Once Undocumented, Now an Immigrant Advocate

Cross-posted from the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders

As a first-generation American whose own family emigrated from the Philippines, I always relish the opportunity to hear personal stories of immigration. As Filipino American History Month comes to a close, I want to share a story from Angelo Mathay, a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) law fellow at the National Immigration Law Center. This past summer, Angelo shared his immigration experience during an immigration reform briefing at the Department of Education. The story that Angelo shared is one that reminds me that while we all have our different backgrounds, our stories hold a diverse set of experiences, perspectives, and voices from which we can all learn.

Before practicing immigration law and becoming a key advocate for social justice and equality, Angelo was born in the Philippines and when he was six, he and his mother set out to find a better life in the United States.

The next thirteen years were unrelentingly harsh for Angelo. He and his mother, who overstayed their tourist visas, found themselves moving frequently between apartments in California’s Daly City, a major Filipino American community. While his mother worked tirelessly day after day, Angelo struggled with English in school as early as second grade. He recalled at the briefing in June, “I would heat up leftovers my mother had set aside for my dinner and wait for her return.  And when she arrived, my mother always made sure I had completed my arithmetic, reading, and writing homework.  She knew how valuable an American education would be to provide a better future for us both.” Despite their everyday obstacles, they never let go of their dream to “render [their] presence in the country a legal right, not a fleeting reality.”

With hard work and perseverance, Angelo took on the challenge of pursuing higher education. He explained, “Though I lacked a social security number to obtain loans and scholarships, thanks to California Assembly Bill 540 — signed into law just before my freshman year — I was able to qualify for in-state tuition and attend UCLA.”  Finally, at the age of 19, Angelo was able to become a naturalized citizen thanks to a petition by his new stepfather.

Angelo now believes that through his work on immigration, he had “the privilege of working with the community that [he] was once a part of – undocumented youth.” As of August 2013, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services recorded 552,918 DACA requests had been accepted with 430,236 approved, including many from Filipino youth.  Angelo continued, “The DACA experience shows that with an active, supportive legal community and responsive governmental agencies, we can build the road to citizenship for the 11 million aspiring citizens.”

However, the goal of fixing our broken immigration system doesn’t end with DACA.

In a speech on immigration last week, President Obama discussed the bill that passed the Senate with bipartisan support earlier this year, noting that it addresses “the core challenges of how we create a immigration system that is fair, that’s just, that is true to our traditions as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants.” And, if the bill were to become law, it would grow our economy by $1.4 trillion over the next two decades while cutting the deficit by nearly $1 trillion.

As an undocumented immigrant, Angelo Mathay has escaped “poverty, violence and discrimination.” Yet he dreamed bigger. He worked harder. He recognized that his challenge was an opportunity, saying “The decision to leave the Philippines was no more mine than being born, but the ensuing years taught me several invaluable things: how to overcome adversity, preserve hope, and fight for what I believe in.”

AAPIs are a rapidly growing immigrant population in the U.S. In 2011, 25% of the foreign born population in the United States came from Asian countries. Asian immigrants also make up 11% of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, living and working in the shadows, unable to fully participate in our society. This is an issue that is of tremendous importance to the AAPI community. Now is the time for us to fix our country’s broken immigration system.

Victor Diaz Zapanta is a communications advisor at the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.