By Tony Choi July 16, 2018

“Tony, why don’t you drive?”

I used to be terrified of that question.

Growing up in suburban New Jersey, driving whatever dinky car that your parents had your senior year was a rite of passage. Our lives centered around hanging out with kids from other schools at Garden State Plaza and loitering in diners, grazing on disco fries (New Jersey’s take on poutine). But in order for you to do all of that, you needed a car.

I had a deep, dark secret that I couldn’t tell anybody: I didn’t have a Social Security Number. Why? I was undocumented. Although things may soon change, not having a Social Security Number meant that you were shut out from obtaining a Driver’s License. Driving without a license was — and still is — a fast track to deportation, to saying goodbye to my home of two decades, my friends and a community that I was an integral part of.

So when people asked me that dreaded question, I had to come up with excuses about why I didn’t drive. After all, any one of them could report me to ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement). Out of many ludicrous answers, one genuine argument actually stuck out: “I don’t want to burn fossil fuel and contribute to global warming.”

Little did I know, that deflection would set me on the path to becoming who I am today.

After high school, as an undocumented student in New Jersey, I was ineligible for in-state tuition even though I had called the Garden State my home for more than a decade. And because I didn’t have a license, I needed public transportation to get to college, which ruled out schools in New Jersey. So I enrolled in Borough of Manhattan Community College across the river in New York City.

For the record, I was the only member of my graduating class to attend college by public transit, but I learned how to navigate the system like an expert. I memorized my bus schedule as if it were ingrained in my DNA. My body instinctively knew to wake up from my subway naps. To this day, I have only overslept by one stop on the subway.

For many members of the immigrant community, we’ve adapted in an ecologically friendly way — not necessarily because we actively thought to go green, but because these little things that helped us survive also have helped us become sustainable heroes.

In our household, we’ve instituted sustainable practices, not as a matter of interest, but a matter of making our hard-earned dollar stretch to the very end. To get to the very last bit of the shampoo from the bottle, we’d dilute it down with water. To get to the very last bit of toothpaste in the tube, we made sure to cut it open in half and scrape the insides.

Hand-me-down items of clothing crossed gender lines like we crossed the border. Biscuit tins lived a life everlasting in our household as sewing kits and cable storage. In place of heating, we had layers upon layers. And blankets — so many blankets. Everything was mended, repaired and patched up to the bitter end.

Even though my family has “made it,” we still maintain the values that we’ve learned from our days when a shopping spree was spending 20 dollars at a thrift store. To this day, even though we can afford to throw away near-empty toothpaste tubes, I still take out the old pair of scissors so that we get to the end. In wintertime, we now bundle ourselves up with nicer blankets and thermal socks — but we still bundle up.

This June, we celebrated Immigrant Heritage Month while the entire nation became a witness to how immigrant and refugee families are treated in our southern border. As in our animal kingdom, migration is not only beautiful, but natural. And with us, we bring our values.

While politicians may go on and on about our economic value, how about considering the values that we bring to our communities? What if more people took public transit and biked to work? What if more Americans gave their clothes a new life by mending them? What if America not only welcomed immigrants, but embraced our values as well?

Regardless of where our roots are, we form one tree, giving life to the great forest we call Earth.

Tony Choi

Photo credit: James Emmerdale