Korean Media, Community Come Through for Undocumented

Los Angeles -- With four kids, one of whom is autistic, an ailing husband in need of constant medication, and no papers to speak of, Sue Kim is in dire straits. A native of South Korea, she came with her family to Los Angeles seven years ago hoping, like a multitude of others, for something better.

Kim’s plight eventually drove her to reach out to the Korea Daily, which ran a profile of her last month. Within minutes, the paper’s website was bombarded with messages both supportive and inquisitive. “If things are so bad, why not return to Korea,” asks one. “At least there your family can receive free medical care.”

Unlike the United States, South Korea does in fact offer universal health care. But while the country is a long way off from the hard and scrabble days of a generation ago, for Kim returning is out of the question. “If I go back to Korea, there is no way my daughter will receive the kind of help that she needs,” she added, referring to her daughter, Mir, who has a form of autism known as Asperger’s Syndrome.

South Korea is one of the world’s more robust economies, ranking at or near the top ten globally. Still, while citizens there enjoy a quality of life comparable to American standards, awareness of and services for individuals with disabilities remains woefully low in comparison to other developed nations.

Mir, 11, currently attends a special school in Los Angeles where Kim says she can receive the attention she needs. Asperger’s patients often have difficulty socializing, including repetitive behavior patterns and periodic trouble with language. Kim says that with the help of her teachers, Mir should one day be able to attend normal school.

That is if her mother manages to hang on.

Kim’s husband (who asked that his name be withheld) is an alumni of the University of California Los Angeles. After graduating with a BA in economics, he returned to Korea, where he was rejected for compulsory military service due to his poor health. The couple moved to the United States in 2003, not long after the collapse of Korea’s economy in the wake of the Asia-wide financial crisis, entering the country on tourist visas and settling with his divorced mother in the Los Angeles area.

“My mother-in-law, who is a citizen, sponsored us when we first got here,” recalls Kim, adding that after their application for residency fell through “we became illegal.”

Kim began working full time a couple of years ago, after her husband was diagnosed with restless leg syndrome, a neurological disorder that in extreme cases can cause severe pain. He also suffers from type 2 diabetes – the two illnesses not only prevent him from working, but also add to the family’s daily expenses, primarily because of a need to fill numerous prescriptions.

Kim’s two eldest children, 11 and 9, were born in South Korea, while the younger two, 7 and 5, were born in the United States and are therefore entitled to the benefits enjoyed by all citizens. She says that while she does receive about $300 a month in food stamps, the amount is well below what she needs to keep her family healthy.

“I was managing to get by,” says Kim, “until I got into a car accident.” That’s when she lost her job as a Web programmer at a small company that sells products to larger retailers like Amazon and E-Bay. “I broke my hand, had pins put in my fingers, and couldn’t work anymore.” Kim originally got the job by applying under a false name.

Three months behind on rent, Kim continues to try and keep her household together, in spite of the mounting pressures. “I cook, clean, make sure the kids are keeping up with their studies,” says Kim.

Sang Jin Park is pastor for the Los Angeles-based Christ Vision Church, which caters to a small congregation of mostly Korean immigrants. After reading her story, Park says he agreed to help out by covering Kim’s rent for the next six months. “Helping people who can’t help themselves is what God taught us,” he says.

That is also the mission of Happy Village, a community-based organization that seeks to connect those in need with agencies and individuals willing to help. “Last month we raised over $5000 in donations for Sue Kim,” says Star Jeong, who runs Happy Village’s LA office. “This month we’ve managed to raise about $3000,” she adds.

While the money comes as an enormous boon, Kim says the real challenge lies in shifting the national debate surrounding the undocumented. "I was extremely relieved with the passage of the Dream Act," she said, referring to a California law allowing greater access to funding for undocumented students in college. "Now my kids have a future here."