Colin Kaepernick is the Recipient of Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus’s 2017 Yuri Kochiyama Impact Award. Here’s why.

By Mohsin Mirza, Voting Rights Program Coordinator

In the middle of Muhammad Ali’s refusal to fight in the Vietnam War, American television host David Susskind had this to say about the boxer:

“I find nothing amusing or interesting or tolerable about this man. He’s a disgrace to his country, his race, and what he laughingly describes as his profession . . . He is a simplistic fool and a pawn.”

Far from atypical, Susskind’s views represented the way in which a majority of Americans saw Ali at the time: ungrateful and unpatriotic. It’s easy to forget now given how we celebrate Ali and his legacy, but in his prime years, he was the most reviled athlete in America.

We cannot ignore the ways in which that history echoes in today’s moment. We see these echoes in the tragic killings of Emmett Till, Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, in the racialized “law and order” rhetoric of President Nixon then, and in President Trump now. We also see it in the courageous actions of young people building movements that confront this legacy. As today’s Movement for Black Lives reminds us that while years have passed, racial injustice remains.

Just as Ali was reviled for “not knowing his place,” Colin Kaepernick finds himself the target of the same vitriol and many of the same derogatory adjectives for his protest during the National Anthem. Kaepernick’s action was a silent protest, not an antagonistic or hostile gesture. As the Star Spangled Banner played, a Black athlete knelt. In that moment, the contrast between America’s ideals of freedom and the violent reality of racial injustice became impossible to ignore.

Some may see the firestorm of controversy as evidence that Kaepernick’s stand was misguided. This view is profoundly ahistorical. Being controversial is the essence of protest itself. When we take these actions, we force society to address the problems it has been ignoring, and in doing so we begin laying the groundwork for change.

We saw this  in the reaction to Kaepernick’s actions. Soon, dozens of athletes, from the NFL to high school football to US Soccer, were raising Black Power fists and kneeling during the anthem, all to bring attention to this cause. For weeks after his stand, Kaepernick brought this conversation to traditionally apolitical outlets like Sportscenter. Athletes and commentators alike had to acknowledge, even if they disagreed with Kaepernick’s protest, that America could not continue to ignore the pervasive institutional racism in our society.

All this time, Kaepernick has taken his actions a step further by giving his personal time to and raising $1 million for organizations doing social justice work. He has hosted “Know Your Rights” workshops focused on empowering minority youth. In combining the tools of activism, philanthropy, and community work, Colin Kaepernick reminded us this year that our positions and professions in society, whether we are athletes, lawyers, or activists, does not excuse us from this responsibility to stand for something.

Few have exemplified this attitude of action and solidarity like Yuri Kochiyama. Every year at our annual dinner we honor an individual or group that has made a deep impact in their community in her name. The legendary Japanese American activist is equally remembered today for winning reparations for Japanese Americans sent to internment camps as she is for her civil disobedience for Puerto Rican independence, solidarity work with African American political prisoners, and her participation in Malcolm X’s Organization of Afro American Unity.

Her legacy is emblematic of the work we here at Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus has strived to do for the past 45 years: fighting for the legal and civil rights of Asian American communities while working in solidarity with communities of color impacted by the same systems of racism and xenophobia.

It has now been decades since Yuri Kochiyama was building movements or Muhammad Ali was fighting in the ring and much has shifted in our politics since then. America’s views about the Vietnam War have changed, the Civil Rights Movement is now honored, and Muhammad Ali has been vindicated by time.

Here at Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus, we do not need to wait for history’s judgment on police brutality, or on mass incarceration, deportations, Islamophobia, evictions, workers rights abuses, and voter suppression. We see the damage of those systems in serving our clients every day. As we work to carry on legacy of Yuri Kochiyama, Muhammad Ali, and so many others in our work, we honor those who carry that fight alongside us. It is for this reason that we are honoring Colin Kaepernick and his courage with this year’s Yuri Kochiyama Impact Award.

Please join us in celebrating Colin Kaepernick and 45 Years of Justice at our anniversary dinner on April 28th, or follow along on social media at #ALC45.  

Maria's Journey to Activism

By Wei Lee, ASPIRE Program Coordinator

You've met our clients Mr. Lau and Pedro. Today, we introduce you to Maria, a young womxn in our ASPIRE program for API undocumented youth. She inspires us and will inspire you, too.

Maria has traveled a long road. Ethnically Chinese, she grew up in Mexico. In high school, Maria and her sister came to the United States to join their mother. Soon after, however, Maria's mother had to return to Mexico, leaving Maria and her sister to navigate a new country by themselves as they approached adulthood. After she overstayed her visa, Maria became undocumented. As a result, she had difficulty accessing health care, housing, and a job. Determined to go to college, she began paying her way through San Francisco State University with side gigs and a whole lot of hustle.

Normally reserved, Maria walked into her first ASPIRE meeting hesitantly, seeking a safe space to further understand her identity as an undocumented Asian immigrant. She found much more, eventually becoming a leader with the goal of serving other vulnerable community members. Today, Maria is an ASPIRE Community Organizer, guiding young people and developing them as leaders. She leads Know Your Rights presentations for immigrants and is active in state and local campaigns to disentangle police from immigration enforcement.

Maria is also an artist. She launched an art workshop series called Flip the Script, which uses art as a tool to create dialogue about the range of immigrant experiences and to highlight the intersection between physical health, mental health, LGBTQ+ identities, and immigration.

Through ASPIRE, we have nurtured a new generation of advocates, arming youth with the skills, tools, and resources to fight on behalf of marginalized communities. Young leaders like Maria are how ASPIRE protects our immigrant communities from deportations, increases health care access, and creates a broader API voice in the immigrant justice movement. We're thrilled that she picked up her bullhorn and found her voice.

Justice for Pedro

By Winifred Kao, Litigation Director & Workers' Rights Senior Staff Attorney

Pedro came to the U.S. seeking work to support his family in the Philippines. As a recent immigrant, he had difficulty finding good-paying work. He got a job as a caregiver at a facility where he slept on the floor and worked around the clock attending to elderly and disabled residents. Despite the important caretaking work he performed and his long work hours, he was paid only $1,500 a month.

Unaware of his rights, Pedro didn't realize he was being exploited. He kept his head down and kept working. He also stayed quiet because his employer had fraudulently promised to submit an immigration petition for him to remain lawfully in the U.S.

But when Pedro saw elderly patients being abused and beaten, he decided he could not stay silent any longer. After he reported the elder abuse and wage violations, his employer retaliated by firing him. She also threatened to report him to immigration authorities and to withdraw the immigration petition.

Because of Pedro's courage in coming forward, the elder abuse stopped and the facility was eventually shut down. Advancing Justice - ALC's Workers' Rights and Immigrant Rights teams helped Pedro win wage and hour claims against the employer and also petitioned for a U Visa based on his employer's abuses against him. Following a three-year wait, Pedro's U Visa was finally granted in 2016, along with derivative visas for his wife and son. After more than 10 long years apart during which they were only able to see each other via Skype, Pedro and his family were finally reunited earlier this year.

On the 1st and 3rd Thursdays of every month, our Workers' Rights program hosts a free clinic that addresses employment issues ranging from wage and hour recovery to wrongful termination. Our Immigrant Rights program holds clinics on the 1st and 3rd Tuesdays and focuses on challenging the detention and deportation of immigrants with criminal convictions.

Meet Mr. Lau

San Francisco Chinatown / Photo Credit: Joyce Xi

San Francisco Chinatown / Photo Credit: Joyce Xi

By Katherine Chu, Housing Rights Staff Attorney

We have accomplished much in our 100 Days of Justice campaign, building the resistance against the first 100 days of the Trump Administration. This week, we're focusing less on lawsuits and legislation and more on the clients who are the reason we do our work. This week, we will introduce you to three of the people we have served and whose stories and lives have touched us.

Mr. Lau is an elderly Chinese American immigrant with limited English skills. When we met him at one of our tri-monthly housing clinics, he was almost 60 years old and caring for his disabled 90-year-old mother, who walks with a cane and suffers from several age-related ailments. The two of them were being evicted from the San Francisco apartment where they had lived for over 10 years. Although the apartment lacked heat, had rodents, and needed repairs for leaks, it was their home and they could afford the rent.

Luckily, we could help. Our free legal clinics provide community members with tools to fight evictions, unlawful detainer cases, rent increases, and housing discrimination.

We challenged Mr. Lau's eviction and won! Sadly, the victory was short-lived; Mr. Lau's case is an example of how ruthless some landlords can be. After we saved Mr. Lau's tenancy, his landlord immediately attempted to evict Mr. Lau again and, heartbreakingly, there was no defense against the second case. We helped Mr. Lau negotiate with the landlord for financial compensation and time to relocate, and this gave Mr. Lau and his mother an easier transition to their new home.

We need your help spreading the word to people like Mr. Lau so we can defend their rights. Our housing clinic meets on the 1st, 3rd, and last Tuesday of every month from 10:00 am - 12:00 pm. If you know anyone who is in need of assistance, please send them our way.

Acts of Revolutionary Love

Art created by queer migrant artist Jess X. Snow in collaboration with queer Muslim activist Jordan Alam.

Art created by queer migrant artist Jess X. Snow in collaboration with queer Muslim activist Jordan Alam.

As part of our #100DaysofJustice campaign, we recognize that we stand on the shoulders of giants. In these trying times, we give thanks to the civil rights leaders and visionaries who fought for justice years ago, to safeguard our rights so that today we could take up the mantle of resistance.

Below is our Valentine's Day love letter to our predecessors. We invite you to write a love letter to your favorite movement or community leader and share it with us at comms@advancingjustice-alc.org. We will highlight the most inspiring letters we receive on this blog.

It has been a long winter. The pavement slippery, we can easily lose our footing. 
How did you endure the storms of hatred and fight for a glimmer of dawn?

The world you knew is much different from the world we inhabit.

The fields
The camps
Incarceration
Of our communities.

Some things still persist. Some feel like they may return.
But leaders are born out of struggle.

Things are changing but your legacy will not be erased, will not be silenced,
thrown into a stark relief under the shadow hovering over us.  

Today, more than ever, we accept that progress will always be threatened,
Must be protected, our resolve to uphold it redoubled.
We must dare to constantly reimagine it.

We need not look far to glimpse those who are walking in your shoes.
The forgotten, forced to a country they've never known
        fighting so others can stay with their families.  
The exploited, creating dignity in the workplace.  
The youth, who put their bodies upon the gears, upon the wheels
        of the deportation machine.  

We will not despair.
We will move forward on the frontlines heeding your rallying cry.
We march. We protest. We fight.

For the law is meant to be our servant, not our master.

We will not be given an explanation under tyranny.
We will not accept a warning meant to remove us.

We will light the way. With compassion and love.

When spring comes we will be standing up tall
From the grape fields to the streets
To the halls of justice.

You trusted the future to us and we will not fail you.
We will tear down walls.
We will fortify our sanctuaries.
We will resist.

Dispatches from SFO

Our National Security and Civil Rights attorneys posted at SFO

Our National Security and Civil Rights attorneys posted at SFO

By Elica Vafaie, National Security & Civil Rights Staff Attorney

I found out about the Executive Order (EO) banning immigrants and refugees from 7 Muslim-majority countries after we spent the day not-so-coincidentally training 120 lawyers on how to prepare for a possible Muslim registry and a ban on Muslim travel to the US. As an Iranian American, I could see the faces of my family and community who would be deeply impacted as we interpreted the EO. It was hard to catch a breath before the calls began to flood in from community members, anxious about the EO and eager for information and legal representation.  

The first consultation that Anoop, one of our immigration attorneys, and I gave took place just 2 hours after the EO was signed. Within hours we saw cases where community members’ children were being blocked from entering the U.S. The EO was so broadly written that it applied to legal permanent residents (also known as green card holders)--which falls well outside the scope of the president’s legal authority. We could only speculate how many people would be included or how quickly it would roll out. We put out some quick Know Your Rights information in English, Farsi, and Arabic, hoping it would quell some of the panic.

But by 7:00 a.m. on Saturday morning, we were inundated with calls from family members, concerned about their loved ones who were already flying into SFO. We began to coordinate with our partner organizations to develop mechanisms to get information from community members about flights that were coming in. Our National Security & Civil Rights, Immigrant Rights, and Criminal Justice Reform staff members quickly headed to SFO.

Once at the airport, we hit the ground running. We started tracking flights, meeting with families, and calculating how long community members had been detained. It was difficult to gather all of this information because we weren’t allowed to speak with our clients. We didn’t even know how many people were being detained--our repeated attempts at contacting Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials were met with silence. Along with our partner organizations, we also started providing individual consultations and provided Know Your Rights information in English and Farsi right there in the international terminal.

Meanwhile, the energy at SFO was electrifying. As the hours wore on, SFO became increasingly packed with community members holding signs, expressing outrage, and refusing to normalize this affront. I have never seen anything like it.

At around 6:00 p.m., we got word that a federal judge in New York had granted a stay, which prohibits the deportation of any permanent resident or visa holder from the 7 countries. The protesters erupted into cheers. I remember rushing to call numerous Iranian families and sharing the good news that under the national stay, their loved one could not be removed to Iran.

However, we soon realized that CBP was not complying with the judge’s order when, for example, they threatened the deportation of an elderly Iranian couple. We worked furiously to get the couple released, using every tool at our disposal. Throughout the night and into the next morning, we worked with our partners and volunteer attorneys on legal strategies. We dispatched Congressional representatives to come to SFO. We spoke to reporters about the ordeal and CBP’s flagrant violation of the stay. Protesters chanted, “Release” and “Let the lawyers in.” Because of the strong community lawyering and organizing, we were able to collectively secure the release of several individuals; the elderly couple was released after 30 hours. Dozens of others were provided with helpful information for their families.

Although the weekend was full of uncertainty and little sleep, I also witnessed beautiful moments in the airport. The synergy between the legal service providers and the community organizers created a sense of community that I had not anticipated. Throughout the weekend, people would stop by to bring food and water to the lawyers and impacted community members.

It also was incredible to work cross-program within our organization, working at the intersection of immigrant rights and Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian community issues. In the past, these movements have been seen as separate, but we are in a moment where we are actively working to bridge the two. The protesters said it best: “No Ban, No Wall, Sanctuary for All.”

Our work isn’t done yet. Although it faces numerous legal challenges, the ban is still in effect. In the meantime, we have spent the majority of the last 5 days at SFO working to ensure that no one is being detained. We also are ramping up our Know Your Rights trainings and legal services to continue reaching out to our impacted communities. We will continue to remain vigilant and use every tool from policy advocacy to litigation to direct services to protect our communities.

In Defense of Voting Rights

Joyce Xi, poll monitor 

Joyce Xi, poll monitor 

By Mohsin Mirza, Voting Rights Program Coordinator

Armed with a checklist and a No. 2 pencil, Joyce Xi was standing in a San Francisco polling place when she noticed a voter with a problem. An elderly voter had entered the polling place and was struggling to communicate with a poll worker. “He needed a Vietnamese ballot but the poll workers were making no effort to provide him one,” says Joyce, who is also ALC’s community advocate on its National Security and Civil Rights team. ”They didn’t even realize there was one there.”

As one of the almost 400 volunteers Asian Law Caucus sent to Northern California and Central Valley polling places on Election Day in November 2016, Joyce knew exactly what to do. “We knew beforehand what language assistance each polling place required and that this location was supposed to have a Vietnamese facsimile ballot available.” As the voter was about to head to the booth with a Filipino/Tagalog ballot that the poll worker offered, Joyce intervened and let both the voter and poll worker know that a Vietnamese copy of the ballot was supposed to be available. Relieved, the voter got the language assistance he needed (and that was owed to him under state law) and cast his ballot. “I was happy that he was able to cast his vote but it made me wonder how many people may have had difficulties voting because of a lack of adequate language assistance,” Joyce recalls.

She’s right to wonder. Helping voters with problems big and small, Joyce and ALC’s poll monitors evaluated in real time how effective language assistance provided to voters was in almost 800 polling places across 17 California counties. What they found was incidents like this one are far from isolated. Across the state, polling places even in the most densely populated immigrant communities were missing translated ballots, were lacking signage to let limited-English proficient (LEP) voters know what assistance was available, and had poll workers unsure of how best to assist LEP voters. For instance, our poll monitors found 24% of state-mandated translated copies of ballots (known was “facsimile” ballots in the state Elections Code) were not properly displayed upon our poll monitors’ arrival. In several large, diverse counties this number was as high as 40%. While over 90% of polling places we visited had at least one bilingual poll worker, roughly 40% of polling places with bilingual poll workers had no translated signage indicating to voters that bilingual assistance was available.

Part of the reason why these findings are so disappointing is that the need for effective language assistance in voting is greater in California than anywhere else, because of our higher numbers of immigrant votes and LEP voters. According to the Census Bureau, nearly 7 million Californians are limited in their English ability. Most of these people are part of California’s rapidly growing Asian American and Latino communities. Of California’s Asian American immigrants, 46% speak English less than very well. Among California’s Latinos, it’s 34%. While California may not have overt voter discrimination laws, the way other states do with voter ID laws that erect barriers for young voters, voters of color, and low-income voters, failing to provide adequate language assistance can be a more subtle way of disenfranchising those LEP voters who make up such a large part of our communities.

At ALC, we fight for solutions when we see a problem plaguing our communities. So we’re introducing a bill in the State Legislature that, if passed, will dramatically strengthen the language access available to voters under state law. Translated ballots would be more visible and more useful to voters, counties would be accountable for their provision of bilingual poll workers for the first time, and LEP voters would get more (translated) information about the services available to them. For our state’s democracy to truly be representative, and to grow as the size and diversity of our state grows, California has to lead the nation on language access in elections. ALC is hoping to get it there. Until then, we’ve got Joyce and all the amazing volunteers like her.