Harvard University graduate Jin K. Park, who holds a degree in molecular and cellular biology, poses at a gate at Harvard Yard in Cambridge, Mass., Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Harvard University graduate Jin K. Park, who holds a degree in molecular and cellular biology, poses at a gate at Harvard Yard in Cambridge, Mass., Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Harvard University graduate Jin Park didn't just earn an esteemed Rhodes scholarship to study at the University of Oxford in England with all expenses paid.

He's the first "Dreamer" — or non-citizen undocumented U.S. resident -— to be selected for the vaunted honor. Famous Americans who shared that honor include President Bill Clinton, Senators Cory Booker and Bill Bradley, journalist Rachel Maddow and former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice.

The scholarship was created in 1902 by British businessmen and politician Cecil Rhodes. It pays all costs for at least two years of study at Oxford. Since Park is technically not an American, and he said he fears not being allowed back in the U.S. if he leaves for England.

Dreamers were children brought to the U.S. illegally, who came to the U.S. without documents, or who came legally but their legal status expired. Park, 22, came to the U.S. with his parents from South Korea when he was 7.

In 2012, former President Barack Obama gave Dreamers protected status to stay in the U.S., where they had grown up, under a policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). To be eligible for DACA protection, immigrants must have entered the country by 2007 and been younger than 16 when they arrived.

Park is a DACA recipient, which means he receives a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation.

DACA beneficiaries could travel in and out of the U.S. if they were granted advance parole, allowing them to leave the country and return for purposes such as studying abroad.

But in September 2017, President Donald Trump announced his administration would phase out DACA, and discontinued the travel abroad option. Some states challenged that decision in federal court which have upheld the DACA policy. The Trump administration is seeking a Supreme Court review of those decisions.

Should I stay or should I go?

Nearly 700,000 DACA individuals remain in legal limbo in the contentious American discussion about immigration. Among them is Pack, who says the excitement of being selected for the Rhodes scholarship has been replaced with feelings of uneasiness.

"If I leave, there's a very real possibility that I won't be able to come back. That's the biggest fear for sure," said Park.

Harvard University graduate and Rhodes scholarship
Harvard University graduate and Rhodes scholarship winner Jin Park is also a DACA recipient.

Park told the Associated Press he has had a difficult time talking to his parents about the risks of accepting the Rhodes scholarship. They cried out in happiness when news of the award came.

“I’ve been avoiding that question,” he said days after finishing his studies at Harvard. “This was especially meaningful for them. It was like a validation of the sacrifices they’ve made for me.”

Rhodes' hands tied

Elliot Gerson, the American secretary for the Rhodes organization, said the issue is a "matter of American law and not anything the Rhodes Trust can resolve alone.

"Our hope is for federal action," he added.

Kristian Ramos, a representative for immigrant support organization Define American, said the government should enforce the law as it stands and let Park study in England.

Park said he wants to remain a voice in the immigration debate and thinks the value of going to Oxford is greater than the risks.

"I'm looking forward to having that unstructured time to think about these broader questions of who belongs in America and the value judgments we make about others," he said.

Park has been a voice for DACA recipients since he was in high school. In 2015, he founded Higher Dreams, a nonprofit group that helps students without permanent immigration status gain admission to college.

With the help of Harvard, Park competed for the Rhodes scholarship last year, partly to show how this and other awards ignore DACA recipients.

Harvard University graduate Jin K. Park, who holds

Harvard University graduate Jin K. Park, who holds a degree in molecular and cellular biology, listens during an interview in Cambridge, Mass., Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

The story of Park’s application

Park's first Rhodes application was rejected. When the organization changed its policy last year, Park re-applied and was selected.

Gerson said the change shows the organization's efforts to expand who can apply. Legal permanent residents and residents of U.S. territories like Puerto Rico have also been permitted to apply in recent years.

At Oxford, Park said he hopes to study migration and political theory, but the molecular and cell biology major has also applied to medical school. But he is also open to possibly working in city government, where he could help change immigration policy "no matter who is in the White House," he said.

Regardless, Park said New York City is home.

"For me, I think of Queens, New York," he said. "Whatever happens, I'm always going to know that fact. Even if I have to spend the rest of my life convincing the administration, or whoever comes next."

U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, which oversees DACA, did not answer Associated Press emails seeking comment.

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