Fighting for a dream

Steve Li (Center) advocating for undocumented students during the United We Dream (UWD) march to petition votes for the Dream Act after his release from Arizona in 2010. Photo courtesy of Pocho1 Visual Movement

By Cecilia Ren

The Guardsman

It’s been almost three years since former City College student Shing Ma “Steve” Li was imprisoned and sent to the Central Arizona Detention Center.

Li was oblivious to his undocumented immigration status until the day of his arrest by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Having spent almost half his life in the Bay Area, Li saw himself as an average San Franciscan.

Li’s parents emigrated from China to Peru, where Li was born, in the late 1980s to escape the country’s one-child policy.

When he was 11-years-old, Li came to the United States with his family on a tourist visa to flee from political turmoil in Lima. In 2002, Li’s parents applied for political asylum but were denied their request.

Then, in September 2010, Li went from an average Chinese American student to a criminal in the eyes of ICE officials.

Li is now a third-year college student at UC Davis.

The Guardsman interviewed Li at UC Davis about his experience as an undocumented immigrant, the importance of community and the struggle for immigration reform.

The Guardsman: After this whole ordeal, what’s your current status with immigration?

Steve Li: I’m currently in deferred action, which means my deportation status is temporarily halted and stopped. I’m still in deportation proceedings, but it’s currently deferred for a year, which expires in a couple months.

TG: Do you know exactly when the expiration date is?

SL: I don’t know exactly when. But because of the new Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals that Obama announced, I should be fine. I could apply for that.

TG: What exactly is the Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals?

SL: It’s an act Obama approved last year to stop deportation of DREAM Act eligible students.

TG: Do you think the DREAM Act will likely to be passed in the near future?

SL: It’s just stalling in Congress. But the DREAM Act is a bill that would allow some sort of a pathway to citizenship. There are 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States and two million of them qualify under the DREAM Act.

There’s a big broken immigration system, everyone knows. The White House knows that. The Senate knows that. The Republicans and Democrats know that. We still have a broken system because there is no clear pathway for undocumented immigrants here.

TG: Are you currently involved in any other form of actions to potentially speed up your immigration or legalization process?

SL: I’m currently not in the process of trying to get a green card or any legalization. The only ways I know, if you’re undocumented, is to either apply for political asylum, a U Visa or get married. I do not want to get married for citizenship because there’s a psychological factor that comes with it. I think if you do get married, it should be for love and not for anything else.

As for political asylum, it is a very complicated process. One can only apply for it if you fear for your life going back home as a result of violence or gangs. There’s a U Visa, which is something you can apply for if you are abused or something in your own country. I don’t qualify for any of those.

TG: Did you think your story was going to get the national attention it did? How did you feel about that?

SL: I was already incarcerated in the detention center in Arizona. So I had no idea what was going on outside.

TG: So you had no idea that your friends back in San Francisco were advocating for you?

SL: I had some idea that my friends were in fact advocating for me, but I didn’t know how big it was or what it was. I knew they were doing something about it. I’m very grateful, and I owe them a lot for seeing this injustice in our immigration system.

TG: Do you feel it was because of the demonstrations that your story got so much attention?

SL: I think during that time in 2010, it was a really big deal because the DREAM Act was coming to a vote in December. It was a really big deal that the DREAM Act was coming out for a vote because it was also the first Asian American/Pacific Islander story out there.

TG: What was your reaction when you realized Senator Dianne Feinstein had taken on your story and offered to help your case? When you found out she was “on your side”?

SL: I found out she was on my side when I wasn’t deported. I remember I was two days away from being deported. It was very close, and we were not sure what was going to happen. My community was pressuring Feinstein. She knew about my case for about twenty days or a month, possibly, and nothing had happened yet.

TG: Did Feinstein reach out to your support team first or was it the other way around?

SL: My lawyer contacted her first because a private bill is something that is very … a last resort. It’s very hard to get. “Private bills” basically means this is a bill that is uniquely for you and that it is going to be presented to the Senate. It was one of the last resorts we had to go through because we were denied initially for deferred action from the Immigration Department, and they wanted me to get deported as soon as possible.

TG: Your parents were deported last year. Do you have any other family members at all left in San Francisco or California?

SL: I have no family here. I am by myself.

TG: How are you paying for college tuition or other living expenses?

SL: Right now I’m living off of scholarships because I haven’t found a job yet.

TG: Do you still go back to San Francisco to visit?

SL: I still go back. City College is still there. My friends are there. I go back to visit.

TG: What are your plans after college?

SL: I definitely want to go to graduate school. I’m still pursuing my education. It’s not over after undergrad.

TG: What’s your current major here at UC Davis?

SL: It’s Asian American Studies and Exercise Biology.

TG: How has this experience affected you psychologically, physically and emotionally?

SL: I think this has affected me in various ways. Seeing what happened to my family and being separated from my family has definitely been challenging. We are fighting not only for the DREAM Act to pass but also for an immigration package that will not separate families or tokenize children.

TG: What lesson did you learn from this experience?

SL: Seeing the injustice through my experience, I decided to do something about it. I now encourage others to do the same and become more active within their communities. You do have a voice and the ability to change the world in ways that you want to see it change.

TG: What could you have done differently if you knew about your visa status before the arrest?

SL: I don’t think there was anything I could’ve done differently. I would be in the same situation that I’m in now.

TG: Is there anything else you would like to add?

SL: Immigration reform is going to happen during the next four years. This is really the time for people who are passionate about this issue to get involved and share their stories. It’s very important to be aware of the things that are happening to this issue.

I really hope that we can have a unified community that realizes the importance of the work immigrants do for this country and to fight for a humane immigration system that won’t separate families in the future.

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