Young Fil-Am shares life as undocumented immigrant on TedTalks

Sherina Ong
Young Fil-Am Akiko Aspillaga shares her life story as a young undocumented immigrant. 'Imagine missing home, but never knowing when you can ever return.'

FORBIDDEN POSSIBILITIES. Akiko Aspillaga graduates from San Francisco State University in 2013. She advocates for the rights of undocumented Asian and Pacific Islanders. Photo from Aspillaga's Facebook account

The following story was produced by NextDayBetter. Rappler’s#BalikBayan is publishing this story as part of a series on US immigration reform.

MANILA, Philippines – “I was roughly 14 when I found out the petition to adjust my immigration status didn’t go through,” said Akiko Aspillaga at her TEDx talk in November 2013, in San Francisco. Because of the lack of resources and false information, she was a kid who was “out of status.” Meaning she was staying in the United States illegally. 

Aspillaga is a 20-something graduate of San Francisco State University and a community organizer with ASPIRE, the first youth-led, undocumented Asian Pacific Islander organization.  

“When I found out I was undocumented, it didn’t really sink in until I was of age to drive, work and travel – the 3 things I envied about being an adult,” Aspillaga said. 

“But instead, imagine right after your 16th birthday – despite proving how responsible you are – you don’t get that dream car or driver’s license because you aren’t legally allowed to,” an emotional Aspillaga told her audience. “You’ve been job hunting for 6 months, you’re more than qualified for the jobs you’ve been applying for, but you just can’t seem to get a break. Imagine missing home, but never knowing when you can ever return.”

On July 2 (July 3 in Manila), Aspillaga will join Rappler, Jose Antonio Vargas, and other panelists via Google Hangout to talk about the US immigration debate. She shares more of her life with Rappler and NextDayBetter below. 

You mentioned in your TEDx Talk that as a kid you had dreams about being able to drive, work, and travel. What are your new dreams? And how does your status affect them?

It’s hard for me to have a 5-year or 10-year plan because I always have to live day by day. I don’t know what’s going to happen. My new dream is to help people as much as I can through public health nursing and health policy. In high school, I wanted to be a diplomat and was actually going to be sent to Malta as a California representative. After I kept pushing my mom, asking her why she wouldn’t let me go, she finally told me that our papers weren’t finished. So I had to change my track, and now I’m doing more political work. I had to reframe my childhood dreams, but I realized if it’s something that I can’t do internationally, there’s always something to do within the community. 

What different reactions have you gotten from revealing yourself as undocumented?

I’ve been lucky that a lot of my friends have been actually really supportive. They say, “Wow, I didn’t know you were going through all that because you were always laughing.” They now understand the things I was going through back then. People have been telling me how strong I am for coming out. But at the same time, I don’t think my strength is the reason I came out. Actually it’s my weakness that’s the reason. It’s really tiring not to be honest with people and I really want to be.

How do you react to hatred?

When I’m faced with stereotypes or hegemonic ideas that aren’t true, I’m able to face them now with my own truth, and it’s the strongest tool that I can have. I wish that before I could have told them my own stories and faced them with compassion. Because I understand where false ideas come from, and hate comes from one’s own experiences as well. If we face them with the same kind of hate then I don’t think we’ll go anywhere. With that type of cynicism, the only thing I can respond with is kindness. 

You said that seeing other people like you speak up about their story inspired you to act, “because I didn’t think young undocumented people could do that!” What other things have you done now that you didn’t think you could do before?

I didn’t think people would actually listen to my voice because I’m this young woman of color, you know? I didn’t think my voice had power. I didn’t think I would be able to talk to politicians and have them listen to my story. I didn’t ever think I would ever be at a protest or a rally. I really didn’t think it would matter or that it would have such a big impact. It was really powerful that we as an undocumented community could stop deportations. It’s incredible to know people who are not just settling and are moving justice along. 

Have you seen any shift in attitudes toward the undocumented since you first started organizing with ASPIRE?

Yeah, definitely. Before I would always hear the words “illegal alien.” Because of the movement those words are not as popular anymore. We’ve seen a shift now in how people see undocumented immigrants because of the stories being shared. And they see us more as just regular people who are trying to hustle and just trying to live. Folks are realizing that these unfair systems are hard to navigate, especially for people of color with language barriers. We’re all just trying to live.

How do you turn your struggle, pain, and fear into the courage to speak out?

It came from a lot of people. Most especially from my undocumented brothers and sisters in ASPIRE, and seeing them out there without glasses or a hat or a pseudonym. It really inspired me and showed me how, although our struggle is a weakness, it can also be a strength. Our stories can be used as a tool for people to understand. Getting to that point was really difficult, I had to go through a lot of self-reflection. For me, I was desperate for some sort of solution and my way of fighting was to tell the truth. I’m still very much scared but hiding will result in nothing. When I finally reached out, I realized there was a magnitude of kindness out there that I didn’t think existed. – 

NextDayBetter is a New York-based organization that ‘highlights inspiring changemakers, creatives and entrepreneurs from the diaspora focusing on creating a better future.’

A Rappler Hangout with immigration activist and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas produced in collaboration with NextDayBetter and Guerrero Yee LLP will happen next Thursday, July 3 Manila time (July 2 in New York). Full details here.