You’ve been active with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund for many years. Can you tell us about your leadership in the organization?
I’ve been a member of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) board of directors since 2002 and currently also serve on its Executive Committee. As part of my Board responsibilities, I chair AALDEF’s Justice in Action Committee, which selects the honorees selected to receive the “Justice in Action” award presented at our annual banquet that coincides with the start of the Chinese Lunar New Year.
I first became familiar with AALDEF after attending one of its events when I clerked in the U.S. Southern District Court of New York (SDNY) after law school. I became involved in AALDEF in the late 1990s through one of my colleagues at a former law firm who was, and remains, a Board member. Subsequently, I was asked to join the Board in 2002.
How does your involvement as a board member influence AALDEF’s mission?
Board members don’t necessarily get involved in individual cases or initiatives pursued by AALDEF. That work is handled by AALDEF’s talented and dedicated staff, led by Margaret Fung — AALDEF’s incredible co-founder and executive director.
Board members do vote, however, upon the types of activities AALDEF pursues and help direct and guide its mission. Serving on the Board has thus, provided me with a tremendous opportunity to help influence and shape AALDEF’s role and, perhaps more importantly, to support AALDEF in the wonderful work it is doing.
Can you tell us a little about the legal work undertaken by the AALDEF? I understand it was the first nonprofit on the East Coast to engage specifically in defending the civil rights of Asian Americans.
AALDEF was formed in 1974 by a group of lawyers and activists who wanted to bring the spirit of the civil rights movement to address issues confronting the Asian American community, locally in New York City and nationally. AALDEF’s founders had faith in the rule of law and a belief in the critical role of lawyers in shaping society.
In its 46-year history, the organization has successfully defended and advanced the rights and interests of Asian Americans across the nation through its core tools: litigation, advocacy, education and community organization. We’ve litigated causes from precedent-setting actions to smaller suits for individual immigrants, workers and political asylum seekers, as well as submitted amicus briefs for Supreme Court cases. AALDEF has also organized campaigns to address hate crimes and racially motivated violence, defended South Asian and Arab Muslim-Americans victimized by unlawful profiling or hate groups in the aftermath of 9/11 and held community clinics on topics such as immigration, voting and housing rights. We’ve also conducted national studies (including the nation’s largest multilingual election exit polling) and published groundbreaking reports on issues such as human trafficking, police surveillance, immigration detentions, and Asian voting. We’ve provided testimony to the U.S. Congress and participated on special commissions and task forces in order to help influence policy at the local and national level.
At its core, AALDEF strives to make available to Asian Americans the same vast array of rights, liberties and opportunities afforded to all others by this great country and its truly unique ideals and vision.
Has AALDEF responded to any of the recent hateful acts against the Asian American community because of the coronavirus outbreak?
AALDEF has spoken out against the racist backlash confronted by the Chinese and broader Asian American community stemming from the coronavirus pandemic. It has done so through individual interviews, tweets and other public statements, as well as in conjunction with other civil rights groups. In the face of a global pandemic that knows no boundaries or racial distinctions, it is indeed disheartening to see some turn to small-minded stereotypes and the language of tired bigotry to mask their failures or shore-up TV ratings.
America has historically opened its borders and offered immigrants opportunity like no other nation. Such openness naturally leads to social challenges, typically exacerbated by crisis. As a first-generation immigrant, I have made confronting cultural ignorance, false stereotypes and outright racism an ongoing mission during my entire tenure with AALDEF. After the great strides of the past several decades, the last few years have been dispiriting in revealing how far we still have to go. Yet, I am also encouraged by both the speed and volume of the voices that speak out against bigotry. For example, in early March more than 250 civil rights groups denounced coronavirus motivated racism and demanded action to confront it. This demonstrates the tremendous march of social progress and gives hope that what we confront today is a fading rearguard action. I know my children have grown-up in a society that is far more open-minded, pluralistic and culturally sensitive than the one I came to as a seven-year old immigrant. I would like to think that the work of AALDEF and other similar organizations have played a part in propelling this progress.
What is your advice for other lawyers who want to support the diverse Asian American community? How should they get involved?
I would certainly recommend that young lawyers interested in these issues get involved with AALEDF or any other similar group. Participation in such groups keeps alive the passions that brought many to law school. For those interested in AALDEF, I can gladly help to plug them into the organization. There are several opportunities available to fit one’s particular professional demands, personal life and civic interests.