Hwanhee (Hilary) Yoon opened her iPhone and scrolled to the Notes section where her 2-minute-long graduation speech as Evergreen High School’s student body president awaits the Class of 2022 in a few weeks.
“Do you want me to read it?” the Evergreen High senior asked.
Yoon’s speech doesn’t focus on COVID-19’s impact on the Class of 2022 or high school experiences, but rather, the importance of relationships. She’s been a varsity basketball and golf standout since her freshman year, is heavily involved in student government and clubs, and will soon be class valedictorian.
None would be possible, she said, without the relationship that means the world to her: her parents, Byung and Kim Yoon, who emigrated from South Korea in 2004 when their daughter was an infant.
“Every little thing I think of,” said Yoon, 18, “it all falls back to them.”
Yoon’s had a typical American upbringing, yet grew up knowing she isn’t a United States citizen. Now, she’s fighting for her legal future as a Documented Dreamer and navigating how to remain in a country she considers home.
According to Improve the Dream, a national organization that raises awareness and advocates for young immigrants in the United States, more than 200,000 young immigrants live legally in the country. Called Documented Dreamers, they’ve grown up in the U.S. as dependents of long-time visa holders, yet don’t have clear paths toward citizenship. When Dreamers age out of their dependent status at age 21, they lose their legal status and face the threat of self-deportation.
That’s Yoon situation. She considers Vancouver home and not Busan, South Korea, where she spent her first 10 months of life. English is her first language and she knows very little of her birth country outside of family stories.
In 2004, Yoon, her parents and two older siblings came to the U.S., and settled in Vancouver. A student visa for a graduate degree originally brought her father here, and later, deciding he wanted to raise his family in the Pacific Northwest, acquired an E-2 Investor visa. That’s allowed the Yoons to reside in the U.S. because of an investment in an American business. Yoon’s parents own and operate the Mocks Bottoms Cafe in Portland.
Protections keep families together when parents move to the U.S. on temporary visas, but end once children turn 21 because they’re no longer considered part of the family unit.
That can lead to a slow roll-out of family separations. Hilary Yoon’s brother, Tim, self-deported to South Korea on his own when he aged out of his dependent status rather than risk staying in the country illegally.
Hilary Yoon knows she could be next. Family conversations often center around her unknown future, she said.
“Almost every day,” Yoon said. “There’s a lot of questions, but I try to be optimistic. If something goes wrong, they’ll always be another way and everything happens for a reason.”
That’s why golf is an oasis and an escape for Yoon. She’s the Plainsmen’s top golfer ahead of Monday and Tuesday’s 4A/3A Greater St. Helens League district tournament at Kelso’s Three Rivers Golf Course. A round of golf can be a metaphor for life and Yoon’s legal limbo, too.
“It teaches me patience and I love that,” she said, “and I can get my anger out really easily.”
Yoon is letting her voice be heard, too. For the past year, she’s been vocal on what it means to be a Documented Dreamer and has shared first-person accounts of her story. Documented Dreamers don’t qualify for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program created during the Obama administration that protects youth from deportation. That’s because the DACA program requires applicants to be undocumented.
“I learned staying quiet doesn’t do anything for you,” she said.
What gives Yoon hope is just that — hope. Improve the Dream, the advocacy group, continues to work to increase awareness of what Documented Dreamers like Yoon face, and is urging the Biden administration to make changes. Multiple congressional letters have been sent to the administration regarding policy changes to protect Documented Dreamers. During the earlier stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, Yoon even spoke via Zoom to Senators — both Democrats and Republicans — explaining her story through Improve the Dream.
Yoon understands the hand she’s been dealt, but believes an immigration overhaul is needed.
“I do feel like it’s unfair,” she said. “But I also do understand when people say that before you moved here, you knew all those consequences. And yes, I get that, because that’s fair. But I think looking at it overall, does that make sense?”
Yoon plans to study business or marketing at Seattle Pacific University beginning this fall. Currently, a short-term student visa would allow Yoon to extend her legal status to complete her college degree after turning 21. After that, she’ll have to carefully plan her path so her Dream isn’t denied.
“Other Documented Dreamers, they give me hope,” Yoon said. “It started when I started meeting people who are in my situation. It taught me you’re not alone.”