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Plea to End Deportations Heard Nationwide as Activist Interrupts Obama Speech on Immigration

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Two days after he interrupted a speech by President Obama, Ju Hong, an immigrant rights activist from South Korea, joins us to talk about how Obama’s immigration policies have impacted him. As Obama continued his campaign for comprehensive immigration reform with a speech in San Francisco, Hong interrupted him to call for an end to deportations. Obama then turned around to address him directly, and Hong continued talking. Those who placed Hong behind Obama during the speech may not have realized he is one of the most outspoken young immigrant activists in California. He has been arrested previously during immigration protests — most recently over the summer when he opposed the confirmation of former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano as president of the University of California system. Hong is a member of ASPIRE — Asian Students Promoting Immigrant Rights Through Education. “I thought about my family, I thought about my personal struggle as undocumented, and I thought about my friends and my communities who have been deported and who are currently in detention centers,” Hong says about why he spoke out. “I felt I was compelled to tell the truth to President Obama that he has the ability stop the deportations for all.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show looking at President Obama’s push for Congress to pass an immigration reform bill before the end of the year. A comprehensive package has passed the Senate but remains stalled in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

On Monday, Obama continued his campaign with a speech in San Francisco, where he was engaged by an audience member who interrupted him to call for an end to deportations. What made this interruption unusual was that the young man was one of the people who was chosen to stand behind Obama, so he was almost on mic. Obama then turned around to address him directly, and the young man continued talking, pleading for President Obama to stop separating families. The person was later identified as an undocumented immigrant from South Korea named Ju Hong. In a minute, he will join us to talk about what he did. But first, this is their full exchange.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If we get immigration reform across the finish line—and it is there, just within our grasp—if we can just get folks in Washington to go ahead and do what needs to be done, we’re going to grow our economy. We’re going to make our country more secure. We’ll strengthen our families. And most importantly, we will live a—

JU HONG: But, Mr. Obama, I need to know—

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Most importantly, we will live up—

JU HONG: Our families are separating. Thanksgiving—

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Most importantly, we will live up—

JU HONG: I have not seen my family [inaudible]—

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: —to our character as a nation—

JU HONG: —because our families are separated. I need your help. There are thousands of undocumented immigrants, are torn apart—

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: That’s—that’s exactly what we’re talking about here.

JU HONG: —every single day.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: That’s why we’re here.

JU HONG: Mr. President, please use your executive order to halt deportations for all 11.5 [million] undocumented immigrants in this country right now.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What we’re trying—

JU HONG: We agree—

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Obama! Obama! Obama! Obama!

JU HONG: —that we need to pass comprehensive immigration reform at the same time. You have a power to stop deportations for all undocumented families in this country.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Actually, I don’t. And that’s why we’re here.

JU HONG: So, please, I need your help.


JU HONG: Yes, we can!

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Stop deportations!

JU HONG: Stop deportations! Yes, we can stop deportations!

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Thank you. All right.

JU HONG: Stop deportations! Stop deportations! Stop deportations!

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What I’d like to do—no, no, don’t worry about it, guys.

JU HONG: Stop deportations!


JU HONG: Yes, we can stop deportations! Yes, we can stop deportations!

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Let me—let me—how about—these guys don’t need to go. Let me finish. No, no, no. Let—he can stay there. Let me—hold on a second. Hold on a second. So, you know, I respect the passion of these young people, because they feel deeply about the concerns for their families. Now what you need to know, when I’m speaking, as president of the United States, and I come to this community, is that if in fact I could solve all these problems without passing laws in Congress, then I would do so. But we’re also a nation of laws. That’s part of our tradition. And so, the easy way out is to try to yell and pretend like I can do something by violating our laws. And what I’m proposing is the harder path, which is to use our democratic processes to achieve the same goal that you want to achieve. But it won’t be as easy as just shouting. It requires us lobbying and getting it done. So—

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama responding to the young immigrant activist, Ju Hong. Those who placed Ju Hong behind President Obama during the speech may not have realized he is one of the California Bay Area’s most outspoken young immigrant activists. Ju Hong has been arrested previously during immigration protests, most recently over the summer when he opposed the confirmation of former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano as president of the University of California system. Ju Hong is a member of ASPIRE, Asian Students Promoting Immigrant Rights through Education. He graduated from UC Berkeley in 2012, currently pursuing a master’s degree in public administration at San Francisco State University. He’s joining us now from the University of Berkeley.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Ju Hong. Talk about that moment, first how you came to be right behind President Obama, part of his backdrop, and then what your message was.

JU HONG: So, I was formally invited by the White House to attend his remarks on immigration reform in San Francisco, and my intention was to hear what he had to say, especially about how he’s going to address the lives of 11.5 million undocumented people who are living in this country facing fear of deportation on a daily basis, including my family. However, he did not address wrongdoing against undocumented immigrant family members he have done. And he did not have any concrete examples to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

And when he talked about Thanksgiving and spending time with families on Thanksgiving, I thought about my own family. I was concerned about my mom’s safety, I was concerned about my sister’s safety, because they could get deported at any given period of time because of anti-immigration deportation programs that was implemented by Obama administration. So, I thought about my family. I thought about my personal struggle as undocumented. And I thought about my friends in my communities who have been deported and who are currently in detention center.

And I felt that it was—I was compelled to tell the truth to the president, Obama, that he has ability to stop the deportations for all 11.5 million undocumented immigrants, but he did not do so. And I think that his response was very disappointing, because he’s treating me like a child, and he did not adequately address my question. And, in fact, he lied to the public that he doesn’t have power to stop deportations, when he does. So I think that—


JU HONG: I think that—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: If I can, to ask you, again, this issue of how you ended up behind the podium? Because the people who are chosen, usually, by the White House—

JU HONG: Sure.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —to be behind the podium are usually some—you would assume, are vetted in some way or other to make sure that these kinds of interruptions don’t happen. So, how was it that you ended up being invited to stand behind the president?

JU HONG: Sure. I was actually selected randomly at the day of. And like I said, you know, I was there to—just to hear what President Obama had to say. I didn’t have any plan to interrupt his speech. But then again, I was very compelled to speak out the truth about what is happening in our community.

AMY GOODMAN: Ju Hong, after you interrupted President Obama at his speech, he continued with his vow to press ahead on immigration reform. I want to go to another clip. This is from the end of President Obama’s speech, where he seems to be addressing you directly again.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And if you’re serious about making that happen, then I’m ready to work with you. But it is going to require work. It is not simply a matter of us just saying we’re going to violate the law. That’s not our tradition. But the great thing about this country is we have this wonderful process of democracy, and sometimes it is messy, and sometimes it is hard, but ultimately, justice and truth win out.

AMY GOODMAN: Ju Hong, your response?

JU HONG: First of all, he is not violating the law if—because he has the power to stop deportation. He can use his executive order to stop deportation, and that is not violating the law.

And I think that the law itself is wrong and currently inhumane. I think the current law is affecting me and my family in an unjust way. For example, in 2010, my family’s home was burglarized, and my door was broken, my windows were completely shattered, and my important belongings were gone. And we were terrified. And we wanted to contact the police immediately, but my mom said, “Ju, do not contact police. What if we get deported?” And this is something that we go through every single day. We have that fear, and we have that—no protection and uncertainty. And this is not just me. I know that 11.5 million undocumented immigrants are facing fear of deportation.

And I’m very disappointed the fact that President Obama is supporting comprehensive immigration reform, but behind the door he’s deporting thousands of other undocumented immigrant family members, tearing apart every single day. He deported one-point million undocumented immigrant families across the country, which is—he deport more people than any other U.S. president in the history. And every single day, 1,100 immigrants are getting deported because of anti-immigration deportation measure under Obama administration.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Ju Hong, tell us about your story. How did your family come here? How did you come to be undocumented? And when did you learn you were undocumented?

JU HONG: Sure. So I was born and raised in South Korea until I was 11 years old. And our family owned a small Japanese restaurant business in South Korea. But, unfortunately, it did not really work out. And so, our business, we gave up the business, and we filed bankruptcy. And then, one year after, my mom and my dad decided to divorce, and ever since then, I grew up with my mom and my older sister, barely surviving in our home country in South Korea. So my mom decided to move to the United States in 2001 to seek a better life for me and my older sister.

And ever since then, I grew up just like many other American students. I went to public school, spoke English and joined many different student activities. And most importantly, you know, I had a dream to go to college. But during my senior year in high school while I was filling out my college application, there was a section where that requires citizenship status and Social Security number, and I didn’t know what to put. And I asked my mom about it. And that’s when she told me everything about our immigration status, that we came here with a tourist visa, and she extended it for additional six months, and within 12 months, she tried to adjust our immigration status, but it did not work out, and we became undocumented.

And when I found out my immigration status, it was definitely depressing because of all the limitations that I had to go through. And I thought that I could not go to college. All the limitations made me became a different person. At the same time, I think that a lot of nonprofit organizations helped me out in terms of how to go to college and educate me about AB 540 and the DREAM Act. There are many different legislations that could help me to pathway to citizenship. And the more I learn about immigration issues, I believe that President Obama and his administration is not doing his job and their job to support our community. And I think—

AMY GOODMAN: In September, President Obama ruled out halting the deportation of undocumented immigrant parents of children who were granted a reprieve last year, like you, Ju Hong. Under the deferred action program, the White House has suspended the deportations of young immigrants who were brought to the U.S. at an early age and have lived without legal status. But speaking to Telemundo, Obama said he—it would be too extreme a measure to grant the same relief to the parents.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What we can do is then carve out the DREAM Act folks, saying young people who have basically grown up here are Americans that we should welcome. We’re not going to have them operate under a cloud, under a shadow. But if we start broadening that, then essentially I would be ignoring the law in a way that I think would be very difficult to defend legally. So, that’s not an option.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s President Obama. Ju Hong, if you could quickly respond to that, and then we want to ask you about your protest that you were arrested for this summer.

JU HONG: Yeah, just quickly, before I jump—before I directly answer your question, I just wanted to mention that because of courageous undocumented immigrant youth throughout the country, spoke out and shared their stories and held rallies and events, even conducting civil disobedience actions and hunger strike, that is why President Obama introduced a DACA program, which allows certain undocumented students to halt deportations for at least two years and get a work permit, work authorization. And to directly respond to your question—

AMY GOODMAN: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

JU HONG: That’s correct. And I think that, you know, he is just using political talking points to not supporting undocumented immigrant family members. The fact of the matter is, DACA recipients have family members who are getting deported, and they’re getting separated every single day. And so, what he needs to do right now is to expand DACA for all 11.5 million undocumented immigrant people. That is the only way to reunite with the families. And that is the right way to solve our broken immigration system, as we continue to pressure Congress to pass a fair and just immigration reform.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ju Hong, I wanted to ask you—this is not your first protest that you’ve been involved in over immigration. Former Department of Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano was recently confirmed as head of the University of California system. And last month. following criticism for policies on immigration, she vowed to authorize $5 million in university funds to help undocumented students who can’t get federal financial aid. You were one of six people who were arrested at the University of California Regents meeting as they confirmed Napolitano in July. You were wearing that same blue T-shirt that says “I am undocumented.” Why did you choose to take direct action against Janet Napolitano’s nomination—or confirmation?

JU HONG: Well, Janet Napolitano does not fit into the president of the UC system because of troubling record of what she has done to our community, because under her leadership she deported 1.8 million undocumented immigrant family members across the country, and that she is proud of the fact that what she has done. And she said, in the public she support the DREAM Act, but in the closed doors she deport people left and right. And I think the UC undocumented students are genuinely scared of Janet Napolitano as the next president of the UC system, and she doesn’t have any leading position in education.

And I think that—she tried to recently provided $5 million aid to undocumented immigrants, but I think that is the just political will for her to ease out the protesters, and she’s trying to make her image as a positive figure. But the fact of the matter is, the $5 million will not substitute of how much pain that she caused for our community. And she will never substitute the pain and suffering and fear that every single undocumented immigrant face that she has caused in our community. If she really care about immigrant communities, I think that she should first publicly apologize to our community. And second, I think she should bring back undocumented immigrant people that she deported. And third, she should respectfully resign as the next president of the UC system.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Ju Hong, I want to thank you for being with us. We will continue to, of course, follow the immigration issue. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, though, we’re going talk about Pope Francis and his message to the world. Stay with us.

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