Controversy Welcomed At APALSA Conference


Students listening to a panel discussion on Kelo and Eminent Domain

Controversy. The theme for the 12th Annual National Asian Pacific American Conference on Law and Public Policy provided ample breeding ground for the latest and most crucial debates affecting the Asian American community at large, including domestic violence and immigration, eminent domain in Boston’s Chinatown, law firm culture, Katrina relief, voting rights, and internet censorship in China.

Conference co-chair Patty Chen 2L explained that the theme was “intended to be a little darker, to stand in contrast to the brighter ‘call to action’ themes of other conferences.” Co-sponsored by the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association (APALSA) at Harvard Law and the Asian American Policy Review at the Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government, the two-day conference had more than 275 attendees, including 50 students who came from out of state. The conference kicked off its program last Friday evening with an opening keynote speech by attorney Susan Yu and a musical performance by singer/songwriter Kevin So at the Boston Marriott.

Yu, a partner with Mesereau & Yu, LLP, is most widely recognized as having successfully defended Michael Jackson in his recent trial. She started her speech with her recollections of the moment when Jackson was acquitted on all counts and her phone began to ring off the hook. Everyone who wanted to know how it felt like to be the first Asian American female lawyer in such a high-profile litigation case. Yu’s personal response to such accolades was to say that in actuality, her journey began long before the Jackson trial and victory.

Yu talked about her firsthand experiences with racial discrimination — when she was six years old, she had to sit in the back of the bus with her mother in San Francisco. She talked about the blood, sweat and tears sacrificed by her parents to give her the opportunities she was able to have to become a better person and an educated individual. Yu spoke of her memories of going to an inner-city school. She was shocked to seeing her older sister defend herself in a fistfight with another girl and then warn others to not mess with her because she was Bruce Lee’s sister.

Yu also talked about how she took off a year and a half from college to help her dad bus tables at a deli during times of financial trouble. As Yu highlighted some of her personal journey and struggles, she finished by reminding the audience that the Asian American community does not exist on their own. “We don’t live in isolation and we didn’t get here on our own either, she said. “We [Asian Americans] would not be here today without the Black Civil Rights Movement.” Yu emphasized the critical need for lawyers to go out and give back using our intellect, tools and compassion to reach out to the misunderstood, impoverished and marginalized people in our communities.

Early Saturday morning, Austin Hall began to fill with even more conference attendees as the six panels began. Battered Immigrants: Giving Voices to the Unheard offered a powerful, informative and sobering picture of the problems of domestic violence in immigrant communities and how they are further complicated by barriers including language, culture, racial discrimination and social stigma. Panelist Hilary Seo, Co-Director of the Immigration Intervention Project at Sanctuary for Families in New York City, lamented the dearth of services for troubled immigrant women, especially those who do not speak English. She stated that 50% of her work consists of undoing the damage done in this field due to a lack of cultural sensitivity training or when defense attorneys are simply not aware of the severe deportation penalties their immigrant women clients face, and therefore have them plea to things that could result in deportation.

Panelist Simone Bui, who heads the Asian Battered Women Project at Greater Boston Legal Services, said the issue of domestic violence in immigrant communities is not just a family, legal, community or domestic relations issue, but instead a basic human rights issue. Bui noted an interesting training session in which she was surprised to learn that while lawyers believed that ensuring the safety of the victim was first and foremost in a domestic violence case, victims themselves were more concerned with preserving their valid immigration status, which represented formally and symbolically that they were recognized and protect by the US government. Panelist Shirley Fan, Executive Director at the Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence, offered the victim advocacy perspective in the difficulties of working with the legal system.

Panelists also gave their views on both the triumphs and severe limitations of the original 1994 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and its recent legislative additions, which allows married immigrant women who have shown they are abuses to self-petition for a green card without the consent of their husbands.

Freedom of Speech in China: Internet Censorship panelists entered into a pressing dialogue on how China was using the aid of US companies in order to restrict information on the Internet. John Hiler, CEO of, noted the strong presence of users among Asian Americans as well as overseas, with Hong Kong being the largest city in the world for Xanga users. Hiler offered business perspectives related to censorship, especially when it is conducted by private companies, and spoke about the newest problems concerning internet censorship and the proliferation of multimedia. Rebecca MacKinnon, co-founder of Global Voices Online, questioned what it meant for the Chinese government’s legitimacy as well as Chinese worldviews when there was so much censorship that what citizens were exposed to was not the whole picture. MacKinnon also explored the contradiction of how the internet is bringing immense freedom while, at the same time, standing as a system of control on information and expression.

Rounding of the panel were Peter Yu, Associate Professor of Law at Michigan State, who brought in his extensive background in intellectual property, and Bill Xia, president of Dynamic Internet Technology Inc., who devotes his time to researching and developing information technology to bypass firewalls erected by Chinese authorities to control access. Other panels included a critical analysis of the effects of Katrina on Asian American communities and how they played a role in the racialized picture of rebuilding New Orleans; a discussion by five associates and partners at prominent firms from around the nation on the impact of law firm culture as demographics change and more Asian Americans are pursuing careers in firms; a debate on the controversies of impartial redistricting, its effect on the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which is up for renewal next year, and its impact on the Asian American voting community; and a discussion on how the recent Supreme Court case of Kelo v. New London (which allows a city to take private homes for economic development as long as it pays “just compensation”) affects low-income communities in Boston’s Chinatown.

The keynote speaker for the second day of the conference was Goodwin Liu, assistant professor of law at Boalt Hall, whose primary areas of research are constitutional law, education policy and civil rights. Professor Liu drew an interesting parallel between the history of Asian Americans and their struggle with the miscegenation laws in our country and the current struggles faced by advocates of gay marriage, not making the connection through traditional constitutional formalism, but through the ideology of social belonging and legal citizenship, which is defined, structured, and limited by the legal institution of marriage. Legalizing marriage, according to Liu, boils down to equal citizenship. Anti-miscegenation statues kept Asian Americans as sojourners in our country who were here to work but not to live; this ideology of impermanence deeply affected Asian American males who thereby were prohibited from creating social infrastructure and planning
for the future. They were tolerated, but not welcome, and encouraged to keep to themselves. Professor Liu believed that this experience is still alive for the gay community, as gays are treated as sojourners: here today and gone tomorrow without a trace.

The conference wrapped up with a much anticipated closing entertainment event by comedian Russell Peters, who offered a slightly different kind of take on controversial race issues affect the Asian American community from the panelists and keynote speakers before him. The Saturday banquet celebrated the end of a successful, well-attended and controversial conference, recognizing the hard work and planning of conference co-chairs Lanhee Chen and Patty Chen, as well as the APALSA board members and volunteers.

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