Esder Chong, a Rutgers University student who received protection against deportation under former President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, was invited by Rep. Frank Pallone, D-New Jersey, to be his guest at the high-profile event.
The invitation comes as White House and congressional negotiations over immigration policy — and the fate of nearly 800,000 DACA recipients — remain unresolved. Trump has ordered the phase out DACA starting in March, in the absence of new authorizing legislation.
"I think we have to recognize in this country that we need immigrants," Pallone said during an interview with the Asbury Park Press. "We've always been a country of immigrants. The fact of the matter is without immigration we wouldn't be the country that we are."
Chong, 19, of Highland Park, obtained DACA protection in high school after Obama created the program in an executive order to protect young unauthorized immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children.
Chong said Trump often focuses on Latino immigrants, using negative stereotypes, but she wants to show Trump that DACA recipients come from all over the world.
"This is not a Latino issue but an issue that affects all communities," Chong said. "This is a Korean American issue, an Asian issue, black and white."
"We're as American in virtually every way, except on paper," she added. "If I'm not American, then I don't know what American is."
DACA recipients and their supporters are urging lawmakers to pass a version of the Dream Act of 2017 that isn’t tied to funding for immigration enforcement or a wall between the U.S.-Mexican border.
The latest White House immigration plan offers a path to citizenship over 10 to 12 years for nearly 1.8 million young unauthorized immigrants. It also includes new restrictions on lawful immigration and a $25 billion fund for border security, which involves construction of a border wall.
But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have panned the Trump plan, raising doubts a final agreement can be reached by March 5, when the program starts to get phased out. Some lawmakers have called for limiting the negotiations to two issues — DACA and border security.
“We can help to fix this problem once and for all,” said Marc Short, White House director of legislative affairs, according to Politico. “Conservatives recognize the benefit of really securing our border and helping to fix these long-term problems. So, yes, I think we are going to get widespread support on our side.”
Pallone says the president used DACA recipients as a “bargaining chip” to push Democrats to agree to a legislative fix that includes the wall and other policies they oppose.
"It's only broken because he broke it," Pallone said, "and now when he puts forth these various proposals, many of them have various impacts on legal immigration."
‘The original DREAMers’
Chong calls her parents "the original DREAMers." Her mother, a registered nurse, brought the family over on a work visa in 2005.
While many immigrants come to the country escaping violence or poverty, Chong said her parents came to pursue missionary work.
“If I'm not American, then I don't know what American is.”Esder Chong, DACA recipient
"Everyone has a different calling," Chong said. "They were called to be missionaries in America and in New Jersey. They want to serve American students and teach the Bible here."
The family arrived a few days before Chong's 7th birthday. They settled in Highland Park, and she enrolled in the elementary school. For the first time, she sat alongside children of different skin colors and ethnic backgrounds.
Chong enrolled in English as a Second Language, though she says she learned the language quickly. She made friends. She started learning the violin, taking weekly lessons and playing in the school orchestra.
When the recession hit in 2008, Chong's mom lost her job at a local hospital and thus her visa sponsorship. She never found another job to sponsor her family.
Chong's parents, determined to continue their missionary work, kept the family in New Jersey. They worked multiple jobs, often taking graveyard shifts.
Chong's violin lessons stopped. Her parents kept a strict budget for groceries and other items such as school supplies.
She first realized the implications of lacking legal status when she was in ninth grade. Her mother suffered a shoulder injury while biking to work, but she refused to go to the hospital.
"We couldn't because we were uninsured, we couldn't get healthcare," Chong said. "We couldn't go to the hospital or the emergency room and that's when I was like, 'wow, we can't even get basic needs if we don't have papers.'"
Chong missed her high school orchestra's performance at Carnegie Hall because she couldn't afford the trip fees. When her Model United Nations team was invited to a conference in Mexico, she told her advisers she had to stay behind and study. The real reason was because immigrants without legal status can't leave the country without being barred from re-entering for 10 years.
"I realized that I'm trapped here until I get legal status," she added.
Living here without legal status added more stress to the busy teenager's life. Sometimes, running helped her cope. She ran for the track and field team all throughout high school. Chong also looked to religion for comfort.
"I think I'm really lucky to have Christian parents and a Christian environment where I can be around people who support me," she said, "but also I just believe that God is with me."
Life with DACA
Chong obtained DACA protection in high school, making her eligible to work and drive legally.
"I felt like I could be in this country without the fear of getting deported, but at the same time DACA has a deadline of two years and you have to reapply," Chong said. "It did feel like they put some sort of expiration date on my safety."
Despite that uncertainty, she went onto college. Chong is a sophomore at Rutgers University Newark. She doesn't qualify for in-state financial aid, but she found several scholarships to cover the cost.
She founded RU Dreamers, a club for young unauthorized immigrants. The group meets to discuss current immigration policy and to educate others about their situation.
"They are the most hard-working students at are in Rutgers Newark," she said. "They work full-time while being full-time students to pay out of pocket."
Chong wants to be a lawyer, but she worries she won't get that chance. If Congress fails to come up with a deal, she will lose her status in 2019 — months before she graduates college.
"Every day that they stall this legislation puts people at risk of deportation," she said. "We're just waiting, and we need action in Congress."
Steph Solis: stephmsolis; 732-403-0074; firstname.lastname@example.org