Hidden Identities

Part of 2 of in
By Matthew Bui
Photography by Alisa Wong
May 01, 2014 | min read
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Close your eyes. You’re about to talk to someone who’s an undocumented immigrant. Who do you expect to see?

HE SITS ACROSS from me, sipping a hazelnut latte and enjoying the warmth of sunlight on his bronzed, oval-shaped face. It’s a Tuesday afternoon in the middle of winter, but you wouldn’t know it by the crowd around us, café-goers galore, clad in tank tops, shorts, and miniskirts.

As we sit on the outdoor balcony of a bustling Los Angeles coffee shop, “Joe” and I fit right in, carrying on our conversation about family and identity, about being Asian American and men of faith who are trying to serve God in all we do, with all we have.

In the hustle and bustle of it all, we blend in. We share stories with each other over coffee. It feels normal. What is not normal, though, is Joe’s story and status as an undocumented immigrant.

As we share a cup of coffee, it becomes clear that, though Joe and I hold similar values, have had similar experiences growing up as the children of immigrants, and are both trying to follow Jesus as best we can in the midst of our brokenness, Joe’s hidden identity as an undocumented immigrant has significantly affected his life experiences, career choices, and faith, in ways I couldn’t fathom.

Joe’s hidden identity as an undocumented immigrant has significantly affected his life experiences, career choices, and faith, in ways I couldn’t fathom.

Entering the conversation, I felt that he and I were living similar lives, facing the same struggles and championing the same issues and values. Hearing more about his world, about his experiences growing up undocumented, I suddenly feel as though our lives are a world apart — even if we grew up

in communities within an hour of each other, even if we are sitting five feet away from each other as we share these stories.

How could our lives be so similar and yet so different? How can an invisible identity such as his undocumented status have such a great impact on the experiences we had growing up and living in America? How can such stories of fear and desperation make two friends feel so close and yet so distant all at once?

How can an invisible identity such as his undocumented status have such a great impact on the experiences we had growing up and living in America?

In 1997, when he was 13 years old, Joe moved to America with his mother to pursue a better life. His mom had been granted a work visa through the sponsorship of a church in America and was thus able to move with her son and to pursue a life better than the one they could have had in Korea. Once they were in America for an extended period of time, Joe’s mother planned to apply for a green card and permanent residency and, from there, Joe would be able to gain U.S. citizenship as her child.

That was the plan at least.

However, when 9/11 struck our nation, significant changes were made to counter any terrorist attacks on domestic soil. Consequently, significant changes were made to the immigration and visa approval process, and stricter enforcement and handling of applications ensued.

When Joe and his mother submitted an application for green cards, they were soon notified that their request could not be processed or accommodated. That was when Joe and his mother became undocumented. That was the moment Joe and his mother were told to leave America.

What would you do if you were told to move away from the place you called home? What would you do if you were told to pack your bags and make yourself at home in a foreign land, a place so distant you didn’t even remember living there?

What would you do if you were told to move away from the place you called home? 

Would you go or would you stay?

Joe constantly faced this moral dilemma as he chose to stay in America, to stay in the place he called home but wouldn’t let him stay legally.

On the one hand, Joe knew it was unlawful for him to remain in the States and he felt selfish for wanting to stay, for wanting to live in a place he wasn’t allowed. On the other hand, he felt justified because he saw America as his home and his presence in the US wasn’t hurting anyone. He was paying taxes, contributing to society, and obeying the law. He was working, studying, and, all in all, being a good citizen — a good person.

Even if it was technically unlawful, was it morally unlawful for him to stay? What if Joe was trying to make a positive impact and serve God with His talents, wherever he went? Was it still wrong for him to remain in America?

Joe constantly asked himself these questions. On top of that, Joe wondered, “If the church sponsored my mom and me to get to America — if they knew we would stay in America and apply for a green card and permanent residency — is it wrong for them to be involved in the immigration process, for them to sponsor us?”

Many people ask Joe why he doesn’t return to Korea and wait for an approved green card. “It’s not as simple as that. The immigration process is so complicated and would take too long for me to be granted citizenship. Also, why would I go back to a place that I don’t even call home? America is more of my home than Korea.”

Why would I go back to a place that I don’t even call home? America is more of my home than Korea.

As we’re about to leave the café, in the midst of a suddenly deep and philosophical discussion, Joe reminds me, “Matt, we all have stories.”

We all have stories. We all have struggles, we all hold identities, and we all yearn for a place to call home. Joe’s struggles, identity, and yearning for a place to call home may be a bit more hidden and a bit more complex but they are universal desires we all hold.

We all have struggles, we all hold identities, and we all yearn for a place to call home.

Just because his presence in America is deemed unlawful, it doesn’t mean that his story shouldn’t be shared, that we as a Church shouldn’t engage with the issue of immigration, nor should we refrain from discussing and asking questions regarding such complex issues.

Is Joe staying in America right or wrong? Was the involvement of his church in the situation wrong?

As I reflect on Joe’s story, I’m not convinced the issue of immigration is as simple as a judgment of “right” or “wrong”. Nor am I convinced that we will be able to solve America’s immigration issues in one term —

after all, politicians and advocacy groups have been at it for decades.

What I am convinced of, though, is the fact that we all have stories of where we come from and what we’ve overcome. We all have stories of longing for a place to call home, feel welcomed, and be heard.

Will we choose to hear our undocumented brothers and sisters in their cries for justice?

Will we choose to get engaged and informed about the issue?

Or will we choose to ignore these people, their stories, and the impact of their hidden identities on their lives?

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Matthew Bui
Alisa Wong

Alisa Wong hopes to display God's grace and truth.

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