Tereza Lee, An Original DREAMer

September 17, 2012

Lee speaking at the KRCC DREAM scholarship ceremony in Chicago on July 25,
Photo credit:
Author’s own.

On a blazing afternoon in
July, the Korean American Resource & Cultural Center (KRCC)
in Chicago celebrated the presentation of
DREAM scholarships to local Asian American student leaders (full disclosure:
the author was a member of the selection committee). These scholarships were
awarded in conjunction with the National Korean American Service &
Education Consortium (NAKASEC) and its affiliates, who
subsidized the awards through community donations and the avid fundraising
efforts of Asian American youth groups.

The excitement at the KRCC
awards ceremony was especially palpable, following closely on the heels of the
Obama administration’s historic June announcement that deportations of
undocumented youth would immediately be halted, and that qualified DREAMers
would be able to apply for two-year work permits (for recent Hyphen posts on
deferred action, see here, here, and here).

But as President Obama
himself emphasized, the reprieve is only “a
temporary stop gap measure.” Thus, in an emotional speech at the KRCC event, guest
speaker Tereza Lee repeatedly drew attention to the inadequacies of deferred
action. “The fight isn’t over until the federal DREAM Act is passed,” Lee

While many may be
aware of the DREAM Act’s legislative origins back in 2001, fewer are familiar
with Tereza Lee, who was one of the earliest inspirations for the Act. Her official
reads like an Asian American immigrant
dream come true: the daughter of South Korean natives, Lee was born in
São Paulo, Brazil and emigrated with her family to Chicago at age two. A classical piano prodigy, Lee honed
her skills on a piano donated by a member of her father’s church. At age
16, Lee was awarded a scholarship to Chicago’s Merit School of Music; a year
later, she won first prize in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Youth Concerto
Competition and was a featured soloist with the CSO. Since graduating
from college, Lee has become a US citizen, made her debut at Carnegie Hall, and
is now pursuing her doctorate at the Manhattan School of Music.

But this dazzling
narrative, while true, obscures the darker tragedies of Lee’s life. Part
of the massive post-Korean War immigration wave to the Americas, her parents
began a small clothing business in Brazil, but lost everything to identity
theft. Lee’s mother was forced to sell her wedding ring to buy visas and
plane tickets for the family’s move to the States. Settling down in the
diverse, working-class Albany Park neighborhood in northwest Chicago, Lee and
her family tried to start over once again. Lee recalled a spartan
existence in their basement apartment on Drake Avenue -- lacking beds, she
huddled with her brothers in a hammock, gritting their teeth through the brutal
winters without heat or hot water. During this period, Lee’s mother took
a job as a dry cleaner while her father attended a theological school in
Chicago. His plan was to change his immigrant status to that of a
religious worker, but he was unable to gather the minimum number of members to
start a congregation. Before long, his status -- and those of the rest of his
family -- quietly elapsed.

For Lee, the signs
started in seventh grade. A stellar student, she was urged by her teachers
to skip eighth grade. To her surprise, her father was reluctant to fill
out the paperwork that would allow her to do so. Then, a distracted
driver on her cell phone collided into Lee’s brother on the street. While the
impact didn’t kill him, it kept him in the hospital with life-threatening
injuries. Despite this, their father refused to file a police report
against the driver. Over the next few years, the family nearly went
bankrupt trying to pay hospital bills.

Once Lee realized
that she was undocumented, she decided -- in an act of wild hope and desperation
-- that she would save her family from deportation by becoming an accomplished
pianist. “It was the only chance I had,” she told the audience softly.

As far-fetched as it
might have seemed at the time, however, it was indeed Lee’s musical career that
helped galvanize the DREAM Act. When her instructors at the Merit School
of Music began prodding her to look at colleges, Lee finally admitted that she
was undocumented. Fired up by the revelation and by her pupil’s enormous
talent, Lee’s mentor Ann Monaco, the Merit’s Artistic Director, contacted
Senator Dick Durbin to tell him Lee’s story and ask if there was any legal
remedy. Immediately, Senator Durbin and other legislators began to
develop what would become the DREAM Act. As more and more stories of
undocumented students came to light, Durbin realized the urgency of the Act
and, together with Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, introduced the bill to the Senate
on August 1, 2001.

The Senate hearing of
the DREAM Act was scheduled for September 12, 2001. Lee and several others were
eagerly waiting to board the plane to Washington, DC, on September 11 to
present their stories and make their case for the bill before the Senate.

Then, 9/11 happened.

All flights were
immediately cancelled, the Senate hearing indefinitely postponed. And, as
everyone knows, the plight of “illegals” was quickly reshuffled to the bottom
of the nation’s priorities for the next decade.

Nevertheless, Lee
insisted, things have definitely changed for the better. While she was in
college, the DREAMer movement was nonexistent. She felt ashamed and alienated,
plagued by nightmares of authorities bursting through the doors. Then,
more personal tragedy struck: in 2002, less than a year after the DREAM
Act died on the Senate floor, Lee’s beloved mentor, Ann Monaco, was killed by a
drunk driver while jogging. Remembering this, Lee suddenly fell
silent, tears filling her eyes. In the depths of her grief, Lee considered
deporting herself to Brazil. “I was depressed, even suicidal,” she said.

But the loneliness of
her own experience strengthened Lee’s resolve to share her story and urge
others to come out of the shadows. Now, eleven years after the DREAM Act
was first proposed in the Senate, the DREAMer movement has achieved national
visibility and support. In an address to the Center for American Progress this
summer, Senator Durbin expressed
his full confidence that “some day, in the not-too-distant future, the DREAM
Act is going to be the law of the land.” The most important test, as Lee
reminded the KRCC audience, is coming up this November.

Of course, if the
DREAM Act finally passes, the spotlight on DREAMers will be harsher and more
critical than ever before. Addressing this in
a recent interview
, Lee encouraged her fellow DREAMers
to persevere. “Stay positive,” she urged. “Being caught between the cracks of the immigration system for years can be
enormously frustrating and debilitating…[but] when we bring our message to the
public, anger won’t work. We need to focus on the benefits that America
will receive from allowing all of these talented people to contribute, and
then, once the DREAM Act passes, go out and prove it!”


Lee will be in Chicago on October 12 to receive the Standing Up for Justice
Award at the 17th annual KRCC fundraiser.