Ju Hong being arrested at the July 12 rally in San Bernadino. Photo: William Perez
Ju Hong being arrested at the July 12 rally in San Bernardino. Photos: William Perez

By Diana Arbas

Ju Hong looked tired. Uncharacteristic stubble peppered his chin and there were shadows under his eyes when we met at a Temescal coffee shop. But then again, he’d had a crazy week. Most Cal students spend the warmer months taking summer courses, doing internships or catching up with hometown friends and family. Hong, an ASUC senator-elect and political science major, spent time in jail.

Police arrested 21-year-old Hong and six other undocumented student activists for blocking a major street at a July 12 San Bernardino immigration rally. They were released 12 hours later, but might now be at risk for deportation. An ICE agent told the activists they might be ordered to an immigration court hearing in a few weeks, Hong said.

The act of civil disobedience was meant to empower undocumented youth and protest immigrant mistreatment, Hong wrote in a public statement. Among the central issues at the rally was support for the California Dream Act, which would enable undocumented students to qualify for state-administered financial-aid programs. Part of the bill was signed into law on July 25 by Governor Jerry Brown.

Hong has watched undocumented friends forced to take time off school to save enough money to pay rising tuition fees. Some even had to drop out altogether because college was too costly without financial aid. Other undocumented students have been arrested and deported. There are too many stories, Hong said, including his own.

“This is my last year at Cal. After I graduate, now what? Even with a degree from UC Berkeley, I cannot legally work,” Hong said.

“Ju’s been so tired of the situation,” said Lisa Chen, Asian Law Caucus community advocate. “He needed to do something, and this is what he felt like he needed to do. So when he called to tell me he planned on getting arrested, I was not at all surprised. It was only a matter of when, not if.”

Hong said that the Dream Act movement is growing, “And I want to push a little bit more.”

Before the activism

Hong came to the United States with his mother and older sister when he was 11. Family friends met the new arrivals at SFO and took them to the Union Square Cheesecake Factory. The eighth-story view of the city bewildered Hong.

“I couldn’t eat at all,” he said. “Everything was big. There were so many white people, black people. In Korea, everybody’s Korean, they all speak Korean, the culture is the same. So it was such a new experience for me. Everything was so busy. Oh my goodness, everything was so overwhelming.”

Hong adjusted soon enough. He later attended Alameda High. He ran cross country and played on the basketball, volleyball and rugby teams.

Ju Hong during the San Bernardino rally

Tin Tran, Hong’s best friend, said Hong has always been a very outgoing and friendly person. “He has this willingness to talk and smile, laugh and make people laugh. It makes him so approachable,” Tran said.

Tran said he would hang out at Hong’s home and rarely see his friend’s family around.

Hong’s mother has two jobs. “She wakes up around 6 a.m. and comes home around 11 p.m.,” Hong said. “She does that for six days. She only gets rest on Sunday. Then she goes to church. She’s a strong woman.”

Hong’s sister, who rises at 4 a.m. and comes home at 8 p.m., also splits her time between two jobs. She left community college some years ago due to financial difficulties, and now works to support her younger brother’s education at Cal.

On the rare occasion that Tran would see Hong’s mother and sister he said, “It’s always a smile. Always hugs. It’s humbling to see that they’re really kind, even though they’re working so much. They would always offer fruit and snacks. The hospitality was off the charts. That made me feel welcomed. That drew me closer to Ju.”

As an upperclassman in Alameda, Hong buckled down on academics with an eye on getting into a good college. Hong began filling out college applications but didn’t know what to put down for his social security number. He asked his mother about it.

“That’s when she told me I didn’t have one,” Hong said. He then learned that he was undocumented. He and his family had come to the U.S. on tourist visas and stayed past expiration.

Hong didn’t know at first what being undocumented meant. He applied for college anyway and won admission to UC Davis. “I was so happy,” he said. “I was literally crying. I worked so hard. That acceptance letter showed that I deserved to go to that prestigious university.”

Tran said that only a few classmates had gotten into the school. “UC Davis was just rejecting people left and right. There was this 4.0 kid who did volunteer work and wrote a great personal statement. We were all surprised: ‘Dang, you didn’t get into UC Davis?’” Tran began to laugh. “When Ju got in, he was ecstatic.”

The celebration didn’t last. Hong said, “Even though I knew I couldn’t get a job or financial aid, my mom said, ‘If you really want to go that school, go for it. Don’t worry about the money.’”

The reality, though, was that his family couldn’t afford it, especially not without financial aid.

Back at the coffee shop, Hong held an invisible admissions envelope in his hands and stared at it as he told this story.

“So I closed the package, put it in the desk and just let it go,” he said, his hands putting the invisible envelope away, letting it go. “It was a bittersweet moment.”

Learning to be a leader

Hong enrolled at Laney College, where he eventually became both the first Asian-American and youngest student body president. (That’s how we met. I reported on the Associated Students of Laney College (ASLC) under Hong’s leadership for the Laney Tower, the student newspaper.)

Brian Cervantes, ASLC president-elect, remembers Hong as “a charismatic young man,” but reserved some criticism for Hong’s youth and inexperience. Hong was 19, serving a student population of which 57% was 25 years old or older in 2007, according to the district’s most recent data for student demographics.

Hong also served low-income students and their families; students of color from black, Latino and Asian communities and international students. “It was quite an honor,” he said, “It was a lot of pressure, too, because I’m an Asian and I’m young. So people tested me in many different ways.”

“I liked him as a kid, as a young man,” Cervantes, 39, said, “but he wasn’t ready for that type of leadership. I mean, you used to sit in those meetings and you saw how poorly ran they were. The topics we talked about didn’t have any substance, or we never came up with solutions for those problems.”

Cervantes also criticized what he saw as Hong’s single-issue focus on the Dream Act movement. “It’s admirable, but as president you have to look at the bigger picture. I was always trying to push Ju to work on the broader issues that affected all students at Laney.”

Hong said that he’s familiar with Cervantes’ honest if tough feedback — the two talked nearly every day during their time together on ASLC — and that his presidency was definitely a learning experience. Hong dealt with the broad demands of student leadership, like learning how to influence education policy, work closely with campus administration and speak to media. (“I had to talk to you,” he said, laughing, “and you always asked me tough questions.”)

All this was balanced with life as an undocumented student worker — no driver’s license, under-the-table work. “During his Laney days,” Tran said, “Ju did a lot of biking. I remember talking to him at school, seeing him walk around Laney in Oakland. That night, I would be in Berkeley. I would eat where his family’s former restaurant was, and he was there working until late.”

“In the end, I learned how to be a leader,” Hong said. He’d learned how to balance the needs of such a diverse and outspoken student population and not just the needs of the AB 540 community (AB 540, the California Immigrant Higher Education Act, allows eligible immigrant students to pay in-state tuition, but does not change their immigration or residency status or make them eligible for state or federal financial assistance). Because of this ASLC experience, Hong ran for student government again once he transferred to Cal. “I knew how much impact I could make as an ASUC senator.”

Still, Hong said, Cervantes was right. “In a way, the main reason I ran for student government was to really help out my community. I felt that we needed more API [Asian and Pacific Islander] and AB 540 representation in student government. That’s what got me into activism — the Dream Act, undocumented students and immigrant rights issues.”

Undocumented and unafraid

More undocumented students are coming out and leading the Dream Act movement, but Hong’s public participation is unusual. Undocumented APIs like Hong are generally invisible. The Contra Costa Times reported that Hong “wanted to put an Asian face to a contentious debate that often is focused on Latinos.”

Chen said it’s important to remember that Hong is one of many undocumented API youth. She works closely with ASPIRE, an undocumented API student group. According to the 2010 AB 540 UC report, 47% of the UC system’s AB 540 students identify as Asian. Of these students, 257 are potentially undocumented.

Yet others are unaccounted for. “Many undocumented students are in the community colleges and CSUs. They just don’t have that information readily available,” Chen said.

Still, the API community does not talk about its undocumented members. Chen said, “There’s a lot of shame and stigma that has a lot to do with how the story of being undocumented is talked about. A lot of ASPIRE students say that only fellow group members know about their status. Culturally, we’re just taught to keep family business to ourselves.”

Ju Hong during the sit-in before the arrests on July 12.

Hong said that he’s different than other Asian undocumented students: “I was raised by a single mother. She always worked, so I didn’t have much supervision. Even though she doesn’t want me to speak out, she’s not always there to tell me what to do. With my own space, I could do things that I really wanted.”

Hong used that space to research AB 540 and the Dream Act. He contacted organizations like ASPIRE, got involved and learned more about the issues. At Laney, he began giving AB 540 workshops. He bought hundreds of copies of Underground Undergrads and resold them on campus as a fundraiser. He came out as undocumented on YouTube.

“And then the arrest happened. It’s a crazy thing,” he said. “It’s a process. It took me a couple of years to get to where I am right now.”

Risking deportation

On July 12, Hong rallied with fellow Dream Act activists at San Bernardino Valley College. About 200 people were there. The participants chanted, shared their testimonies and took to the streets.

“As soon as the police came, we sat down.” Seven activists, Hong among them, sat on a large poster with the words, “We will no longer be silent,” and, “No SB 1070,” protesting Arizona’s notorious anti-illegal immigration law. About 20 police surrounded the activists and arrested them.

Hong and his friends were in jail for 12 hours. “We didn’t know how long we were going to stay there,” he said. “There was no clock. The lights were on. We didn’t know if it was morning or at night or anything like that.”

Hong said he felt scared. “We were arrested, handcuffed. I knew there is a risk. I might get sent to an ICE detention center. There was no guarantee that I’d get out.”

But a lot of people on the outside supported him. He had six fellow activists with him, too, and they’d begun chanting, “Isang Bagsak!” Hong writes in his public statement that this Filipino unity cry (“one down, one fall!”) means standing together and fighting for justice.

“By the time they were chanting, ‘Isang Bagsak,’ we were very strong. I wasn’t scared at all after that,” he said.

Tran said he was scared for his friend, though. “The first thing that comes to mind is his well-being. What was comforting was he was doing it for the right purpose, the right cause. He’s sacrificing his well-being for the undocumented community. I can say, ‘I may not like that you’re doing this, but at the end of the day I support you and your purpose.’”

Hong had planned his act of civil disobedience two months in advance but didn’t tell his mother until two days before. “The thing I worried about most was how I was going to tell my mom,” he said. “That’s what stressed me out most. Getting arrested, that was least important.”

Hong told his mother over the phone because he was already in southern California. “She started crying,” he said. “She was worried. But at the end of the conversation, she was very supportive. And she prayed for me on the phone.”

In a few weeks, Hong will find out whether or not he will be ordered to an immigration court hearing and begin the deportation process. “The waiting game is psychologically stressful,” he said.

Hong said he has to be mentally prepared for anything. Fall classes at Cal will be starting up soon. There, he’ll continue working toward a future that would include working as an immigrant rights organizer, going to law school then beginning a career as an immigration attorney. Or, if he gets deported, he has to start a new life in South Korea.

“I’d have to serve two years in the army. I haven’t been to Korea in 10 years, so I don’t know what the heck is going on there,” he said.

Cervantes said he remembered Hong always working under the assumption that the Dream Act would pass. “I was raised in Texas. I’m not conservative, but I’d always tell him, ‘These are the type of people you’re fighting against.’”

Cervantes said he’d feel bad if Hong was deported. “I wish him luck. Hopefully the decision that he made doesn’t come back and hurt him and his family. That’s a hard decision to make. I don’t wish him to be deported. I think he’s an effective member of society. I don’t even think he drinks. He’s always been involved in school and doing stuff.”

Tran tries not to talk about deportation with Hong.  “We remain optimistic,” Tran said, “but if Ju were to leave, it would definitely be a heartbreaking experience. Words can’t describe how heartbreaking it would be. For a person of his caliber to be deported would not only be heartbreaking for me but a great loss for our community as well.”

There’s a 50-50 chance that Hong will start his deportation process, Chen said. “If he does, then he’ll fight it, just like everyone else has. And he’ll have a whole community behind him to fight it.”

Hong said that as an Asian undocumented student, it’s his duty to get the Asian community to come out of the shadows and work on the immigration rights issue.

“We have to work together,” he said. “The Dream Act will only pass when the Asian American community comes out on this issue. Also the gay community, white community, black community — support us. If the Latino community is the only one supporting this issue, it’s not going to go anywhere.”

Hong urges everyone to learn more about immigrants’ rights. “I respect whatever your stance may be, but be open,” he said. “Listen to our stories.”

Diana Arbas first reported on Ju Hong for the Laney Tower, when Hong led Laney College as ASLC president. Arbas has since transferred to Mills College, where she studies creative writing and journalism. She is currently interning at Berkeleyside.

Guest contributor

Freelance writers with story pitches can email editors@berkeleyside.com.

Join the Conversation


  1. It is interesting that the anti-immigration commenters make elementary errors in English usage, such as:
    using its’ as the possessive of it.
    using immigrant’s as the plural of immigrant.

    It is these commenters (rather than the immigrants) who make me worry about the low quality of American education.

  2. You haven’t been reading all the newspaper articles saying that the United States is falling behind other developed countries in educational achievement – and that we are behind South Korea.

    Educational achievement in the United States is slipping significantly behind compared to advances in other developed countries according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s“Education at a Glance 2013”, a compilation of 2011 education statistics for the world’s most developed countries. … South Korea, Japan, Canada and the Russian Federation now outstrip the U.S. in the percentage of 25 to 34 year olds achieving tertiary, or advanced post-secondary, education.

    The study, called the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), was conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris. It covered the OECD’s 34 mostly wealthy member nations (including the United States, most European countries and Japan) and 31 others. … the best-performing students were in Shanghai, China, (one testing area that’s not a country), with an average score of 556. South Korea (539) and Finland (536) were next. The United States ranked 17th (500),

  3. Pay attention to history. America was a much greater, more prosperous, and more powerful nation in the decades preceding the flood of illegal immigrants.

  4. We’ve done fine with training and educating our legal citizens. We led the world for many years doing just that.

  5. It’s completely ridiculous that you think America has unlimited resources. There are 20 million Americans out of work. College graduates can’t find jobs. And your comments make me wonder how much education you have completed.

  6. Yep, the solution to the “immigration problem” is to make our borders a lot more open. They don’t have to be 100% open, we could still keep out known criminals or something, but basically if you are a normal person who is willing to come here and work hard, you should get in.

  7. Yes, I was lucky, I won’t deny it. I had a friend who helped me get a green card. That said, before that I had plenty of opportunities to come here on a student visa and just overstay. Many of my friends did that, but I didn’t. I also waited for 8 years to bring my mother here, also legally, when I could’ve easily gotten her a visitor’s visa and have her overstay. Why didn’t I? Because I have something called a conscience and respect for this country. These people don’t, and that’s why they don’t deserve to be here. It’s that simple.

  8. The Obama administration has staged heckling events several times in recent years. They repeatedly allow Code Pink founder Medea Benjamin into events so that she can “heckle” the President in ways that allow him to pander to the hard-left base.


    For those who don’t believe that these events are setups, the only other option is that the secret service is so painfully incompetent that they don’t bother to do background checks of the people who are standing feet away from the President and can’t recognize the leaders of international protest organizations.

  9. Considering how much he seems to hate America and our laws, why does he want to stay here so badly? This kid needs therapy, not a green card.

  10. So your solution to the immigration “problem” of people like Ju Hong breaking the law and expecting to get special treatment for doing so is to completely open our borders?

    All that would do is turn America into the kind of third world pit that these people are trying to escape from. America ALREADY has the most liberal immigration laws of any first-world nation.

    I for one am sick and tired of NON-AMERICANS coming into our country and telling us what to do. If you don’t like America, feel free to leave.

  11. No one thinks some person who is here without legal status should get preferential treatment – I believe in highly liberalized immigration laws. Anyone waiting in line gets in.

    I’m pretty sure the reason you came here legally was because you had the ability to do so. Good for you. Not everyone has that privilege – it’s not merely a matter of waiting in line, there are country, skill, and education-based quotas that shut out many worse-off immigrants.

    If we abolish these limitations, everyone would be a legal immigrant. If you’re feeling really vindictive, he can pay a fat fine for his illegal action.

    It’s that simple.

  12. He is an activist who was invited to the White House? His beef? Breaking US law, and not wanting to do some paperwork.

    He isn’t “living in the shadows”. How is it to the American public needs to be bullied by a small number of well-connected activist into not doing what EVERY NATION and EVERY REASONABLE SOCIETY does far more of – which is simply enforce its’ most basic laws and its’ borders.

  13. So if my parents break into your house while I’m still a kid, and we all continue to stay there long after I’ve grown up, eating your food, using your car, and demanding that you pay for our doctor visits, that’s fine with you?

    Furthermore, as a legal immigrant, I’d love to hear your explanation for why the likes of him deserve special/preferential treatment over scores of people standing in line waiting for the PRIVILEGE of becoming legal residents/citizens of this country.

    I came here legally because I RESPECT laws and traditions of this country. His parents didn’t, and he fell into their footsteps. No, I don’t want this entitled disrespectful loudmouth and those like him here. It’s a slap in the face to people like me.

  14. Ju Hong was a staged heckler and was a former guest at the White house, the national review has a story about it up right now. Nothing with Obama is coincidence….you guys still buying that stuff?

    Here’s a bit from that article ….

    Yesterday’s heckler at Obama’s pro-amnesty speech in San Francisco was Ju Hong, an approved guest of the White House and an illegal alien from South Korea who recently graduated from UC Berkeley. People who still say illegal aliens “live in the shadows” obviously don’t know this guy: He’s on Twitter and LinkedIn, was a member of student government, has lobbied for taxpayer subsidies for illegal-alien students, and has been the subject of so much fawning news coverage he has his own topic page at the Cal student paper.

    So he was hardly some random heckler like the media would have you believe. This is what Hope and Change looks like.

  15. After watching him disrespect president Obama speech, I feel shame for him, Is this a South Korean cultures? one advise to Ju Hong, You should go back to where you belong, because you are not even respect our president, the president who is fighting for the immigration reform and help you and allow your sister and your mom to stay here. You should go back to a totally Korean speaking and all Korean culture. In America, we have all different cultures, that’s what make United States is such a great country, and currently we have a great president

  16. I am now living in Thailand where there is a strong anti-bias against illegal immigrants. There are millions of hill tribe children that are born in here and they are not allowed to attend school, receive any benefits, or travel freely in the country. Police check points manned throughout the country prevents many from leaving the village. Along the borders of Burma and Thailand there are hundreds of thousands of Karen refugees living in cramped housing and many have lived and died there. The camps have been there for over 60 years.

    What I am concerned about is that so many of these refugees could be re-settled in the US. Most would love to return to Burma but cannot out of concern for their safety. 

    I understand that racism is rearing its ugly head again in the US especially when the economy is in tatters. I have seen this so many times. Unfortunately, the US is not alone. It is happening across Europe and in Asia. Thailand has a labor shortage and there is so much exploitation against the Cambodian, Burmese, and Lao illegal immigrants. The ugly side that is happening all the the world and this includes the US is the human slavery. 

    We need to balance the immigration problem free from politicians using the issue from political gain.

  17. The ground zero is that his family broke the law. All this talk and complexities of the DREAM act can be solved by just looking at the root. People broke the US law. Shouldn’t they pay a price for that? You can’t break the law and demand the “right” for a same education as the one’s that follow the rules. There are community colleges and much cheaper options for students like him. And yea, Berkeley degree holds much more weight then a community college’s associates, but oh well, too bad. If you can’t afford the $40 steak, go to mcdonalds.

  18. This is yet another example of how America wastes the skills and talents of its young.  If we would teach and train our “undocumented” citizens instead, America would be a stronger and better place and we could hold our heads up in the world instead of just slowly sliding into becoming just one more mediocre country bound by prejudice and fear.

  19. I have never pursued formal graduate studies. Does 20 years of self-directed study since college make me an “undocumented” D.Phil. (Oxon.)?  I think not.

  20. This an example of why it is difficult, for some countries, to get a tourist visa to visit the USA.  Many of the illegals are “over-stays” of tourist, student, biz visas.  

  21. The Sharkey, it has never been my experience that people who are the most strongly against illegal immigration are also most in favor of making legal immigration easier, but I haven’t met every American ever, so it’s entirely possible that these people exist. That’s good news!

    Would these people support Comprehensive Immigration Reform that includes a large and easy to use guest worker program that doesn’t exploit its clients, and a system for admission that allows anyone of sound mind and body, who can demonstrate they will become self-sufficient, into the country after a relatively short waiting period (say, maximum five years)? Maybe this system could also include a long-term path to citizenship for those who are interested, after they jump a few hurdles (civics classes, etc.) and pay some fees. That would be a pretty ok system! Instead, we have “wait lines” as long as a human lifespan. I personally can’t fault someone who lives in an awful situation from taking her fate and those of her children into her own hands to make their lives better when the legal channels are de facto closed to her, but your mileage may vary.

    It is absolutely correct that anti-immigration sentiment is higher when the economy is bad! I think this is one part emotional (looking for a scapegoat), one part fear of people sucking up taxes, and one part fear of the lump of labor fallacy. Luckily, the facts are that most immigrants (even a lot of legal ones) can’t access public services, and ultimately pay more in taxes through sales tax than they receive in public goods. Similarly, immigrants raise or do not effect the wages of all Americans except…other low-skill immigrants. Which sucks for those low-skill immigrants, but I usually hear anti-immigrant sentiment from white Americans so there’s some kind of mental disconnect going on.

  22. “Good for him for having the courage to stand up for what is right. It’s
    terrible that he could be ripped from a country he’s grown up in and
    that has become his home, because his parents brought him here illegally, and he continued to live in the country illegally long after he learned what his true immigration status was.”

    Edited for accuracy.
    He wouldn’t be deported for not having the correct documentation.
    He would be deported for coming to the country under false pretenses, violating the terms of his guest visa, and violating American Immigration & Customs laws.

    I would like to point out that being against illegal immigration is not the same thing as being against all immigration. Many of the people I know who hold the harshest views about what should be done with illegal immigrants believe that the legal immigration process should be made much easier.

    Part of the reason that anti-immigration sentiment in America is so strong right now is that our economy is still in the toilet. Job creation is lagging behind the population growth of legal American residents. It’s hard to convince folks that we need to be letting more immigrants into the country when 10% of the people who are already here can’t find jobs.

  23. Please fight for him, because his family can’t.  Hopefully he has some good friends who have his back.  What is his status?  I believe it was Illinois who just passed the Dream Act?  We must push harder now, before he gets hurt!

  24. The divisiveness set in motion by the forces in power want us to be divisive.  Don’t blame the immigrants for the powers that be who are bringing their beliefs down onto you.  Your instinct was correct the first time, it is about what is right and wrong.  Don’t make it about money. 

  25. Thank you for carrying this story. As an adult trying to help young people and push for a Federal DREAM Act this gives me more energy. If Hong and his family can keep working then so can I.

  26. His story is very sympathetic, and I wish him well. I hope he is not deported.

    However, financial aid resources are strained and will only become more so. I don’t see it as being “anti-immigrant” to be against the Dream Act. Rather, I see it as being pro (legal)-immigrant and pro native-born students.

  27. Good for him for having the courage to stand up for what is right. It’s terrible that he could be ripped from a country he’s grown up in and that has become his home, for lack of proper documentation. 

    Unfortunately, the anti-immigrant tide is at its high-water mark – I’m not optimistic about the Dream Act or any other kind of immigration reform. Still, we have to keep pushing.