'When You're Undocumented and Asian, You're Invisible'

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Alvin sits inside his Nissan 240SX. He says being Asian and undocumented has been one of the most alienating experiences of his life.  (Stefanie De Leon Tzic/KQED)

This story is part of “At Risk in the Trump Era,” a four-month investigation by USC Annenberg advanced radio students, exploring how vulnerable communities across Southern California react to the first months of Donald Trump’s presidency. The series profiles individuals burdened by new worries — looking for work, signing up for school, or even deciding whether to publicly express their sexual orientation or religious affiliation.

Stefanie De Leon Tzic brings us a story about Alvin, a young Indonesian Dreamer. He says being Asian and undocumented has been one of the most isolating experiences of his life. He asked us to use only his first name to avoid putting his parents at risk.

Colorful Hot Wheels collector cars, some in their original packaging, are scattered around Alvin's room. On his desk, a matchbox display case with his favorites -- hot rods, coups and convertibles. But none compare to his most valuable possession, the Nissan 240SX -- his real car.

Alvin has always loved cars.

“When I was a kid, I didn’t even play with, like, action figures or anything. The only toys I touched were toys that had wheels with them,” he says.


Five years ago, he couldn’t drive his car without the constant fear of getting pulled over, getting his car taken away, or even getting deported. That’s because Alvin is an undocumented Dreamer. He has temporary protection from deportation under President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.

But President Trump has sent mixed signals about Dreamers, and Alvin worries his protection could be taken away.

“Not having Deferred Action is like a roadblock for me to even want to drive a car because I don’t want to get in trouble with the cops,” says Alvin.

A display of Hot Wheels toy cars from Alvin's collection. He says that from a young age, his only toys were ones that had wheels. (Stefanie De Leon Tzic)

His parents brought him to the U.S. from Indonesia when he was 2. The family overstayed their tourist visas.

They wanted to escape the poverty that surrounded them back home. Alvin’s dad also wanted to leave the toxic environment he grew up in. He was physically abused by his parents for most of his life. Alvin says his dad sometimes has flashbacks.

When his parents first arrived, they didn’t know anyone. Just a faraway “friend of a friend” who owned a restaurant in Los Angeles and was also Indonesian.

“We actually lived at the restaurant for about three months. My parents worked at the restaurant during business hours and at night we would go up to the attic and sleep,” recalls Alvin.

For decades, the family lived in the shadows. His parents kept their heads down and worked to put Alvin through school.

Alvin poses in front of his car, a Nissan 240SX. He's dreamed about owning one ever since he was a child. DACA allows him drive his car without the fear of getting pulled over and getting deported. (Stefanie De Leon Tzic)

When Alvin was in high school, he began looking for legal help so the family could try to adjust their immigration status. He says it was hard to find resources for undocumented immigrants who weren’t Latino.

“You go to lawyers and they’re all like, ‘Oh yeah, we have this support system for you and especially we can cater to you if you speak Spanish.’ What about us?”

The attorneys told him there was nothing his family could do. They didn’t have any family members that could petition for their residency. Even if they did, waiting for a visa could take decades. Just like for immigrants from Mexico. But Alvin didn't feel like he could connect with the Latino community.

“It sucked especially because, like, you go through all these struggles, and you can’t really feel like you identify with other folks who also go through that struggle, so you just kind of, like, stay in your own pocket of [the] world,” he says. “It’s like you’re a double minority."

One of many Hot Wheels toy cars from Alvin’s collection sits on his desk at work.
One of many Hot Wheels toy cars from Alvin’s collection sits on his desk at work. (Courtesy of Alvin)

But DACA changed his life.

“To be real, it probably has been the biggest life-changer for me," says Alvin. "It's not just a work permit. It's literally the freedom of being able to go out there and do [things] without being scared to get caught.”

Now in his late 20s, Alvin works as an accountant for a car company and is the sole provider for his family. He says his aging parents have a hard time doing manual labor in restaurants anymore. But he also doesn’t want them to risk a workplace immigration raid now that Trump is in office. DACA protects only him from deportation. Not his parents.

After Trump’s inauguration, he took his parents to a “Know Your Rights" forum to prepare for what to do in case ICE agents show up at their house.

It’s hard for Alvin to imagine what would happen if he and his parents were to get deported. He doesn’t feel like Indonesia is home, and he doesn’t want his dad to go back to the environment where he experienced such trauma.

In the meantime, he finds comfort in car culture.

He hangs out at an auto body shop, tinkering with his car. Most of his buddies there are African-American. When he's around them, he can forget about his immigration woes. Even if it’s just for a moment. Because being undocumented is just one part of who he is.