A Chinaman's Chance (14 page)

BOOK: A Chinaman's Chance
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The Judge went on to explain why the unjust detention and harassment by the administration was unlawful, unjust, and, in his words, saddening.

I am truly sorry that I was led by our Executive Branch of government to order your detention last December. Dr. Lee, I tell you with great sadness that I feel I was led astray last December by the Executive Branch of our government through its Department of Justice, by its Federal Bureau of Investigation and by its United States Attorney for the District of New Mexico, who held the office at that time.

I am sad for you and your family because of the way in which you were kept in custody while you were presumed under the law to be innocent of the charges the Executive Branch brought against you.

I am sad that I was induced in December to order your detention, since by the terms of the plea agreement that frees you today without conditions, it becomes clear that the Executive Branch now concedes, or should concede, that it was not necessary to confine you last December or at any time before your trial.

And then, noting that he had “no authority to speak on behalf of the Executive Branch, the President, the Vice President, the Attorney General, or the Secretary of the Department of Energy,” Judge Parker apologized on behalf of the US judiciary system. In his book, Lee recounts turning to his lawyer at that moment and asking in a whisper whether this was what a judge typically did. “No, Wen Ho,” came the reply. “This is very, very rare.”


WHEREAS in the opinion of the Government of the United States the coming of Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities within the territory thereof:

Therefore, Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Represen­t­atives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That from and after the expiration of ninety days next after the passage of this act, and until the expiration of ten years next after the passage of this act, the coming of Chinese laborers to the United States be, and the same is hereby, suspended; and during such suspension it shall not be lawful for any Chinese laborer to come, or having so come after the expiration of said ninety days to remain within the United States.

—From H.R. 5804 (1882), prime sponsor: Rep. Horace Page (R-California)


WHEREAS these Federal statutes enshrined in law the exclusion of the Chinese from the democratic process and the promise of American freedom

WHEREAS in an attempt to undermine the American-Chinese alliance during World War II, enemy forces used the Chinese exclusion legislation passed in Congress as evidence of anti-Chinese attitudes in the United States;

WHEREAS in 1943, in furtherance of American war objectives, at the urging of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Congress repealed previously enacted legislation and permitted Chinese persons to become United States citizens;

WHEREAS Chinese-Americans continue to play a significant role in the success of the United States; and

WHEREAS the United States was founded on the principle that all persons are created equal:

Now, therefore, be it Resolved,


That the House of Representatives regrets the passage of legislation that adversely affected people of Chinese origin in the United States because of their ethnicity.


Nothing in this resolution may be construed or relied on to
authorize or support any claim, including but not limited to
constitutionally based claims, claims for monetary compensation or claims for equitable relief against the United States or any other party, or serve as a settlement of any claim against the United States.

—From H.Res. 683 (2012), prime sponsor: Rep. Judy Chu (D-California)


Sometimes progress can be measured by the kind of caricature a subject earns. A hundred and fifty years ago, newspapers commonly carried sketches of Chinese-as-vermin: pigtailed rats packed into filthy conditions and spreading vice. Sixty years ago, as the yellow hordes of Red China poured across the Yalu River into Korea, pop cultural images of the Chinese as menacing enemy proliferated. Fifteen years ago, in the midst of hysteria about “Asian money scandals” and secret Chinese donors infiltrating the presidential campaign-finance system, new-fashioned cartoon images of sinister, bucktoothed coolies appeared on national magazine covers.

So when in 2011 Goodwin Liu was painted in the press merely as a careerist, left-wing radical, temperamentally unfit to serve on the federal bench—without any additional insinuation that his Chineseness made him a danger to our republic—one could think, perversely,
Look how far we've come! In America today a Chinese American, as readily as anyone of any race or background, can now be demonized and taken down in national public life simply for narrow partisan reasons!

I am not related to Goodwin Liu, though I do consider him a friend. I also consider him the embodiment of the meritocratic version of the American Dream. His parents were immigrants from Taiwan, physicians recruited here to work in underserved areas during the Vietnam era. Born in Augusta, Georgia, Goodwin grew up in Sacramento. He didn't learn English until kindergarten because his parents hadn't wanted him to adopt their accent. He became high school valedictorian, went to Stanford to study biology and follow his parents into medicine, won a Rhodes scholarship, and at Oxford decided instead to study philosophy and to pursue the law.

From there, his listless slacker ways came to an end: Yale Law School; a US Supreme Court clerkship with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; a stint in the Clinton Education Department; a professorship and then associate deanship at Boalt Hall, the law school at the University of California, Berkeley; an active role in the Obama campaign and transition; and then a 2010 nomination to become a judge on the US Circuit Court for the Ninth Circuit. A buzz of expectation emerged—not at all generated by the unassuming, introspective nominee himself—that he would soon be in position to make history and become the nation's first Chinese American justice of the Supreme Court.

Then politics intervened. Republicans had also picked up on the buzz, and they found this picture-perfect Chinese American utterly threatening—to their generation-long efforts to keep the high court tilted rightward. They also sought retribution for Democratic filibusters of several of President Bush's judicial nominees. And they wanted a way to bruise the new president by proxy. So began an excruciating process of inquisition and obfuscation in which everything Goodwin Liu had ever said or written was used against him in a court of public opinion.

Conservative senators, abetted by relentless bloggers, searched out academic articles that Goodwin had authored. One was titled “Rethinking Constitutional Welfare Rights.” That, literally, was all many on the right needed to read. They depicted Goodwin as a radical socialist whose views were out of step with the mainstream. They took his comments from a panel discussion about reparations to imply that he would force all nonblacks in perpetuity to pay compensation for slavery. They trumpeted testimony Goodwin had offered in 2006 against the nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, in which some of his language was admittedly more heated than judicious, and made him out to be a slashing party apparatchik. Then they took the fact that Goodwin initially submitted an incomplete list of his many speeches and writings as proof that he had something to hide. The indignation of his opponents was breathless and theatrical, the kind of baroque affectation by which Washington makes small things big and big things small. Goodwin had many allies on the outside pressing his case (I was one). But the traditions of judicial nomination meant that he had to be exceedingly mild in his own defense. The Republicans filibustered his nomination to death in 2010. President Obama resubmitted it in 2011. The Republicans again filibustered, until the nomination was at last withdrawn later that year.

Goodwin Liu is American enough to be used and spiked as a political football.
, you can imagine some of the GOP senators thinking as they performed. But here is another way that Goodwin is all-American: he got a second act. On the afternoon his nomination died in the Senate, California governor Jerry Brown called him with an idea. Today Goodwin Liu is an associate justice of the California Supreme Court, the very body that in the 1854 case of
People v. Hall
had barred Chinese from testifying against whites on the grounds that if these backward inveterate liars were admitted to the witness stand, they would soon be “at the polls, in the jury box, upon the bench, and in our legislative halls.” Indeed.


You might not guess it by her manner, but Ai-jen Poo has a tiger tattoo high on her right arm. You might not guess it because her manner is soft and kindhearted, her voice and lilting cadence as pacifying as a meditation tape. And if you judged her by her manner, you would not be the first to learn later just how much you had misjudged her.

Ai-jen Poo is the daughter of immigrants from Taiwan. Her father, a scientist, was active in the push for more democracy in Taiwan. Her mother and grandmother have been models for her of moral courage and strength of will. But Ai-jen had not been particularly groomed in her youth to exercise voice and power. She simply had an awakening. When she was a college student, she got involved in protests and sit-ins that resulted in the creation of an ethnic studies center on campus. From then on, she has been an organizer and national activist without peer. Her work has focused on organizing women in the low-wage economy, particularly domestic workers: nannies, maids, servants, caregivers. She created the National Domestic Workers Alliance, a network of dozens of local affiliates, and her innovative approach to collective action is at the vanguard of a nascent reinvention of organized labor beyond the format of traditional unions.

The women she organizes are most often immigrants, people of color, and desperately poor. They work and struggle in a shadowy quarter of economic and civic life that she likens to the Wild West: unregulated, exploitative, obscured. The historian Jean Pfaelzer, in her fine book
Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans
, tells of a Chinese woman named Yoke Leen who marched into the Sonora, California, courthouse in 1910 to file an affidavit including her name, physical description, photograph, and declared status as a free native-born Californian—in the event she should someday be abducted or pressed into indentured servitude. It may shock some Americans to know that the same underground system that Yoke Leen was insuring herself against, or that brought young Mary Tape to America in the mid-nineteenth century, still exists in the early twenty-first. That's especially true for undocumented immigrants, who are especially vulnerable to wage theft, abusive working conditions, sexual advances, and worse. The Domestic Workers Alliance tells harrowing stories of such women to lawmakers around the country. Ai-jen has become savvy at deploying the media to generate pressure and at lobbying behind closed doors to direct it. As a result, multiple states have now passed a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights.

Ai-jen's method, though, is not about shock or shame or shrillness. It is about love. There is an audacity of love that Ai-jen Poo embodies and makes contagious, an audacity that makes cynicism turn in on itself and unfold as belief. She led one campaign in which families that hire domestic workers went hand in hand with their help to lobby for more legal protections for domestics. Her latest civic venture, one that in a sense subsumes all her other activism, is called Caring Across Generations. Its aim is to encourage the “gray tsunami” of aging Americans, who are disproportionately white, to find common cause with their caregivers, who are disproportionately not white. Its aim is to tell a new story in which self-interest is mutual interest, in which the content of our caring is more significant than the color of our skin, in which America learns to revere elders and therefore to revere the people who look after the elders. It is, though Ai-jen Poo might not say it this way, a more than passingly Chinese undertaking. It is also an enterprise as utopian and fantastical as America itself.


Today there are some extreme right-wingers who would throw Wong Kim Ark and his legacy overboard. They live in fear that undocumented immigrants are crossing our border from China and Mexico to have so-called anchor babies on American soil, babies who presumably would then allow untold streams of blood relatives to join them here. They would repeal the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of birthright citizenship. Their motives are despicable. But the would-be repealers do prompt a thought experiment. What if being born here
enough to guarantee citizenship? What if we
had to earn it?

So there I was in Philadelphia, two days before the 225th anniversary of the Constitution, standing before two hundred Sons of the American Revolution. To be a Son or Daughter of the American Revolution requires some serious genealogy. It requires a serious revolutionary-era wardrobe. And most of all, it requires a serious commitment to extending the line, nurturing history, embodying it, reenacting it.

This is conservatism in the most literal sense: conserving the mark and meter of the original. There is something to be admired about people who are willing, in this country of transience and impermanence, to dedicate themselves to preserving the memory and identity of the founding. But citizenship is not a museum piece nor an object to revere. It is lived and revivified by the new as well as the old. New voices speaking the old scripture. New blood coursing through the old vessels.

I had come to Philadelphia to conduct something called a Sworn-Again America ceremony. When naturalizing immigrants become citizens, they go through an elaborate process. They take a test. They hear words from the American creed. They swear an oath to this country. So my collaborators and I thought,
Why not create something comparable for
, whether citizens of long-standing or new Americans, whether here with the proper documents or not, to recommit?
To renew our vows to America and become
. So we created a simple ceremony that concludes with an oath:

BOOK: A Chinaman's Chance
7.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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