Award-Winning 'Dreamer' Fears He Cannot Return to US

08 January, 2019

Jin Park is the first "Dreamer" from the United States to win a Rhodes scholarship. By being chosen, Park will receive financing to attend the University of Oxford in England. But he risks not being permitted back in the U.S. if he studies there.

"Dreamers" are young adults who were brought to the country illegally as children. When Barack Obama was president, his administration set up a program that permitted them to stay. It is called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, for short.

In December, Park completed his studies at Harvard University in Massachusetts. But the excitement of winning the Rhodes scholarship has been replaced with feelings of uneasiness.

President Donald Trump's administration ended the ability of Dreamers to travel overseas when it began to discontinue the DACA program in 2017.

During the Obama administration, Dreamers were permitted limited overseas travel, including studying in other countries. Park and his supporters argue that such travel should still be permitted since federal courts have defended DACA for now.

"If I leave, there's a very real possibility that I won't be able to come back. That's the biggest fear for sure," said Park. His family came to the United States from South Korea when he was seven years old.

U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, which operates DACA, did not answer Associated Press, or AP, emails seeking comment.

Harvard University graduate Jin K. Park, who holds a degree in molecular and cellular biology, poses at a gate at Harvard Yard in Cambridge, Mass., Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Harvard University graduate Jin K. Park, who holds a degree in molecular and cellular biology, poses at a gate at Harvard Yard in Cambridge, Mass., Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Dreamers protected

"Dreamers" got their name because of proposals in the U.S. Congress called the DREAM Act. The proposals, however, did not pass. Still, Dreamers have remained protected from possible expulsion.

Park told the AP he has had a difficult time talking to his parents about the risks of accepting the Rhodes scholarship. They cried out in happiness when news of the award came.

"I've been avoiding that question," he said days after finishing his studies at Harvard. "This was especially meaningful for them. It was like a validation of the sacrifices they've made for me."

Nearly 700,000 individuals are currently on DACA, which was created in 2012 and can be renewed every two years. To be considered, immigrants must have entered the country by 2007 and been under age 16 when they arrived.

The Trump administration approved an order to end DACA in 2017, but federal judges in New York, California and Washington, D.C., ruled against those efforts last year. Their rulings have kept the program operating. The Trump administration is now seeking a Supreme Court decision.

Rhodes scholars offer advice

Past Rhodes scholars and other Rhodes Trust supporters are volunteering their advice to Park. But Elliot Gerson said the issue is a "matter of American law and not anything the Rhodes Trust can resolve alone." Gerson is the British organization's American secretary.

"Our hope is for federal action," he added.

Kristian Ramos is a representative for Define American, an immigrant support organization that helped Park with his Rhodes scholarship proposal. Ramos said the government should enforce the law as it currently stands and let Jin study in England.

Park could reject the scholarship offer but has decided against that. He wants to remain a voice in the immigration debate and thinks the value of going to Oxford is greater than the risks.

"I'm looking forward to having that unstructured time to think about these broader questions of who belongs in America and the value judgments we make about others," he said.

Park has been a voice for DACA recipients since he was in high school. In 2015, he founded Higher Dreams, a nonprofit group that helps students without permanent immigration status gain admission to college.

With the help of Harvard, Park competed for the Rhodes scholarship last year. It was part of a larger effort to show how this and other awards ignored DACA recipients. The scholarship was created in 1902 by British businessmen and politician Cecil Rhodes. It pays all costs for at least two years of study at Oxford.

The story of Park's application

Like many others in recent years, Park's application for the scholarship was rejected, but the message was received. The Rhodes organization changed its policy effective this year. Park re-applied and was accepted.

Gerson said the change shows the organization's efforts to expand who can apply. Legal permanent residents and residents of U.S. territories like Puerto Rico have also been permitted to apply in recent years.

At Oxford, Park hopes to study migration and political theory as he decides his future.

The molecular and cell biology major has also applied to medical school. But he is still open to possibly working in city government, where he believes he can help change immigration policy "no matter who is in the White House."

And no matter what happens next, Park still thinks of New York City as his home.

"For me, I think of Queens, New York," he said. "Whatever happens, I'm always going to know that fact. Even if I have to spend the rest of my life convincing the administration, or whoever comes next."

I'm Bryan Lynn. And I'm Alice Bryant.

Philip Marcelo wrote this story for the Associated Press. Alice Bryant adapted his story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

validationn. the act of showing that someone's feelings or opinions are fair and reasonable

renewv. to cause something to continue to be effective or valid for an additional period of time

trustn. an arrangement in which someone's property or money is legally managed by someone else or by an organization

recipientn. a person who receives something

applicationn. a formal and usually written request for something, such as a job, admission to a school, or a loan

residentn. a person who has the legal right to remain in a country but is not a citizen.

migrationn. the act of moving from one country or place to live or work in another