SAN FRANCISCO -- When organizers placed Ju Hong in a prominent position flanking President Barack Obama on Monday, they probably did not realize they were handing a high-profile lectern to one of the Bay Area's gutsiest immigration reform activists.

Emboldened by a growing immigrant youth movement and irritated by years of fruitless political talk, Hong has never been one to sit as a smiling backdrop.

So it surprised many in the nation, but not his friends, when the 24-year-old in a sharp gray blazer loudly criticized the president's inaction, forcing Obama to crane his head and defend himself.

The scene-making protest was not Hong's first, but certainly his brashest, since the South Korean immigrant emerged as a student activist at Laney College and later UC Berkeley.

Ju Hong, 24, of South Korea, interrupts President Barack Obama during the president’s speech on immigration reform at the Betty Ann Ong Chinese
Ju Hong, 24, of South Korea, interrupts President Barack Obama during the president's speech on immigration reform at the Betty Ann Ong Chinese Recreation Center in San Francisco on Nov. 25, 2013. (Jim Gensheimer/Staff)

Invited to the Chinatown speech as a member of the "Dreamer" movement of young people brought to the country illegally as children, Hong said he "was there just to listen" but ended up being asked by a friend to stand in a group behind Obama. He grew annoyed as he heard the president blaming Congress for stalling immigration reform.

"Usually we're supposed to be props," Hong said. "I was shaking a little bit, but thinking about me and my family and my community and my friends, the pain they have suffered under the Obama administration ... it really sparked a buildup of my anger, it made me speak out."


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Flown to the United States by his mother when he was 11, Hong adjusted quickly to American life. He played basketball, ran cross country and earned high grades at Alameda High School, but never knew about his family's immigration status until he was preparing for college. The more he learned about immigration policy, the more he grew frustrated by the politics surrounding it.

Even as the youth movement of which he was a part elicited growing sympathy, Hong grew concerned that others -- such as his mother and sister -- would be left behind.

"Looking at my mother, sacrificing her time and energy just to support my education, it was heartbreaking for me. I became a little bit angry. I couldn't wait for politicians to just talk," Hong told this newspaper three years ago.

Hong was one of six protesters arrested in August for interrupting the UC Board of Regents as it approved former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano as the new UC president. Hong's message there was similar. He derided Napolitano as the chief enforcer of policies that have deported nearly 2 million people during the Obama presidency.

And in 2011, Hong was jailed and risked deportation when he and other activists blocked a street in San Bernardino during an immigration rally protesting the partnerships between local police and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Like many Asian immigrants in the country illegally, Hong and his mother and sister all entered the country on tourist visas that expired soon after they arrived. Hong, however, now has a work permit, driver's license and cannot be deported because of the Obama administration's order last year granting a reprieve to young immigrants like him. He is now pursing a master's in public administration at San Francisco State. His sister and mother remain at risk.

"Ju is considered one of the leaders, one of the promising young leaders ... of the undocumented community in general," said activist and journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, who revealed his own illegal immigration status in The New York Times Magazine in 2011.

"If I had been there, I may have just done the same thing," Vargas said. "Two million people (deported), for many people that's an abstract number. For us, this is a reality."