Episode 8: Ivy Teng Lei | Chasing the DREAM

Updated: Mar 3, 2019


"I think the only thing I can carry with me is that if I do get that knock on the door and when I do have to leave this country, I have told this country who I am and what I represent and I've done everything I can."



Below is the audio transcript for Episode 8, lightly edited for clarity.

For those of you who have been with us from the beginning, you might remember that we began this season by talking to our parents - 1st generation immigrants  - about their hopes and dreams and expectations when they first moved to this country over 25 years ago.


Well, today’s immigration narrative has taken a bit of a turn. There’s no shortage of headlines about family separation at the borders, the uncertain state of DACA, and the building of that wall. It’s at the center of our political discourse and a cornerstone of President Trump’s agenda.


Often headlines are just headlines...that is - until your own livelihood, or that of those closest to you, is threatened. The stories of the real people actually affected by these policies often lie under the radar.


Today, we shine light on one of those stories with a real trailblazer and hero, Ivy Teng Lei (pictured at far right above). She’s one of 11 million undocumented immigrants and also a DREAMer, the term used to describe undocumented immigrants who enter the U.S. before the age of 18.


In recent years, she’s become a voice, specifically for the Asian American undocumented community, and used her story to shine light on a group that often seems neglected even by our own AAPI groups and organizations.

Ivy recently went on WNYC to discuss the state of undocumented immigrants in NYC in a post-Trump world.

In this episode, we speak with Ivy about:

  • What growing up in the US as an undocumented immigrant has been like,

  • How it’s affected her path and psyche,

  • Why she so openly shares her story despite the potential repercussions,

  • What the future may hold for her, other DACA recipients, and DREAMers, and

  • How Asian Americans can help

*A word of warning: this episode does get political.



The Moment of Realization


Ivy: My name is Ivy Teng Lei. I am a marketer by trade and I like to call myself an advocate by night.


Lynne: Over the last 6 months, Ivy and I met up over three separate sessions. It seemed like each time we met there was some new development with DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program. It’s the executive order issued by former President Obama in 2012 to give DREAMers like Ivy temporary reprieve from deportation as well as basic liberties like health insurance and a social security # to secure work permits.


Ivy: Today is August 18 and we’ve been expecting bad news from the Texas Attorney General who might cause even renewals to be denied…

Ivy appears on NY1 to discuss the consequences of Trump's decision to revoke DACA

Lynne: When DACA was revoked by the Trump administration in September 2017, Ivy and other DACA recipients were left in a limbo, scrambling to find out what this meant for their future.


Ivy: Since September of last year we haven’t been able to have new applicants submit and those who have already submitted are living in this world of absolute darkness. We don’t know if any day the status could be gone.


Lynne: Ivy is no stranger to this uncertainty. In some ways, it’s really just a continuation of the whirlwind journey she’s been on since she came to America over 20 years ago. Ivy was born in Macau, an island off the Southern coast of China. When she was 7, she was told she was going on a trip to Disney.


My mother had told me that if anyone asks why I was not going to school anymore that it's because I'm going to Disneyland. And so seven-year-old me thinks I'm the coolest kid in class. I'm going to Disneyland to meet Mickey and Minnie.


Lynne: Instead, Ivy found herself in New York City, specifically in Chinatown.


Ivy: Once we landed I very quickly enrolled in school and didn’t even think about the Disneyland intention.


When we first arrived in Chinatown, our first apartment was a sixth-floor walk-up on Broome Street. We shared the apartment with two other families. It was about 11 to 12 people in a three-room apartment with one bathroom. With that many people in the apartment, cooking dinner and arranging bath time and shower time a real logistical process, but we made it work.


Lynne: Though it was a humble upbringing, Ivy was generally a happy go-lucky child. After 9/11, the garment factory where her mom worked shut down. Some days the family of five would live off a diet of congee and tofu. But for Ivy the lack of material pleasure was nothing compared to what she would eventually discover about the limitations of being undocumented in America.


Ivy: I guess it was junior or sophomore year when my friends were starting to apply to college and we were thinking about options. I realized then that without having a SS number, I was ineligible for a lot of the programs and scholarships that would put me through college.


Lynne: Ivy still applied to numerous scholarship programs, hoping that something would work out. But every single scholarship she was accepted to asked for the inevitable - a social security number - which she didn’t have.


I would just look at the beautiful college pamphlets and immediately flip to the back about eligibility and see, “must be a permanent resident or US citizen". Everything else on that page would then just kind of blur away.


Ivy: The moment that bullet point shows up, I just knew that I wouldn’t be a candidate for that type of financial aid.


Lynne: One morning, Ivy received a call with what started as hopeful news. The man on the line told her she didn’t receive the scholarship she applied for but there was another potential opportunity.


Ivy: He said, "I have this other scholarship available and you're totally qualified for it. Oh and it's also a full ride." So I said, "I'll take it."


Then he asked me for my social security number and I told him I don't have one. He said, "Well, I noticed that you didn't fill it on the form. Did you just miss it?"


I said, "No, I don't have one. Can you check if someone who doesn't have a social security number can apply for it?"


He puts me on hold. And it was the longest hold of my life.


He gets back and he says, "Sorry you need to have a social security number."


So I very politely said, Thank you. And he's like, why don't you go look for it? Maybe like you just lost it or something. Like ask your mom for it.


I said, thanks, and then hung up, slammed my face into a pillow, and ugly cried into it for a good couple minutes. I let myself do that and immediately I was like, Okay, what do I do from here?


At that point I realized that it didn’t matter if I worked hard, it didn’t matter if I had the perfect grades or leadership skills. The fact was I had this deficiency that would affect me the rest of my life and I had to face that head on.


That was the first moment when I felt and understood what it meant. It was almost as if I was going in the same lane as my peers and when that moment hit, I realized that I had extra weight on my wheels. It didn’t matter how quickly I paddled. The purpose of that weight was to hold me from progressing.

Learning How to Tell Her Story


Lynne: Since Ivy wasn’t eligible for financial assistance, she ended up staying in-state, attending Baruch College and working an assortment of part-time jobs to pay for tuition.


Still, as she began to consider her career options, there were clear barriers. The lack of a social security number continued to haunt her. As an actuary science major, she wasn’t able to fulfill the internship requirement for graduation (since most internships require a SS #). With the realization that certain careers were out of her reach, she immersed herself in other things: extracurriculars, student leadership positions, fields that relied less heavily on internships. She switched her major to Communications, which honed her ability to speak up and articulate an idea.


In her junior year of college, Ivy came across a program called the New York Immigration Coalition Dream Fellowship that was specifically for DREAMers like her enrolled in the CUNY system.


(For those who aren’t familiar, CUNY stands for the City University of New York and it’s the public university system of New York City. It’s also the largest urban university system in the United States. )


Ivy: I applied really because I needed the money to get through college. When I got the email, I applied and 'til this day, I attribute so much of what I do, what I stand for, and how well I’ve been able to do it to that leadership program


Lynne: The fellowship offered leadership, personal development, and immigration advocacy training. More importantly, it was the first time that Ivy was really able to process her immigration status and tell her story.


Ivy: For the first time I met people who were just like me, who felt the same struggle, hopelessness, and helplessness of being undocumented in a group of friends who know nothing about the immigration landscape in our country.


We all as a group learned how to use our story to be the driving force of this movement.


Lynne: In 2013, Congress was in the midst of passing a comprehensive immigration reform bill. DREAMers had the unique opportunity to share their stories and to yield direct impact on legislation.


Ivy shared her story publicly for the first time at a town hall at LaGuardia Community College in Queens.


Ivy: I still remember exactly what I was wearing that day and how hot it felt standing in the spotlight and how much I tried to read very closely to my script that I had prepared the evening before.


Lynne: The World Journal and several other Chinese media publications were at the town hall and interviewed her after the speech.


Ivy: I wasn't sure what questions I'd be asked. More importantly it didn't really hit me until the reporter asked, "What's your name?" which is a very simple question. And then I realized, "Oh, I have to give you my name..." and I gave them my Chinese name. It was a Chinese reporter. And I was like wow, this is the beginning of it.


Lynne: The Guardian, NPR, New York Magazine and several other major outlets went on to feature Ivy’s story, casting her into the spotlight as a spokesperson for the movement, particularly one for the Asian American undocumented community.


While mainstream media often paints the picture of an undocumented as a Mexican who crosses the border illegally, the reality of the undocumented landscape is far more nuanced. Many undocumented immigrants don’t actually cross the border, most arrive by plane.


And while it’s true that the majority of applicants to the DACA program are from Mexico and other predominantly Latin countries, the Asian undocumented population is far from negligible.


Ivy: When there is less conversation around a specific sector of undocumented immigrants, their needs are not addressed. So, unlike the Latinx Community, we as Asian Americans often face cultural barriers that we are told not to speak about.


Lynne: According to policy research group AAPI Data, one out of every 7 Asian American immigrants is undocumented. What’s more, within the last 15-years, this number has tripled, making Asian Americans the fasting growing undocumented group in the country.   


Ivy: There is discrimination within the Asian American community when you're undocumented. We don't talk about it. We don't find ways to navigate around it because when you don't talk about it, then you have no support system. You have no help. You don't know what the resources are.


Lynne: The day after Trump won the 2016 national election, Ivy was invited to speak on BBC and unbeknownst to her, she was pitted against a Trump supporter on air. On live television, she was grilled on whether she was even allowed to work in the US, and why she couldn’t simply apply for citizenship.


I think that was the moment my life took a turning point. I started thinking about where all my valuable things were if I were to get a knock on a door tomorrow.


Ivy: What would I want my family to mail back to me if I were to get deported?


Lynne: You might be wondering, why would Ivy be deported if she had a work permit through DACA? And why can’t she simply apply for citizenship?


Ivy: DACA is not an immigration status. It literally stands for deferred action for childhood arrival, meaning you can stay here and work and we will protect you from being deported but your protection is contingent on a two year renewal pending, that is if it’s still an actual valid executive order at that time.


Lynne: Basically, a grant of deferred action through DACA is merely temporary. It does not provide a path to lawful permanent resident status or U.S. citizenship. And because DACA recipients have submitted their information to the government - essentially outing themselves as undocumented, there’s a legitimate fear among many that they could get a knock on the door from ICE, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, any day.


It’s already happening: immigration court records show that the number of new deportation cases in New York City grew to an all-time high in 2018 with nearly 20,000 cases.


And guess which group had the most number of immigration court proceedings? Chinese immigrants.


My own story is such a small part of a bigger humanitarian issue that we are all responsible for, regardless of what your status is.


Lynne: By sharing her story, Ivy’s put her own life on the line. She’s received death threats and hate mail from people telling her to go home. I asked her why she goes to such lengths to speak on behalf of the community.


Ivy: I didn't have a choice not to.  I was going to go crazy if I didn't have a way to control my destiny somehow. And in many ways being an advocate for myself and those in my situation is very therapeutic because the flip side of that is that I have zero control or say or influence in the destiny of the rest of my life.


Lynne: As it stands today, DACA protections remain in place for existing DACA recipients despite Trump’s attempt to rescind them. However, no new applications will be accepted. In late January, the Supreme Court chose not to hear the Trump administration’s request to review the program, so the earliest any decision will be made about the future of DACA will be in 2020.


In the meantime, Ivy and many other DREAMers wait for a long-term legislative solution.


Ivy: I’ve continued to tell my story through different mediums, whether through lobbying or reporters or through podcasts. I just hope that one of these moments someone who’s listening will also decide to do something about it. We can’t win without an army.

A Political Call to Action


Lynne: Last summer, with family separations at the border reaching an all-time high, Ivy organized a fundraiser at a popular ice cream parlor in Chinatown to raise money for the New York State Immigration Action Fund, a non-profit that stands up for immigrant communities.


As a 501(c)4, the New York Immigration Action Fund can endorse and stand with a political candidate (unlike a 501(c)3 which cannot use money for political causes). Ultimately, Ivy believes that in order to make real change, you have to get political.


Ivy: Politics is personal. You can’t get away from it. Everything else you complained about in your life, whether it’s the garbage in your streets, how many cars run through your neighborhood, quality of air - everything is political.


Lynne: She urges those who can to vote and connect with their local elected officials.


Ivy: Vote for the one who aligns with the world that you want to live in. Once they get into office, never stop calling them. Call them about anything that you feel like you want to see in your community.


Brothers and sisters you are the American dream and you get to define it so if not now then when and be the change you wish to see in the world and go HAM.

What’s Next


Lynne: In the last few months, Ivy started a new job. She’s also newly engaged to her fiancee, who is a U.S. born citizen. She’s well-aware that these personal changes will place her in a very different position on the immigration spectrum.


Ivy: I think I’ve struggled with realigning my identity as a DREAMer now that I am engaged to a U.S. Citizen who through legal means can sponsor me to become a green card holder and that has been quite a bit of a new factor.


Lynne: Ivy’s leading a workshop for this year’s group of NYIC DREAMer fellows, the same program that changed her life back in 2013. And she’ll be in DC and Albany lobbying for DREAMer legislation throughout the year.


Ivy: I absolutely want to continue doing my work around immigrant advocacy, education, justice and all those things that are near and dear to my heart. My new concern is whether or not I can do it genuinely and represent the communities I’ve been representing in an authentic way.


If I do not experience the same fear, do I then have the same power or experience to speak authentically and advocate for the community? I think the answer is, I absolutely do because it doesn't erase my undocumented experiences.  


Lynne: In many ways, it doesn’t seem like Ivy’s fully processed that she’ll be a legal resident of the States soon, a resident with certain unalienable rights.


Ivy: I still live in fear the fear of having false hope like because the reality is sure, I am now engaged and I'm going to be on a path to legal residency. But the line is still extremely long.


My sister has said to me,

"Maybe you've been undocumented for so long that you don't know how to be documented."

It's this muscle memory that comes with being scared at the airport and being scared to approach a police officer if something happens, or demanding what is rightfully mine and all those things that come with living in the shadows and being fearful of authority.


I don't know if I'll ever get out of this this mode.  Even with a plastic card that now legitimizes quote on quote my presence in this country.


Lynne: We often talk about privilege among racial or socioeconomic lines, but Ivy takes this definition to a whole new level. Her story is a personal reminder to check our assumptions, recognize the inherent privilege we each have, and then use it to speak up for what we believe in.


The wall will be broken down eventually.  But it's not because bang my head against it so many times; it's because for whatever reason I'm given this magical power to transcend through the wall, but I don’t know where that power came from and I never asked for it.


But now my fiancee's going to hold my hand and we can walk through that wall together now. And then I'm going to look behind and be like, I don't belong here. I'm supposed to be on that side of the wall.

How You Can Help


Surveys show that a majority of Americans favor giving DREAMers a path to some sort of legal status. Yet the AAPI community has traditionally turned a blind eye towards immigration policy. We hope Ivy’s story has revealed a more human element of the undocumented story, beyond the headlines.


Huge thanks to Ivy for sharing so openly about what it’s like to live under the constant fear of deportation. For many undocumented immigrants, this is sadly the norm.


Here are relevant links to immigration resources if you want to learn more or get involved:

You can listen to this episode on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Rock The Boat is a podcast elevating the stories of Asian leaders, founders, and pioneers in their fields. Through candid and thoughtful conversation, the host Lucia Liu uncover stories of their upbringing, Asian identity, and the movements they've built. 

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