Governor Eliot Spitzer's plan for driver's licenses for illegal immigrants has started to fade from the headlines after the governor pulled the proposal last week, but the subject of immigration remains a hot button issue in state and national politics.
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In this week’s One on 1, Budd Mishkin introduces us to a woman who has increasingly become one of the most influential immigrant voices in the city.
You take the laughs whenever you can get them when you're in the eye of the storm, and at the time of our interview, that's exactly where Chung Wha Hong and her colleagues found themselves.
"We are just finding ourselves in such a poisonous environment that we can't even talk policy,” says Hong. "It’s hard to go about just your daily routines without constantly thinking about the kind of urgency and the attacks and the injustices."
Who is this woman who is increasingly one of the most influential immigrant voices in New York?
Chung Wha Hong is the executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, an umbrella group which represents 200 ethnic community organizations in New York.
She's the mother of three young children. And has worked in the field of immigrants rights for twenty years. When I spoke with her at her flushing, the quiet stood in stark contrast to the storm created by Governor Eliot Spitzer's plan.
"By just always coupling terrorists with un-documented immigrants people are whipping up fear, hysteria and it just really, I think, counter-productive to the goal of having a rational conversation about what is good for public safety for all and what is good for security,” says Hong.
Critics charged the licensing plan rewards illegal aliens. Hong calls them undocumented workers. She defended the plan, arguing that keeping the identities of a million people off the public records in New York is bad for security. And she claimed that these immigrants fuel the state's economy.
It might seem that Hong is in a predicament, in that she is the leader of a coalition that claims to represent all immigrants — legal and illegal, documented and undocumented.
"Even though they want to distinguish between themselves who are legal and then others who are not, I think that what every immigrant sees is that the anti-immigrant sentiment that is kind of fueling this kind of hysteria hurts all immigrants and hurts anybody else who looks like an immigrant or sounds like an immigrant,” she says.
The challenge for Hong doesn't just come from the outside. When she became the Coalition's executive director, she had to earn the trust of different groups with different agendas. For example, on immigration reform, she says Latino groups were concerned with legalization, the Asian community: family immigration rules, and the Arab and Muslim groups worried about civil rights protections. She had to convince them that she would hear each of their concerns and fight for them.
"Being executive director just means you have more opportunities to make mistakes. I swear, I make mistakes every single day,” says Hong.
But the coalition has successfully organized rallies and protest marches on immigration, now a national issue and fodder for the presidential campaign. For Hong, this is not simply about policy.
"Work has gotten to be more than a job. It has always been more than a job, but these days, because I feel like some of the anti-immigrant attacks that are being made against immigrants are just challenging the very existence of, of immigrants,” she says.
Hong is making a name for herself in New York politics. Actually, there's a story in her name itself. She was eleven when her family emigrated from Korea to St. Louis, where she says no one could pronounce her name.
And so one year later, when the family moved to Boston...
"We just went to this new school and they said, ÎOh what's your name? And we said, ÎUh, lets not say Chung Wha, lets just go with Jennifer, cause its just easier to pronounce,’" she says.
The move east was predicated on her parents' wishes for her education, putting a new spin on the old real estate adage: location, location, location.
"I think Koreans just have this mythical kind of worship of Harvard, and so one of their considerations was, well maybe if we move to Boston, and just kind of be near it, our kids will just have a better chance of going to a good Ivy League college,” says Hong.
She ended up going to Penn, then worked in Washington and finally moved to Flushing in 1994 to work for a small Korean-American grass roots organization with three employees. Hong once worked herself so hard that she had to be hospitalized for exhaustion.
"Working hard is good, but harming your health while you're doing it is stupid,” she says. "I think I spent my Î20s just going all out, no holding back. I tried everything I wanted. And when I found a cause that I was looking for, I gave myself to it completely, without reservation."
Now as executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, the stakes are higher, the influence greater, the spotlight hotter.
"I'm always telling myself to remember my humble beginnings, of you know, being a little immigrant kid who didn't speak any English or working at a small grass roots organization with you know, like a $50,000 budget,” she says.
Hong long ago became comfortable with English, but because of her early struggles, language education is now a policy priority. She worked to get a $700 million grant from the state to help immigrant students learn English.
"I wouldn't have been sleeping at school if I was given the extra help that I needed, and I would have learned English faster. I would probably be speaking better English right now,” she says.
But everything on Hong's agenda recently took a backseat to the driver's license controversy — a moment of urgency, she called it. She sees it as part of a much bigger picture.
"I think we are tapping into a more powerful feeling here of people who have a deep economic anxieties, deep fears about terrorism and we’re scapegoating immigrants instead of trying to find policy solutions for those problems,” she says.
When I spoke with her, Hong knew that the Coalition wouldn't be celebrating too many victories in the near future. But she still has an immigrant's optimism, stemming largely from her first year in St. Louis thirty years ago, as the only Asian in the neighborhood.
"There was that welcoming spirit, which is just so hard to find now,” she says. “I know it’s there, because I've seen it. How do we tap that welcoming side of Americans rather than the kind of fearful us versus them side?
- Budd Mishkin