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Posted: June 9th, 2010
Filed Under: BLOG , Back Issues , June 2010
This is one of the best articles I’ve read about Simon Cho and his activism for immigration reform. The more I read about Simon, the more it becomes clear this is a very open hearted and thoughtful young man. Kudos to you Simon
Olympian. Bronze medalist. American. Any of those monikers describes short-track speed skater Simon Cho, and yet, the 18-year-old is embracing a less popular identity: formerly undocumented.
By Julie Ha
As he stood on the ice before a stadium crowd of thousands at the Vancouver Winter Olympics, the U.S. speed skating team’s youngest member felt like his heart was going to jump out of his chest. Yet, in a matter of days, Simon Cho—the 18-year-old no one even expected to qualify for an Olympic team that included superstar Apolo Anton Ohno—would leave Canada with a bronze medal for the 5,000-meter short-track relay and a future full of promise.
Less than three months later, Cho stands before a group of about 40 college students in a mid-sized conference room at UCLA. Earlier that day, he had addressed a group of elementary school students in Los Angeles—now, that was fun. But, here, surrounded by an audience of mostly peers his age, the nerves are back.
As he invites questions from the largely quiet crowd, he says, “You can ask me anything you want—even personal questions, like what’s my favorite color.” Finally, giggles erupt.
The short tracker is proving he knows not only how to navigate the ice with incredible speed and precision, but also how to break it. That’s an important skill these days as he takes on his unusual new role as a young Olympian.
“I am a 2010 bronze medalist, but I’m standing here today also as an advocate for immigration reform,” he tells the gathering.
Dressed in a collared shirt, blue jeans and Nikes, with soft waves framing his face, Cho, dubbed the “next generation” by one U.S. national team coach, never planned such activism. But it is a crusade he is embracing with a maturity and sense of responsibility surprising for someone who still cannot drink legally.
The way Cho sees it, he is not so different from many of the young men and women in this room, in their late teens and early 20s, full of dreams, ideals and possibilities, but handicapped by one thing: they’re undocumented.
Rewind a decade, and the Seoul-born Cho could trade places with them. Well-documented in articles by The Washington Post and The New York Times in advance of the February Olympics, Cho’s back story is compelling: one night in 1996, clutching his mother’s hand, the 4-year-old walked across a muddy field. He had crossed from Canada into the United States, becoming an illegal immigrant. He was fortunately able to gain legal status in 2001 and later citizenship, thanks to the more relaxed immigration laws back then.
The newspapers recognized the novelty of this once-undocumented immigrant who snuck in from Canada as a child and was returning to the country years later as a U.S. citizen and Olympian.
Immigrant rights advocates at the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium and its Los Angeles affiliate, Korean Resource Center, also recognized the compelling nature of Cho’s story and, after the Olympics, asked him if he would like to get involved in their campaign. He gladly agreed.
In April, he shared his personal tale and support of reform at a packed Washington, D.C. press conference organized by NAKASEC. That month, he also met with U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), co-sponsors of the DREAM Act, a federal bill that provides undocumented students a path to legal status. He communicated his support for the legislation as well as for comprehensive immigration reform that would address the huge backlog of families waiting to reunify.
It was the prospect of an at least seven-year delay that prompted Cho’s father, already working in the States legally, to arrange the furtive entry of his family, who had been waiting in Korea to reunite with him.
“It was really humbling to meet someone like Durbin, since he wrote the DREAM Act and I could relate so much to it,” reflects Simon, sitting on the grass in front of UCLA’s Kerckhoff Hall, following his student address.
“The reason there are illegal immigrants is because the laws are set up pretty poorly,” he says. “If there were immigration reform, we would have a lot less illegal immigrants in this country. That’s a better solution than strengthening our borders.” Or having police officers detain suspected illegals, as stipulated under a new Arizona law that Cho calls “ridiculous.”
According to a 2008 report released by the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, there are currently 10- to 15-year waiting periods for family preference visas, and because of this, family units are crumbling under the weight of separation. “It is believed that such long waits have led to the large number—an estimated 1.5 million—of undocumented Asian immigrants who choose to overstay their visas rather than continue to wait,” wrote Dan Huang, the report’s principle author.
Groups like NAKASEC and KRC favor an overhaul of the current system to address this backlog, supporting increases in per country immigration limits and exempting spouses and children from numeral caps on family-based immigration.
It is estimated that as many as one in seven ethnic Koreans in the United States is undocumented. The UCLA-based Alliance of Korean American Students in Action, who helped sponsor Cho’s campus speaking engagement, is comprised of mostly undocumented students. They work closely with NAKASEC and KRC, gathering weekly and raising money for scholarships, says David, a UCLA undergraduate who facilitates the group’s meetings. He asked that his last name not be published because he is undocumented.
“[Our families] came here because we believe this is a land of opportunity,” says David.
But under current law, undocumented students are ineligible for many scholarships and, in most states, pay hefty out-of-state tuition. They also live in fear that, though America is their home, they could get deported.
Narrowly written, the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act would permit undocumented students to become permanent residents if they came here as children, are long-term U.S. residents, have good moral character, and attend college or enlist in the military for at least two years.
The bill reasons that children should not be blamed for their parents’ decision; that these young people only want the chance to become contributors to society. Despite some bipartisan support, the legislation has stalled in the last few years, and Sen. Durbin told a liberal media agency last month that it’s doubtful it will go anywhere this year. Matters got more complicated in late May, as Democrat lawmakers were haggling over whether they should try to pass the bill separate from large-scale immigration reform, or as a part of it.
Although a U.S. citizen, Cho says he still relates deeply to the DREAM Act.
“Ever since I reached a certain level of success, I felt a responsibility to give back to my community, and part of my community is the undocumented community,” he explains. “I felt like a lot of doors can open. Immigrants have a lot to bring to the table.”
His former undocumented status figures so prominently into his self-identification that he requested the tidbit be included in his public biography that’s prepared by the U.S. speed skating team’s governing body, but that request was denied, he says.
“That made me realize how much my story had to be heard,” Cho says. “I want the naysayers to hear my story and hopefully change their minds.”
His story is already having an impact on the yeasayers.
A fan of speed skating, one UCLA graduate student peppered the Olympian with questions during the latter’s talk last month. “Speed skating is one of the most fascinating sports,” says Carlos ****, who is undocumented and pursuing his masters in social welfare.
“To hear about someone who is formerly undocumented, who had his own struggles, who is successful in speed skating … gives me a great feeling of hope,” the 25-year-old says. “Just like it’s possible to be able to achieve your dreams.”
Following Cho’s appearance at a Los Angeles elementary school, a Korean girl threw her arms around the Olympian, thanked him and shared that she was undocumented. “That really touched me,” says Cho. “Who knows what this little girl can accomplish? If she remains undocumented, she won’t be able to realize her potential. That’s sad for her and this community.”
Peers often tell Cho he is mature beyond his years. He explains that he had to grow up fast after moving out of his family’s home in Maryland at age 14 to train in Salt Lake City, Utah. Skating since age 3, he dropped out of high school after his sophomore year so he could devote himself full-time to short track. His parents, who used to work long hours running a small seafood take-out restaurant, sold their business in order to support their son’s training.
“My family has been through so many hardships,” says Cho. “I was able to learn from that. I feel that wealth is of the heart and mind, not of the pocket. I remember reading that quote somewhere. That goes for my family. We’re very rich at heart, but not financially.”
This coming from someone who also tweets things like:
So was I the only one that got super excited when Scarlett Johansson’s name popped up in the opening credits 4 Iron Man 2? She’s so pretty.
Forgot my shorts at practice today so I did it in my underwear.
He is only 18, after all, with a lifetime ahead of him.
Cho is back in Utah, where his parents and 16-year-old sister now live, taking correspondence classes and training. He hopes to win Olympic gold in 2014. He also plans to continue pursuing his new passion.
“Almost everyone supports the Olympic Games, but there are many people opposing immigration reform,” he notes. “It’s a challenge that every supporter of immigration rights must face, but we cannot let it hinder [us].
“I believe in altruism. If I only think about myself, there’s only so much I can accomplish, whereas if I pursue the greater good, the possibilities are limitless.”