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A Q&A with Bill Ong Hing

Author photo: University of San Francisco. Cover design: Carol Chu.
Author photo: University of San Francisco. Cover design: Carol Chu.

With fifty years of law practice and litigation, Bill Ong Hing has represented noncitizens caught up in what he calls the immigration and enforcement “meat grinder.” From gang members to asylum seekers fleeing violence, and from individuals in ICE detention to families at the US southern border seeking refuge, he has witnessed their trauma, arriving at this conclusion: migrants should have the right to free movement across borders—and the right to live free of harassment over immigration status. He illustrates the flagrant cruelty and bureaucracy faced by migrants navigating a system filled with a legacy of racism in his book Humanizing Immigration: How to Transform Our Racist and Unjust System. While ultimately arguing for the abolishment of ICE, Hing advocates for change now. Beacon Press senior publicist Bev Rivero caught up with him to chat about it.

Bev Rivero: You are clear that the reckoning for the entire immigration system to address basic needs, the humanity of everyone involved, and function in a nonracist manner, is long overdue. You have a depth of experience. What can you share that has led you to advocate for the abolition of the immigration system altogether?

Bill Ong Hing: I have seen children as young as two separated at the border from their families. When I interviewed these traumatized children in border patrol detention, I was ashamed of our what our nation does in the name of border enforcement. When I said goodbye to a fifty-year-old undocumented man at his home the night before he was deported, it was impossible for me to explain the rationale behind the removal of a twenty-five-year resident with no criminal problems to his US citizen children for whom he had served as soccer coach, homework tutor, insurance provider, driver to after-school programs, and loving father. When I see the government’s resistance to asylum claims by individuals who have been beaten, tortured, raped, and kidnapped, I realize that the callousness and heartlessness of many immigration judges and ICE attorneys is beyond repair. When backlogs for immigration visas grow longer and longer, while noncitizens arrested by ICE are predominantly Black and Latinx, it’s clear that the institutionalized racism of immigration laws and enforcement priorities is so deep, that the entire system must be revamped.

BR: An interesting concept you explore in Humanizing Immigration is the idea of crimes and the people who commit them. It’s a common refrain that everyone should be allowed to move through the legal process towards US citizenship “except criminals.” However, you thoughtfully introduce people like Lundy and Kim Ho Ma, among others, who are caught up in the system as offenders, and quite often in circumstances that would be easily solved by law for those fortunate enough to be naturalized citizens. How might you convince people to let go of the idea that law-abiding is so easily achieved by everyone who comes here, and understand how deportation of offenders unnecessarily strains the system for everyone?

BOH: Lawful immigrants and refugees who make one mistake that is classified as an aggravated felony are deported without the opportunity to apply for any relief; they face a zero-tolerance system. That system should be eliminated.

  1. Many things classified as aggravated felonies are not serious crimes, including misdemeanors where a sentence happens to be one year. Crimes like reckless driving and public urination have been classified as aggravated felonies.
  2. Prior to 1996, aggravated felons could seek a second chance before an immigration judge. Among other things, the judge assessed whether the person was rehabilitated and remorseful. I represented dozens of aggravated felons prior to 1996 who were given a second chance, and they all went on to lead productive, law-abiding lives. Their families remained intact. They never needed public assistance. Their children never faced family separation.
  3. The system today wreaks havoc on the stability of families. The children are permanently damaged psychologically and neurologically. The family faces economic hardship. The public welfare system is often accessed after one of the parents is deported. We need a system that recognizes the importance of affording deserving folks a second chance.
  4. The criminal justice system has already meted out justice for those convicted of aggravated felonies. The individuals have served their sentence. Society should be satisfied that the person has paid the price for the crime through the criminal justice system. We should not be adding the punishment of deportation. This is double punishment.

BR: Unless you’ve gone through the process, the average person is likely unfamiliar with how much people need to prove, a shocking fact regarding a starting place for asylum seekers is that “The REAL ID Act also added provisions related to asylum-seeker credibility. First, asylum seekers are no longer presumed to be credible at the beginning of the hearing.” It’s clear that the legal system lacks the lens of humanity and, in many ways, has moved away from a more forgiving stance. Is there a way for policymakers to push for change in this area?

BOH: Policymakers should push for change from a position of compassion and humanity. Just as in the criminal justice system, where decisions are a matter of life and death and there is a presumption of innocence, the asylum area is also a matter of life and death, so there should be a presumption of eligibility. Asylum should be granted unless the government can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the applicant will not be persecuted. This comes from the Supreme Court decision that I co-counseled, INS v. Cardoza-Fonseca (1987), where the Court ruled that even a ten percent chance of persecution is sufficient to be granted asylum.

BR: You write: “Immigration laws and enforcement policies are racist. In fact, those laws and policies are the quintessential examples of institutionalized racism.” Many people aren’t aware of the US history that you lay out throughout your book. What are some places that people can turn to learn more, beyond your book?

BOH: I think the vast majority of Americans do not realize that immigration laws and enforcement policies are racist. Useful sources of information beyond my book include the website for the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI.org), books by Kelly Lytle Hernández (Migra! and Bad Mexicans); Kevin Johnson’s “Systemic Racism in the US Immigration Laws,” and legal cases such as Haitian Refugee Center v. Smith, 676 F.2d 1023 (5th Cir.1982), American Baptist Churches v. Thornburgh, 760 F. Supp. 796 (ND Cal. 1991), and one of my previous books, Defining America Through Immigration Policy.


About Bill Ong Hing 

Bill Ong Hing is Professor of Law and Migration Studies at the University of San Francisco, and Professor of Law and Asian American Studies Emeritus, at UC Davis. Previously on the law faculties at Stanford University and Golden Gate University, he founded the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco and directs their Immigration & Deportation Defense Clinic. Professor Hing teaches Immigration Law & Policy, Migration Studies, Rebellious Lawyering, and Evidence, is the author of 6 books, including Humanizing Immigration: How to Transform Our Racist and Unjust System, and was co-counsel in the US Supreme Court asylum precedent-setting case INS v. Cardoza-Fonseca (1987).