The activists who will help clear the pathway to citizenship for 1.5 million undocumented Asian American immigrants in the United States will not necessarily be today’s youth. Inhe Choi thinks they could be senior citizens.
Choi, the executive director of the Korean American Resource and Cultural Center, and her staff recognized the leadership potential of senior citizens and translated ballot and referendum questions to about 150 Korean senior citizens during last November’s election. Most seniors proved to be politically progressive, and many were first time voters, Choi said.
“One was literally crying and saying, ‘I didn’t even know I could even voice my opinions on these things,’” said Choi, 54. “They felt so empowered.”
Choi immigrated to Chicago when she was 12 and has been advocating on behalf of the Asian American community for the last 25 years. Before joining the KRCC last year, she co-founded KAN-WIN, an organization that supports victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Now, through the KRCC and its parent organization, the National Korean American Education & Service Consortium, she is fighting for comprehensive immigration reform and workers’ rights.
The Chicago Reporter sat down with Choi to talk about Korean youth, seniors and undocumented immigrants, and the organization’s work to advance immigrant and worker rights.
Tell me about the mission of the Korean American Resource and Cultural Center.
The mission is to empower the Korean American community through education, social service, organizing, advocacy and culture. [The organization] actually got started by young people who were recent immigrants attending local high schools and area colleges. They were low-income and felt like they had all these issues but had nowhere to go. So they created this space, and this is what became of that. At the time, there was immigration and welfare reform happening under President Clinton, with the help of Rahm Emmanuel. Their trajectory was to cut every benefit from anyone who was not a citizen. That’s what galvanized the community, and KRCC was the organizer of [other] community organizations… We’re still fighting for immigration reform because we haven’t achieved it, and Deferred Action Childhood Arrival is one of the gains that we definitely want. We’re constantly fighting wave after wave of anti-immigration attacks.
How did you get involved with working with the Korean community?
I actually started with this work when I graduated from college. I found an advertisement from the mayor’s office, which was at the time, the Harold Washington administration. They were looking for a staff person to work in Asian American affairs. My job was to go out and find out what the issues were in the Asian and Asian American community. The more I stayed in the job, women would pull me aside and tell me that so-and-so got raped, that there’s domestic violence, I heard a lot of that in the Korean community. I think because I’m Korean, more people would come [to me]. From that, along with a couple other women, I helped found an organization called KAN-WIN. The city work with Harold Washington and seeing how we could create our own organization and community to support each other helped me develop all the things I did after that.
What kinds of issues do recent Korean immigrants face?
We’re newcomers. We’re limited English speaking. Even within our own community, there are class differences, and there are many people who are undocumented, seniors and youth who are really isolated and they don’t have support, so we wanted to uplift the most vulnerable members of our community and workers.
What issues do immigrants face as workers?
Worker justice is another component of [our work]. That’s something that really moves me. My own family members worked as seamstresses and the working conditions were not very good. I’ve learned about worker rights issues and needs from my own family members, so that’s something I’ve been part of and trying to support. … We have a DACA night. We bring people who have received DACA together to talk about their issues, their lives, their struggles and successes so that they could share in ways only they could really understand and empathize with each other. One of the stories we heard in that evening was one mother who worked at a nail salon where she wanted to quit because the conditions weren’t so good. And the owner locked her up in a room, kind of detained her, for a good 15 hours. They wouldn’t let her out until she promised that she was going to stay. The only time they would open the door would be [to ask], “Did you make up your mind?” She said she went through that because she didn’t know if she had any rights. When you hear things like that, it’s really, really abominable that so many people, especially undocumented people, feel that they have no rights.
Talk about your experience with Korean seniors and their civic engagement.
The people who call here most are seniors. During last November’s election, grandpas were coming here on three buses. They said, “I don’t know who’s who and who they are,” and they said, “I don’t know who to vote for.” They were asking for translation. They were asking, “Can you give me a ride?” [KRCC does] a candidate’s forum and the majority of people who come are seniors. They’re trying to organize Filipino residents to come join us. I have to say our seniors are awesome and inspiring and they just want to learn more. I don’t know why, but they’re really into it. I’m getting older. I’m turning 54, and I’ve been really inspired by them.
Tell me a story that speaks to who you are.
In Korean elementary school, they have a class president and vice president from first grade on. My brother was always president. When I got there, I was nominated to be vice president. A couple of the girls were vice president candidates, and a couple of the boys were candidates for president. And I remember just raising my hand and asking, “Why am I candidate for vice president? Why am I not a candidate for president?” And then the teacher told me to make a speech, and I won. I won to be the president. And all the boys were going to beat me up because I beat them. And I remember just running and running and running for my life so I won’t be beat up, and then I ran into my mom so that saved me. I just remember that moment. I think that’s been driving me. That kind of inequality, I saw it right away as a kid, and you have to speak up and you have to fix it.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.