NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - The president’s first-ever State of the Union Address will serve as an opportunity for members of Congress to bring along constituents whom they feel represent vital issues back home.
At least nine such representatives from the New York metro area have announced plans to do so; ranging from women’s issues to immigration.
Congressman Frank Pallone, who represents New Brunswick and Highland Park, is one of those members.
In a few hours, he’ll be accompanied by Edser Chong, a Highland Park resident, Rutgers University-Newark student and DACA recipient.
An Obama-era regulation, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), allows children brought into the country illegally to apply for a two-year stay of removal.
Chong, now 19, came to the United States with her family in 2005. She was in high school when former President Barack Obama signed DACA as an executive order.
In the hours before the State of the Union Address, Chong spoke with TAPInto New Brunswick about her life and immigration challenges.
When DACA was signed in 2012, Chong said it opened numerous doors for herself and her sisters.
"It was actually during that year that my sister was applying to college," Chong said.
She arrived in 2005 from South Korea, with both her parents as missionaries. In 2008, the Great Recession hit, and Chong’s mother, who was employed as a nurse, lost her job.
Without the employment, the family’s work visas expired and they became undocumented immigrants.
Finances were tight, Chong said, and that led to missed opportunities. As a member of her high school orchestra, she was invited to perform at Carnegie Hall, but she couldn’t afford the trip.
When her Model UN team was invited to an international conference in Mexico, she told her faculty organizer she would be too busy studying.
In reality, Chong said, her legal status made it that she couldn’t leave the country, lest she be barred from returning for up to a decade.
With no legal status, Chong said, many things for her were out of reach, such as financial aid and a driver’s license.
While life is better for her under DACA, Chong said, her situation has still been a struggle. On one hand, Chong has “safety, less anxiety and fear.”
“DACA is not permanent,” Chong noted. “So it did feel like it’s almost an expiration date of two years.”
For Chong, being sent to South Korea is not an option.
“My parents tried to teach me Korean even while we were in NJ, but my level of proficiency is equivalent to elementary school, so it is foreign,” Chong said. “I’ve never visited there.”
Still, the prospect of visiting family in South Korea is something she may one day do.
Since DACA was enacted, Chong and her sister have always had to stay employed, balancing work with their studies.
Chong aspires to go to law school after majoring in finance and philosophy. Her studies have been financed through a patchwork of scholarships and donor aid that was only made possible through her DACA status.
But that is set to expire in 2019, and the fate of DACA is up in the air, along with the fates of the 800,000 residents to which DACA applies, known as DREAMers.
In October 2017, President Donald Trump announced that DACA protections would be phased out starting in March.
To avoid that, Congress must reach a deal by March 5. The most recent proposal calls for a path to citizenship for up to 1.5 million undocumented immigrants, in exchange for $25 billion in funding towards Trump’s controversial border wall proposal.
But that’s been a tough sell to lawmakers on both sides, casting even more doubt on the prospect that a deal can be hashed out in time.
“There needs to be a clean DREAM Act right now to be voted and passed on,” Chong said. “Because every day, it’s really putting all these communities at risk.”
As a Rutgers University student, Chong said she founded a group called RU DREAMers, which advocates for undocumented university students.
It has the support of many faculty and students, Chong said, and frequently works with "undocuRutgers," a similar organization operating out of the Rutgers-New Brunswick campus.
As an advocate, one of her goals is to add another base to the word undocumented; to show that it can mean those who are Korean, white, black, Latino or Muslim.
Chong said she supports a version of the DREAM Act supported by Congressman Pallone, which would provide DACA protections while not being tied to funding for a border wall or security with the US-Mexico border.
Pallone said: “There needs to be a recognition that immigration is important to this country, and that we have 10 or 12 million people who are undocumented, who have been here for years, who learned English, who paid their taxes, who haven’t gotten in trouble with the law. They need to have a pathway to citizenship."
TAPinto New Brunswick is partnering with ProPublica to track hate crimes in the region. The partnership is part of a nationwide project to track and report bias incidents across the country.