Esther Leong is the Administrative Director of the Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach. She shares with us a personal story of the impact of growing up in SF Chinatown amid the legacy of exclusion.
This letter was written to Senator Feinstein several years ago to ask her to support immigration reform, but it remains true and relevant today. I want encourage people to join in this effort to encourage and rally our communities and government to stand against continual perpetration of systematic racism. Our government and country must do everything they can to learn our history, right the wrongs, to redeem themselves for discrimination and injustice perpetrated upon them because of their immigration status. Whether we know it or not, the Chinese Exclusion Act continues to directly or indirectly affect us, from generation to generation. It is for these reasons that the Chinese Exclusion Act must not happen again. NO MORE EXCLUSION!
Power to the People-Peace!
Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach
Who are we?
There are five of us here born and raised in America from two Chinese parents who were undocumented and escaped the war and poverty of China. We are the beneficiary of the family unification action of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. My father came into America on or about 1928 through Mexico by foot and worked in Chinatown for over 30 years before he picture-married my mother who was 30 years younger than him. My father worked as a merchant selling porcelain goods with one of the members of the Chinese Six Companies who ultimately swindled him because he was undocumented. My mother worked as a garment worker in the sweatshops. Both my parents have passed, but they worked hard and we lived in a small apartment on top of the Kuo Mun Tong Building (KMT) for all our lives.
While my parents may have come into America dishonestly because of difficult economic lives, on the most part, they have lived honest, productive and contributing lives. My father was a mild, gentle, polite and educated man. His name was Yue Bew Leong.
Even though my father was undocumented, he had a certain level of civic responsibility to his countrymen and society as a whole. He was Board member of his Nam Hoi Chinese Association, a vice principal to a Nam Hoi Chinese School (now recognized as a certified accredited Chinese education); a Board member of Northeast Medical Society; and a board member of Chinatown Coalition for Better Housing (CCBH). They are now known as Chinatown Community Development Center whom I also served as a board member for 10 years after he died. At some point, he even crossed the race line and went with George Lee of Ping Yuen Housing Project to do community organizing at the Pink Palace. Wow, a Chinese man before his time, who was born in 1902 and died in 1992.
In addition, even though my father was undocumented, injured, older and unable to secure a stable job by the time we were born, he took us to American and Chinese school; taught us Chinese culture and language and respect; paid our taxes, shopped and cooked while my mother worked in the factory 12 hours a day in sweat shop conditions. As a family of seven, dependent on one family household, we were eligible for food stamps and government aid, but because we did not want to be perceived as a burden of the state, we did not do so. As a result we often did with less but managed since we learned to work at a young age of 12.
Where are we now?
In the midst of Chinese gang violence and Golden Dragon Killings in SF Chinatown, the five of us survived without being in the gang, jailed or killed. We are living productive and contributing lives. My mother had an equal and impressive effect on us as she raised all of us as the sole wage earner. She learned to navigate her way in America, fight oppression by her own people, learned enough English to be naturalized family members to USA. There are many immigrants, documented and undocumented, who are prideful and responsible members of the society. Many like my parents truly believe in the United State or Gum San (Gold Mountain) as the land of hope and it continues to be so for many with no real life options.
The future well-being and prosperity of California depends upon a just and fair immigration system that truly respects and values the humanity and contributions of immigrants – undocumented and documented – who are a bedrock of our society and economy. As your constituents, we look to you as a respected long-time member of the Senate Judiciary Committee to be a champion for us – your constituents – by leading the effort for fair and just immigration reform. You live in San Francisco with the largest constituency of Asian Pacific Islanders. Family is an important aspect of survival. We come from a back ground that a strong family structure lends itself to a strong community foundation. I believe that the proud American tradition of being a nation of immigrants that values and upholds family unity must continue in the 21st century through:
- Stop allowing the Administration from immigrants scapegoating and criminalizing immigrants.
- Providing a direct, affordable, and accessible path to citizenship for all 11 million undocumented Americans including the 2.6 million undocumented Californians who live, work, study, and contribute so greatly to our state’s well-being and economy. All individuals in removal proceedings, and individuals previously deported, should be given a chance to apply for legalization and a path to citizenship.
- Strengthening our family-based immigration system, including affirming a path to family reunification for brothers, sisters, and adult married children and immediately clearing out the backlogs that cause family members to wait as long as 24 years to be with their loved ones. Family-based immigration and employment-based immigration must be simultaneously strengthened – it is not a zero-sum game.
- Ensuring equality for LGBTQ families in immigration reform, including allowing family sponsorship of same-sex, bi-national couples and removing the one-year limit on asylum applications.
- Keeping families together by ending unjust detentions and deportations, including amending the regressive 1996 immigration laws to restore judicial discretion and fairness.
- Protecting and enforcing workplace protections – as one of the directors of a non-profit, we have seen many workers who have been abused and misused by employers and for fear of retaliation. We need to stop these attacks as it was perpetrated by in the 1880’s
I write to you as one of the true beneficiaries of immigration reform acts that works and for many who have been affected by good laws. Your leadership on fair and just immigration reform is crucial to continue California’s legacy as a trailblazer in innovation, progress, and diversity.