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‘Practically All My Friends Are Immigrants’

A China-born teen gets her south Chicago neighbors to the polls, and vows to “keep working until I’m reassured that no families are going to be separated.”

Carmen Yang is a Chicago-area teen looking to improve civic engagement in her immigrant community.
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Carmen Yang
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Carmen Yang
March 5, 2014, 4:34 a.m.

Jia Min “Car­men” Yang, 18, ar­rived in Chica­go from China at age 7, speak­ing no Eng­lish. She ques­tioned her place in the United States. El­ev­en years later, that un­cer­tainty has spurred Yang to be­come an im­mig­rant act­iv­ist, em­bra­cing the Amer­ic­an ideal that every per­son can make a dif­fer­ence.

In Decem­ber, Yang lob­bied mem­bers of Con­gress in Wash­ing­ton with oth­er ad­voc­ates for im­mig­ra­tion re­form at events or­gan­ized by We Be­long To­geth­er. She’s also in­volved in Mik­va Chal­lenge, a Chica­go or­gan­iz­a­tion that gets youth in­volved in the polit­ic­al pro­cess. And she vo­lun­teers with her loc­al com­munity cen­ter, the Chinese Amer­ic­an Ser­vice League.

She lives in the south side of Chica­go, in Chin­atown, at­tend­ing Thomas Kelly Pub­lic High School in Brighton Park. At Kelly, Yang is part of a com­munity where 96 per­cent of the 3,200 stu­dents with­in its bound­ar­ies come from low-in­come fam­il­ies and where the stu­dent body is 87 per­cent His­pan­ic, 8 per­cent Asi­an (largely Chinese), 3 per­cent white, and 2 per­cent black. She hopes to at­tend the Uni­versity of Wis­con­sin (Madis­on) or the Uni­versity of Illinois (Urb­ana-Cham­paign) to study pub­lic re­la­tions or pub­lic policy.

This in­ter­view, con­duc­ted by Jody Bran­non, has been ed­ited for length and clar­ity.

I am an im­mig­rant, and emig­rated when I was 7. That was 11 years ago. The im­mig­ra­tion is­sue is very im­port­ant to me and my whole fam­ily. Prac­tic­ally all my friends are im­mig­rants. In the Asi­an-Amer­ic­an cul­ture, we tend to really rely on sib­lings’ [sponsored] ap­plic­a­tions [to come to Amer­ica]. If they take that away, we’ll be sep­ar­ated.

Dur­ing the [We Be­long To­geth­er] Wish for the Hol­i­days cam­paign, I made many friends and heard them give speeches. Listen­ing to them tell their their per­son­al stor­ies about their fam­il­ies be­ing sep­ar­ated breaks my heart. I was es­pe­cially in­spired by the little chil­dren who bravely speak out. Al­though they may be young, they know what’s go­ing on, and they feel the same pain as their par­ents who are taken away from them. Be­ing a part of the live audi­ence al­lowed me to have deep­er em­pathy to­ward these youth. I con­nect to them and feel their pain, and it only made me more pas­sion­ate about this is­sue. It an­gers me to know this is hap­pen­ing, and I really want to help change it.

Over the course of my high school life, I have been very in­volved in my com­munity. I have ded­ic­ated over 800 hours total in at­tempts to be­ne­fit my com­munity and im­prove the neigh­bor­hood. From my fresh­man year to ju­ni­or year, I worked on pro­jects such as the Get Out the Vote cam­paign. This pro­ject helped get more fund­ing and re­sources for the com­munity.

In the Get Out the Vote cam­paign, I vo­lun­teered to im­prove the voter-turnout rate of the com­munity. My com­mit­ment to the cam­paign en­abled me to be­come a vote cap­tain. My job was to train the new vo­lun­teers to can­vass, phone bank, and help out whenev­er needed. At the end of it all, we man­aged to have the highest num­ber of re­gistered voters for three years straight.

At the end of the cam­paign, I was presen­ted with the “Most Ami­able Vote Cap­tain” award.

Work­ing on these pro­jects, I have learned that people have to be de­term­ined and co­oper­ate to­geth­er as one in or­der to make changes. It may take a long time to see the res­ults and get what we de­serve, however, through hand­work and com­mit­ment, those things will come.

I really like work­ing around people, and I think I’m go­ing down the road to­ward com­munity heal­ing and so­cial work.

There are a lot of people — 11 mil­lion in this coun­try — who are un­doc­u­mented, and 5.5 mil­lion of them are kids. Every­one here is fight­ing to­geth­er, and this needs to hap­pen. We’ll con­tin­ue to fight un­til it does. I’ll keep work­ing un­til I’m re­as­sured that no fam­il­ies are go­ing to be sep­ar­ated, no par­ents are go­ing to be sent back — and we can go to school without fear that someone will be gone when we get home.

Justice will end all of that.


Are you part of the demo­graph­ic that is the Next Amer­ica fol­lows? Are you a cata­lyst who fosters change for the next gen­er­a­tion? Or do you know someone who is? The Next Amer­ica wel­comes first-per­son per­spect­ives from act­iv­ists, thought lead­ers and people rep­res­ent­at­ive of a di­verse na­tion. Email us. And please fol­low us on Twit­ter and face­­tAmer­ica.

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