LOS ANGELES -- Dean Santos arrived in the U.S. from the Philippines when he was 12 and quickly took to American culture. In his teenage years in San Bruno, he played sword and fantasy card games with other kids, watched "South Park" and joined the high school wrestling team.
When he got to college, he became a member of the student government. By the time he was 20, he had begun to help organize young people in the country illegally.
"I taught them how to do lobby visits, how to set up meetings with elected officials, how to tell our stories to make ourselves heard," Santos said.
For Santos, who is now 29, it was personal: He has been in the U.S. without legal status since shortly after he arrived as a boy.
In the constellation of activism for those in the country illegally, Santos is in a decided minority -- an Asian immigrant fully open about his tenuous status in the United States. As the Supreme Court weighs the future of "Dreamers" and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, he said he thinks more Asian and Pacific Islanders need to come out of the shadows. And he points to the advocacy among immigrants in other groups, particularly those from Mexico and Central America.
"They organize and show they have a stake in society, setting an example that others can follow," he added.
It is no easy ask among a group of immigrants where a number of factors -- from shame to political affiliation -- make openness about being in the country illegally especially complicated.
Experts say Asian and Pacific Islander recipients of DACA are often overlooked despite there being over 1.7 million undocumented members of this group in the country, according to May Sudhinaraset, assistant professor in community health sciences in the School of Public Health at UCLA. So-called APIs are the fastest-growing immigrant population in the nation, and in California, represent one out of five immigrants without legal papers.
"Many are even unaware that APIs can also be undocumented," Sudhinaraset said.
She said research shows that among Asian and Pacific Islanders, there's little benefit from being open about one's undocumented status -- but a high chance of being exploited or looked down on.