Immigrants and the Importance of English Traci Hong understands the frustrations and ambitions of immigrants. Hong, an immigration advocate who herself emigrated as a child from South Korea, says proposals to make English the official language are misguided.
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Immigrants and the Importance of English

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Immigrants and the Importance of English

Immigrants and the Importance of English

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All this week on MORNING EDITION, we've been exploring the debate over immigration. That subject is very personal for millions of Americans, including Traci Hong, who was born in South Korea.

Ms. TRACI HONG (Director of Immigration Programs at the Asian-American Justice Center): You know, it's amazing how immigrants take on this great adventure without really knowing what they're getting into. And you know, it does seem to me that sometimes if people knew how hard the immigrant experience is, if somebody were to show you a warning film, I'm not sure how many of us would actually undertake the process.

INSKEEP: These days, Traci Hong is an immigration lawyer here in Washington. Her organization, the Asian-American Justice Center, is among those advocating changes to immigration laws.

Traci Hong was ten years old when her parents brought the family to Tulsa, Oklahoma. One reason was to find better care for Tracy Hong's brother, who is autistic. But to this day, she is not entirely sure why her parents gave up a comfortable life to come here.

Ms. HONG: It was a huge change for us. You know, my mother went from having help of her own, you know, nannies and maids to take care of her children, and not working herself, to taking on a series of really difficult jobs. You know, working as a hotel maid, working at local restaurants; sort of the whole panoply of traditionally immigrant jobs. But she handled it - and again, this is one of those amazing things - she handled it with absolute aplomb.

INSKEEP: Did you speak English when you arrived?

Ms. HONG: Not a word. And in fact, you know, my parents were very adamant about the fact that we speak, and we actually even now speak Korean at home, and they had a lot of faith in me, I guess, that, you know, when I went to school I would pick up English and that this way I would be completely bi-lingual, and they were absolutely right.

INSKEEP: Has that experience informed your views about - particularly the language part of the immigration debate? People are asking whether to declare English the national language, or at least make stronger efforts to encourage people to have to learn it.

Ms. HONG: You know, and that particular part of the debate really incensed me, because it is so contrary to every experience that I've ever had both as an immigrant myself but also as an immigration lawyer, an advocate who deals with the immigrant population.

Immigrants most of all know exactly how important English is, not only to survive but to succeed in this country. And unless and until you've had a fear in the pit of your stomach, and all you're trying to do is to go into the local McDonalds and order a burger, you have no idea how important English is.

INSKEEP: After living in Tulsa for awhile, your family moved to Houston, Texas, where you essentially spent your teenage years, in an area where your family was an immigrant family and there were also a huge number of Hispanic immigrants around you. Did the Hispanic immigrant experience seem different from your experience as an Asian immigrant?

Ms. HONG: No. There's such a common thread. And it really doesn't matter where you're from, you know? Korea or Mexico, Nigeria, it's the same motivations that drive us to come to the United States. Our experiences are pretty similar to one another.

INSKEEP: What are the common threads?

Ms. HONG: One of the consistent things that I've noticed from having represented people from all over the world is this sort of desire to provide a better life, better opportunity, however way they define it, for their kids. A really tremendous sense of adventure and willingness to take on risk, which I think is such a defining American characteristic.

INSKEEP: One difference might be that there are a much larger number of illegal Hispanic immigrants than illegal Asian immigrants.

Ms. HONG: We have 12 million undocumented immigrants and that in and of itself poses a challenge. So I think people often think that U.S. citizens live on one side of the street, legal immigrants live on another side of the street, and undocumented immigrants on yet another. But certainly, for the Asian-American community - and I would posit probably for the Latino community as well - the reality is much more messy. We have U.S. citizens who are married to undocumented immigrants, who have U.S. citizen children. Whether we like it or not, these folks are here, they're already very well integrated into our communities. So now the question is, what do we do about that?

INSKEEP: You mentioned how difficult it was when your family first came to the United States.

Ms. HONG: Um-hmm.

INSKEEP: Did your parents improve their situation as time went on, after your moved to Houston?

Ms. HONG: They did. Both of my parents - my mother held down two jobs, raised two kids, sent herself to beauty school and became a hairstylist. And my father, who, you know, after sort having done a whole array of, again, pretty typical immigrant jobs, became a pretty high-tech machinist. And they eventually became very economically successful.

But there are some concrete prices to be paid for the immigrant life. And one of them in our particular case was my parents' marriage. My parents got divorced when I was a teenager, and I think a lot of it did have to do with the stress of working so hard, having a child who's disabled, and trying to balance and adjusting to a different culture.

INSKEEP: As the years have gone on, is there something that you try to hold onto that identifies you as Korean?

Ms. HONG: Absolutely. And I think, for all first-generation and maybe even later, you know, anything hyphenated American, it's a constant balancing act. Language, I think, is a really huge part of who I am, as Korean. The food is incredibly important. And my mom always used to say, you know, you really ought to take the best from both cultures, and that's a gift that you're given as an immigrant.

INSKEEP: Tell me something that you draw from Korean culture that's better than what you might find in the United States.

Ms. HONG: Well, you know what? I don't want to say better, but it's perhaps just more of a focus on thinking about family, rather than just about the individual. And I feel like I made some concrete choices in my life where, you know, quite frankly my American friends don't necessarily understand. So I take care of my mom and my brother. They live with me, and, you know, a lot of my friends say, isn't that difficult? And you're a single woman and doesn't that cramp your style? It doesn't. It doesn't. And it's really - I can't imagine having chosen a different way to live my life.

INSKEEP: Is there something American that was new to you when you came that you have really come to embrace and is part of you now?

Ms. HONG: You know, oddly enough, it's exactly the opposite of what I just told you about being Korean. How's that for a - I'm not even sure what the right word is!

INSKEEP: This has been characteristic of our conversations all week on this subject. People feel both ways at once.

Ms. HONG: Exactly, exactly.

INSKEEP: But what was it? What was it?

Ms. HONG: So it's very typical. Its actually getting away from what the family wishes are doing and doing what you feel is right for you. So I just basically, in some sense, contradicted myself, except it's not all a contradiction.

It's a constant struggle and balance between doing what's right for yourself and doing what's right for, sort of, the larger units in your life. Whether its your family, whether its your job, your country. And I think that being a hyphenated American makes me better at both.

INSKEEP: Well, Traci Hong, thanks very much for speaking with us.

Ms. HONG: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: You can hear more of this week's conversations on immigration and assimilation. Carlos Mencia, John Updike, Jorge Ramos and Juan Enriquez: they're all at

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