In 2020, Tawheeda Wahabzada had had enough. It was time to leave the country she’d grown up in.
“The idea of leaving has always been at the back of my mind. … It was a constant reminder that this is temporary, and I felt I wasn’t able to live a meaningful life because of my status,” she said.
Wahabzada is one of a growing number of young immigrants brought to the United States as children who do not want to live in legal limbo anymore. She, like millions of other immigrants who entered the country without permission or overstayed their visas, has no path to citizenship.
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, was created in 2012 under the Obama administration to give undocumented immigrants some administrative relief by allowing them to do things such as apply for work permits and obtain driver’s licenses.
However, the program faced continual challenges in court, and in 2017 the Trump administration announced it would dismantle the program.
For some DACA recipients, it was time to stop dreaming of a future in the U.S. Wahabzada moved to Canada in 2020, where she is a citizen and can continue working at an international nongovernmental organization.
About a year later, she found two other DACA recipients, Eun Suk “Jason” Hong and Monsy Hernandez, online.
“I actually first reached out to Jason on LinkedIn, and then through Jason, I met Monsy,” Wahabzada said in an email. “We've instantly connected as if we've known each other for a while. Then we realized how this isn't just our problem, but a lot more people are experiencing similar, if not the same, issues. So we've decided to create a small, exclusive community on Facebook which later turned into ONWARD.”
According to ONWARD, there is a growing movement of young adults in the U.S. who are unable to get citizenship and are hoping to start anew elsewhere.
“We don’t give legal advice, but we share our experiences. … We connect people,” Wahabzada said. The group started out with a few hundred followers; now it has about 1,500.
Life in the US
Wahabzada had a “very American” upbringing. Her parents were refugees who originally relocated from Afghanistan to Canada in 1990, where she was born.
“It was very difficult for my parents to have stable jobs. We were very low-income, and we didn’t really have close immediate family near us. … They’ve had careers and degrees from their past lives … but they couldn’t use those skills,” she said.
In 1995, her family moved to Carson City, Nevada, where they had relatives.
“They thought it was easier for them to be closer to family and to work with family — to have support and more opportunities that way,” she said.
Wahabzada learned she was undocumented when she was nearly 16.
“I remember dragging [my mother] with me, and when I was at the DMV, the person at the DMV was like ‘You don't have the necessary documents to apply for a learner's permit.’ … And that's how my mom told me about the reality of my status,” she said.
She went on to college, graduating from the University of Nevada, Reno, and earning a master’s degree in global policy studies from the University of Texas at Austin. Her family and private scholarships helped her pay for her education.
After college, she lived in Washington and worked as a data and policy analyst for a nonprofit, Open Data Watch.
Hong, meanwhile, was born in South Korea, brought to the U.S. by his mother when he was 10, and raised in Montclair, New Jersey.
Growing up in the U.S., he did not feel any different than his U.S.-born friends. “I was just having fun with other Americans. … [My friends and I] enjoyed the same hobbies, same food,” he said.
But he knew something was different.
“I did have a little bit more awareness of what's going on. I didn't know what exactly it meant, right? The only thing I knew was that my mom was struggling to get permanent residency for us and for herself,” he said.
Like Wahabzada, Hong lived in a state where undocumented students could attend college.
“The idea of going to college was just joyous. … I think the first year of my university was when things were really upside down, where I really understood the impact [of my status] because starting from freshman year in college in the U.S., people were already applying for internships. And that’s when it hit big,” Hong said.
Wahabzada felt stuck and lonely. She was in college, and two of her friends knew her status but, "They didn’t know the extent of how bad it was," she said, of being undocumented — “illegal” in the words of activists who want to reduce immigration to the U.S.
The introduction of DACA, Wahabzada said, changed her life.
“When the application for DACA was available in August , I immediately started applying,” she said. After she entered the program, she could get a driver’s license and a job, among other things.
It changed Hong’s life as well. He became a DACA recipient during his senior year of college. With DACA, he could work.
He graduated from Binghamton University in New York with a degree in finance, moved to New York City and worked as a financial service representative at a New York insurance company. He also worked for an immigration advocacy nonprofit.
Then the Trump administration announced it would end DACA.
“I had a meltdown at the time,” Hong said. “That’s when I first realized, ‘What kind of future can I build?’”
In 2020, Hong was recognized by Binghamton University for his work advocating for dreamers and DACA recipients. Among other things, the university sent him a pamphlet about graduate school in Spain.
“Spain. I never thought about the option of leaving the United States. My mom pretty much sacrificed all of her things for this so I can have a life here,” he said.
In the end, Spain offered a future, and he decided to give up DACA.
“I could not put myself through this anymore,” Hong said. He was 29, his friends were getting promoted, marrying and having families. He felt stuck.
Wahabzada was coming to the same conclusion.
“In August , I published an Op-Ed in The New York Times about the consequences of leaving the U.S. … I spent a lot of time with my family, and in January 2020 I had a self-deportation party,” she said.
A way forward
Hong moved to Spain on a student visa to attend graduate school in 2020.
“Up until I was walking toward the plane, I was like, ‘This is really happening.’ And then I got into the plane, that’s when it really hit [me] … ‘I’m leaving my home for my own future,’” he said.
After graduation, Hong received an entrepreneurship visa and launched his own business in Madrid.
While his mother returned to South Korea, she has since visited him in his new home.
After two years in Canada, Wahabzada was able to obtain a waiver to visit her family or for short work trips to Washington.
Leaving the U.S., she said, was really hard, and she still grieves.
“A lot of grief. A lot of loneliness,” she said.
Hong estimated that about 2,000 DACA recipients have made the journey out of the U.S., and that more than 1,000 are considering leaving the country.
The U.S. is losing potential leaders who understand resilience, empathy and compassion, Hong and Wahabzada said.
“The United States lost an ambitious, passionate young entrepreneur who wants to create jobs, who wants to help the community. … If there is something that America has lost, it is that kind of individual,” Hong said.