over the proposal begins in Washington, the story of Terrence Park, unfolding thousands of miles away in California, illustrates the complexity – and the often unseen human dimension – of one of America’s most divisive political issues.
Park’s enrollment at UC Berkeley, and what he’ll bring to California if he follows his planned career of providing public health services to the state’s rapidly growing Asian population, is the result of California’s own protracted debate over immigration.
Like many immigrants – and other students – Park and his family endured years of low-wage work and material sacrifice to finance their educations.
But the Parks also benefited from several path-breaking and contentious initiatives in California, including laws enabling immigrants to pay in-state tuition at public universities and a concerted outreach to UC Berkeley students here illegally.
UC Berkeley’s outgoing chancellor, Robert Birgeneau, has been a vocal advocate for students here illegally, drawing ire from politicians and others opposed to providing taxpayer-financed services.
Through it all, Park, his mother and his sisters – who are also UC Berkeley undergraduates – have displayed what Birgeneau, in an interview with the Orange County Register, called the prime reason for welcoming immigrants to UC Berkeley.
“Talent,” Birgeneau said. “California needs every competitive person it has. We can’t afford to waste our talent.”
Park was accepted at UC Berkeley on academic merit alone. State law prohibits the university from using affirmative action in admissions decisions, and applicants are not asked to divulge their immigration status.
A FAMILY EFFORT
Yet despite the university’s efforts to assist students here illegally once they arrive, including provision of a full-time counselor dedicated to clearing legal, financial and academic hurdles, Park’s path to graduation has been anything but straightforward.
Once he realized he was ineligible for financial aid, and therefore couldn’t come close to affording the roughly $30,000 a year it costs to attend a UC school, Park dropped plans to attend a four-year university after high school.
His mother (who declined to give her name to the Register, citing fears of deportation) had brought her children from Korea to Orange County expressly to enroll them in Irvine schools. She’d found a sliver of Tustin, where rents are cheaper, within Irvine Unified School District boundaries.
Park and his sisters got the education their mother envisioned. But after years working as a janitor, dishwasher, cashier and baby sitter, his mother had not managed to save enough to pay for college.
In Korea, she’d been a college-educated schoolteacher until becoming a stay-at-home mom when Park was born. Following the divorce, Park’s father did not support the family financially, as is common in South Korea.
So Park enrolled at Irvine Valley College, got a job at an automated laundry and spent whatever spare time he had tutoring high school students in math.
He and his mother pooled their income and saved enough to pay one year’s tuition for Carrie and Emily when they were accepted at UC Berkeley.
Park graduated from Irvine Valley in 2010. He applied to UC Berkeley as a transfer student. When he was accepted, he and his mother moved north and, together with his sisters, rented a one-bedroom apartment two blocks from campus.
Park slept in a bedroom overlooking a parking lot, on a mattress beside a refrigerator, an ironing board and racks of the girls’ clothes. His mother and sisters slept on mattresses in the living room.
Still, Park couldn’t afford tuition. He deferred his admission, and his sisters, who were majoring in molecular toxicology and nutritional science, temporarily dropped out of school. All four family members got jobs, Park as a tutor, his sisters at a supermarket, their mother cleaning houses.
By the start of the 2011 school year, the family had saved enough to pay for one semester for all three siblings. After that, they planned to drop out again and work to pay for another semester.
That October, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the California Dream Act, which enabled immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as minors to receive state financial aid. The law, initially proposed in 2006 by former state Sen. Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, had been vetoed three times by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
At last, Park and his sisters could afford to go to college full time.
“I’m privileged,” Park said. “There are (more than a) million students who can’t study like me because” of their immigration status. “It forces me to take responsibility.”
Outwardly, Park shows no obvious sign of being one of the so-called Dreamers – an estimated 1.4 million people here illegally brought to America while they were children. He seems like any other UC Berkeley math major.
A recent – and ordinary – day earlier this month found him treading a well-worn path from Evans Hall, headquarters of the university’s math department, to the library, home for a nap, then back to Evans, where for the third straight night he planned to shut himself inside a fluorescent-lit classroom with a few friends to study for an upcoming exam in Complex Analysis, the study of the “analytic functions of a complex variable.”
The study marathons, fueled by frozen burritos and one-hour sleep breaks, are common at UC Berkeley, where the math department ranks second highest in the nation, just behind Harvard’s.
Yet all-nighters are one of the few campus rituals Park shares with other UC Berkeley undergraduates.
Inwardly, his life is wholly shaped by his immigration status.
Lacking a valid visa, he was unable to fly on an airplane after arriving in America. And so he hasn’t seen his father for 13 years, or talked to him at all since he stopped calling about seven years ago.
Park has never been to a football game, never attended a beer-soaked party and only began driving this year, when he applied for and received a special legal exemption from deportation granted by President Barack Obama to young people here illegally who are enrolled in school or serving in the military.
“I thought I was going to enjoy it here a little bit,” Park said of UC Berkeley. “But I have no time to think about whether I enjoy it.”
In addition to classes, he continues to work two jobs, as a trigonometry tutor to a high school student in Oakland and as a paid intern at an Asian health clinic. Both jobs are a 40-minute bus ride from campus.
While other undergraduates explore their newfound freedom from home, Park returns each day to his family’s one-bedroom apartment, where the expectations placed on him as the oldest son of a Korean family are “huge,” he said. “The oldest has to be the model for everyone else.”
“I had a pretty good addiction to video games in high school,” he confessed. His mother “would have to quit a job to monitor me more. My sisters also monitored me. It was like having three moms.”
“When I found out (in high school) I can’t go to college, I just gave up. There’s no point in me studying.”
Park graduated from Northwood with a “3.4 or 3.5” GPA. He only began earning UC Berkeley-worthy grades at community college. When his UC Berkeley acceptance letter came, he walked to the 99 Ranch Market in Irvine where his mother worked handing out prepared food samples.
“She thought I was joking,” he said. “I had to tell her five times.”
And so now he works. “When you see Mom work two, three jobs and come home at 10 p.m. and still take care of all of us, that kind of motivates all of us,” he said.
A VIDEO STAR
In January, Meng So, UC Berkeley’s counselor for students here illegally, told Park that an advocacy group called The Dream is Now, a nonprofit backed by Laurene Powell Jobs, wife of late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, wanted to film a short promotional video highlighting students here illegally on campus.
Would Park be interested in starring in the video, So asked?
“I decided to do it,” Park said. Until that day, he’d told almost no one about his illegal status, though a few friends had guessed.
“It was an opportunity for me to actually contribute to the Dream Act movement,” Park said, referring to efforts to pass legislation enabling young people here illegally to progress toward citizenship.
For six hours, documentary filmmaker Davis Guggenheim, whose credits include “Waiting for Superman,” filmed Park writing numbers on a chalkboard: how much it costs to deport one immigrant here illegally ($23,000) vs. the estimated economic benefit of millions of educated immigrant workers ($329 billion by 2030).
“So that’s $23,000 to deport me,” Park says to the camera.
The video, released in February, provoked a storm of international attention.
“It was pretty scary,” Park said. “But I got used to it at some point.”
There was no such attention at the end of Park’s recent midterm exam study marathon.
As evening fog rolled over the UC Berkeley campus, Park sat alone in lecture Room 11 in Evans Hall, at a gray-and-orange desk beside a chalkboard.
His black Dell laptop was open. He was too stressed to eat and, if he wasn’t, he was out of frozen burritos anyway.
He looked up from the computer and reflected on the gains and losses of life as an immigrant student here illegally.
“The fact that we had to stay together as a family for the past couple years, I’ve had less of an individual (college) experience,” he said.
“The positive side is you learn how to take care of other people. The negative side is I haven’t learned an individual approach to life. I still have to learn that.”
Undocumented students at Berkeley
HOW MANY: 220 students at UC Berkeley are illegal immigrants; total enrollment is 36,142.
HOW IT WORKS: Undocumented students do not receive preference in admissions. The university does not ask applicants to divulge immigration status. Once accepted, immigrants are allowed to apply for state financial aid. UC Berkeley becomes aware of students’ legal status when they apply for aid.
SCHOOLS: UC Berkeley is the first in the nation to provide services to undocumented students. Other universities have begun emulating UC Berkeley’s outreach, including UCLA and schools in Texas, Georgia, Arizona and Michigan.
MONEY: The average family income of undocumented students is $24,000. Total annual cost to attend UC Berkeley is $33,500.
GRADES: Average GPA of undocumented students is 3.3, versus 3.03 for other UC Berkeley students.