I Feel a Change Comin’ On
Bonnie M. Youn is being honored as a Champion of Change for her efforts as an Immigration Reformer.
On the eve of historic Comprehensive Immigration Reform in 2013, I am honored, as both an immigrant and an immigration attorney, to be selected as a White House Cesar Chavez Champion of Change. As our great Nation debates over whether to grant a path to citizenship to undocumented immigrants who have been here for decades, I share my own story of how I became an American, and how it inspires me to help others achieve that same dream.
I was born to Korean parents in the Philippines. Before moving to Manila, my parents had come to the U.S. in the 1960s to pursue their dreams of higher education, my father at Yale and my mother at New York University. Even earlier, both my maternal uncles had come when they received full scholarships to Dartmouth and Princeton. They were all astronauts. In a time when Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) immigrants were a novelty, they blazed their paths. Having survived the horrors of the Korean War, their burning desire was to pursue their education, find economic stability, and build a future for their families.
It is the same story for most immigrants today. I was fortunate that my parents planned so long in advance for my journey. One of my uncles sponsored my mother under the Family Sibling Category. It took over a decade before our greencards were approved—just in nick of time for me, as I had just been accepted to Brown University. As a permanent resident, I had access to Stafford Loans and Pell grants to help pay my tuition. I was a work-study student, slinging hash during the morning cafeteria shift. I was so proud to earn that paycheck.
My own story is what inspired me to become an immigration attorney, and ultimately an advocate for AAPI communities in the Southeast. Moving to Atlanta in 1994, I was certain that there would be few or no Asians in Georgia. How wrong I was. I found the bustling ethnic corridors of Buford Highway and Chamblee/Doraville, where other AAPI immigrants had discovered that the cost of living in the South was much more affordable than on the coasts. One year later, in 1995, I naturalized as an American citizen.
The Census shows that the Georgia AAPI population has grown by 83 percent from 2000 to 2010, now numbering nearly 400 thousand. The face of the South is changing. I can see that growth right outside my office, where I practice in Gwinnett County. I also see the struggles that we face as small business owners, students, refugees, and skilled professionals in our immigration journeys. I meet people who have long hidden in the shadows, often preyed upon, or suffering due to the lack of language access to basic government services, healthcare, housing, and the legal system. And I see the successes of immigrants with a burning entrepreneurial drive, creating jobs and contributing to our economy.
Because you see, not only am I an immigration attorney, but I am a small business owner. A huge part of my law practice is employment-based immigration: helping foreign college graduates obtain H-1B work visas and their greencards. While I am encouraged that Congress is contemplating an increase to the skilled worker visa numbers, it concerns me greatly that this may be at the expense of cutting family-based immigration categories. Extended families bring individuals just like me, who have the potential to make tremendous contributions to the fabric of America.
AAPIs are now reaching new levels of political maturity, voting and running for office in greater numbers than at any time in America’s history. I realized that because I have the skill-set to clearly articulate our community’s voices, I needed to step up and lead. And I am not alone. I have had the pleasure of working with the most incredible teams to bring the White House Initiative on AAPIs to Atlanta in 2012, and to gather the largest number of AAPIs to the Georgia State Capitol in 2013. We have impressed upon our elected officials that our communities matter, and we are no longer satisfied to remain the quiet, mythical “model minority.”
I am humbled by the White House’s recognition, but it is an award that I bring home for my communities, to hopefully open new doors of opportunity for others. As Cesar Chavez once said, “We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community... Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.”
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