Laboni Hoq‘s upbringing as an immigrant from Bangladesh and her travels around the world inspired her to be a voice for the underdog. She says the vast majority of undocumented immigrants in the US do have rights, including that of due process: being presented with information about what you did wrong and given the opportunity to explain your situation. She says that despite his severe crackdown on immigration, President Trump has given attorneys great ammunition to expand the rights and establish legal precedent for millions in the United States.
Laboni Hoq – Asian Americans Advancing Justice – @AAAJ_LA
Joshua Scheer, Rebecca Mooney
RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. And in this case, it’s–and I’m sure I’m going to murder the name–but it’s Laboni Hoq.
LH: Quite good.
RS: Quite good. Originally from Bangladesh. Now, I call this, I say this show is about American originals, people who come out of the crazy-quilt of American culture, immigration, different ethnic, religious backgrounds, and yet manage to–or maybe not manage, because of that, produce really interesting people, and hopefully of some social conscience and morality. And I ran into you at a meeting, I forget the name of the organization, but they’re legendary here in Los Angeles, the–
LH: Asian Americans Advancing Justice. Formerly–
RS: Yeah. And it used to have another name.
LH: Right, it’s formerly the Asian Pacific American Legal Center.
RS: Right. And you’re the chief lawyer at this group. And it was an occasion to celebrate the publication of a book on a very famous case involving immigration and the treatment of immigrants and so forth, connected to the Japanese internment camps. And so why don’t you just tell us about that case, and then we’ll get back to you.
LH: Sure. So the case you’re referring to is the Korematsu case–
RS: Fred Korematsu
LH: –Fred Korematsu, who is an American hero. He was a man who was caught up in the Japanese internment. As we all know, the internment occurred at the eve of the U.S. entering World War II. And what brought us into the war was the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor. And around that time, you know, when we were declaring war, we simultaneously decided as a country that everybody of Japanese ancestry, whether they be citizens or noncitizens, should be kind of rounded up and put into internment camps. And this happened mostly on the West coast, where people on the West coast were kind of pushed into the interior into a number of internment camps. And Fred Korematsu was one of those people, together with his family and his kind of extended community; they had to leave their homes, leave their businesses, leave their property, and basically go and live in, in many cases, horse stables, if you kind of look back at the pictures of those days.
RS: Right. And just to remind people, this was an infamous period of hysteria about the other, the foreigner, the immigrant. And in the case of Japanese Americans, they had been here for quite a long time, many of them; they were farmers, they were entrenched in the community, were productive citizens, and nonetheless they were put, in effect, in concentration camps. And in the case of Fred Korematsu’s case, he was born here, right?
LH: I think that’s correct, yeah.
RS: Yeah, and he actually had a girlfriend that he was interested in who was not Japanese American, and it just didn’t strike him as right, why are we being, reporting and having to be questioned and then be thrown into these camps. And he managed to get legal representation from the American Civil Liberties Union, which is so active now because of undocumented people and other immigrants in this country. They took his case all the way to the Supreme Court; unfortunately, they lost, even a liberal Supreme Court. And he ended up being in the camps. But there’s a new book out, Heyday Books has it, about his history, and for young people. And this is unfortunately of current importance. So in your case, you came over as a legal immigrant, and you are an example of the great melting pot. So why don’t you just introduce yourself and then how you got into this work of civil rights and immigrant rights.
LH: Sure, so yeah, I came with my family when I was two years old. And I did come legally in that my father was awarded a scholarship; we’re originally from Bangladesh, and he was a veterinary microbiologist. Bangladesh is a very agrarian country, and so that was his trade, and he got this great opportunity to come to the United States and get higher education. And so we did come, and he got his master’s; we lived in Davis, California, for a while, which is a wonderful community; also a very agrarian community. And then we moved to Washington state, where he got his PhD. But at some point along that way, my parents decided that this was probably the better place to raise two young daughters. And so they set on the path of trying to figure out how to get, you know, immigration status long-term, because obviously they had come on student visas. So you did mention that, yes, I did come here legally, but there was definitely a period of time in our lives where there was a lot of uncertainty about our immigration status. We had to hire, you know, a lawyer to try to figure out what options we had. And that’s actually not unlike what a lot of people are going through today, in different circumstances, I think; a lot of people come in, overstay their visas, and they look for different legal options to kind of adjust their status. And sometimes they find those avenues and sometimes they don’t, so they stay here in an undocumented status until they can figure out if there’s a legal way for them to stay.
RS: You’re somebody who is actually the ideal immigrant; you went to Columbia Law School, and you give back a lot; you didn’t go work for some big Wall Street firm, you decided to get involved in civil rights. And on the occasion where I met you, it was a celebration of this new book about Fred Korematsu, and it was interesting; most of the audience was made up of Japanese Americans. Yet quite a few of them were schoolteachers or people active in the community, and they were very concerned about what’s happening to Spanish-speaking immigrants now; there was a great, good feeling. That hasn’t been true all over the country. There were some incidents where some immigrants, particularly Asian groups in Connecticut being one place, said, wait a minute, we came in the hard way, why don’t these people, and so forth. Now, you’re currently doing a lot of work in immigration law; why don’t you set the current stage?
LH: Yeah, I mean I think you’re correct in that the audience there where we met was, you know, it was on the occasion of Fred Korematsu and this new book, which is actually a children’s book, so there were a lot of children in the audience too, and schoolteachers. And they were rightly concerned about this new environment, because as we’ve heard from the rhetoric throughout the campaign, that you know, the whole range of immigrant communities are now a target of this new administration. And here in California, where we have such a multiethnic community, I think teachers are correct to worry about their students in this environment. Because they have the range, the gamut of ethnicities here in California; we have Latino Americans, we have African Americans, we have Asian Americans. And they’re all being targeted in this climate, and I think people are rightly worried about protecting those communities, but also rightly concerned about how to continue to be bold and be, you know, to know what our rights are and to push back at the same time. So we have this, you know, this moment where we have both of those things going on. We have, you know the need to protect these vulnerable communities, but also the knowledge that we are a multiethnic, multicultural society; we always have been, and we want to preserve that.
RS: So let me ask you about yourself. You obviously went to a top law school; you also were a Fulbright Scholar. You must have been in great demand by law firms, and you actually went and worked for some. How did you end up being a civil rights lawyer and also an immigration lawyer, now defending people who often don’t have that education? Our gardeners, building houses, raising children?
LH: Yeah, so for me, I feel like it’s probably partly in my blood. You know, I mentioned my father, who immigrated here from Bangladesh, and he was pretty politically active when he was coming up. And Bangladesh had its own civil war history, and he was very, you know, very integrated into that movement for independence from Pakistan; Bangladesh was actually East Pakistan for a long time. So I just, I grew up with stories of the need for resistance, really; the need to stand up for your rights. At that time there was a big language movement where the Bangladeshis wanted to really have their language be the national language, be the language that they could speak and identify with, and they felt the need to have independent representation, and to have self-determination, really. And so I kind of grew up with that ethic, growing up hearing stories about what that time was like; and I think, as I went through my path in life, drew from those experiences. And wherever possible, I feel like I was drawn to really defending the rights of the underdog. And being an immigrant American, that’s kind of who I was as well. And so that was just a very natural fit for me.
RS: I do want to stop for just one minute to ask about the morality of your work. Because one reason I’m doing this series–and I do teach at USC where we actually are recording this, University of Southern California, the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, and we’re going to have a program on immigrant rights tonight. And what I try to get across to our students is that, sort of what’s in the air now, I find an offensive message, which is: Careerism trumps everything, and you got to fit in, and you got to make a lot of money, and have all the toys. And clearly with your Fulbright, with your Columbia law degree, with all your smarts, this choice of civil rights lawyer and immigrant law–you know, defending people who don’t pay a lot of money–take us through that trajectory. You came out of law school and what happened? You know, yes, you had parents who raised you to care about the other, but what was your encounter with law, and how did you end up now working with the most vulnerable group here in Los Angeles?
LH: Right out of undergrad, I was interested in, you know, the world. And so I really tried to take as many opportunities as I could to travel abroad, to travel to other countries, experience what other people experienced in different shoes. And I think that was part of kind of what opened my mind to taking the unbeaten path, not just to take my privilege and go to the good schools and get the good job and have that kind of materially nice life. And I think each of those experiences, as I traveled–I traveled to Japan, I traveled to South Africa, I traveled to Southeast Asia, I traveled to India–just seeing, you know, the human experience, I think that really made me want to give back to the community, and as I mentioned, really, kind of support the underdog. And that, I think, naturally led to a career in public interest, a career in helping people who were less advantaged, who don’t speak English here in the U.S., who have other disadvantages. And so I think that’s, you know, just having my eyes open to different experiences that different people have.
RS: So who are these people? This is like, for me, this is the yellow star moment with the Jews in Germany where a group is singled out and demonized, held responsible for all your problems, and now there’s license to treat them in the most brutal way, rip up families and so forth. You’re working in the field of immigration now, and so what is this group that’s being targeted, and you know, what’s going on? What is this historic moment all about, emotionally?
LH: Yeah, I think that’s the million-dollar question. I mean, I think there’s many, many parts to that question. I think some of it is a backlash, as I mentioned; we’re becoming a more and more multiethnic, multicultural society, and there are people who are really pushing against that. And so we see the politics playing out in a way where it’s OK again to bash immigrants and to bash the other. And we have a segment of our population–fortunately not the majority, but a good segment–who kind of wants to go back to the way it was, or the way they thought it was. And they found a leader who is going to take them in that direction, and so they’re going to ride that wave for as long as they can. But at the same time, the majority of people didn’t want that. And so this is also a time for the majority of the people, like us, who believe in a different worldview, to stand up and talk about what we believe in, and what we believe this country is about. It’s really a call to action, I think, for many of us who, we’re kind of gliding along and thinking, OK, our country is going in generally the right direction; we had eight years of a fairly progressive person in office, and we just assumed that that was going to continue. But clearly, there are some tensions, and we need to address those head-on, and we need to make our politicians accountable to our values, who we are as a country. And so that’s where my work fits in as a civil rights lawyer and a community lawyer.
RS: What weapons do you really have? I mean, you’re, when we talk about a vulnerable people, I actually, I was with the LA Times for 29 years and I covered immigration and the border and these issues. And you know, in the typical raid or rounding up people, whether it was on the border or it was in the fields agriculturally, or it was in the factory, it was very clear the people doing the arresting and rounding up were going to communicate: You don’t have any rights, you’re here illegally and you’re out, and yeah you want to talk to a lawyer, lots of luck, and so forth. And then they were put very often in prisons that are run for profit, right?
RS: And no one’s so interested in. How much support is there, what rights are there? And I want you to address this question of here in California, we have our top elected officials, pretty much across the board–not across politically, but we happen to have a strong, deep-blue state here, and under Jerry Brown and others it’s become very sensitive to the needs of immigrants. There’s a whole movement of sanctuary, support, and so forth. But we do have a federal government which has the power to regulate the border and deal with immigration. What is the power on the part of the state, Tenth Amendment, and as a lawyer what tools do you bring to this?
LH: Well, I think there’s a lot we can do. And I think this is the moment where I realize that, you know, I did the right thing by becoming a civil rights lawyer. Because I feel like we have more value now than ever to kind of fight back against these perceptions–and they’re really perceptions that, you know, people at the border don’t have rights, or that immigrants don’t have rights, that noncitizens don’t have rights. They’re not absolute rights; they’re always kind of couched around the different status you might have. You know, people with citizenship obviously have the greatest rights, but legal permanent residents have very good rights, people who are here on visas have rights, even undocumented people have rights. The Constitution provides for the right to due process, the right to equal protection. If you look at the first ten amendments of the Constitution, it doesn’t speak in terms of citizenship, it speaks in terms of all people. And so as a lawyer, it’s our job to bring cases to either confirm that these rights exist or, where possible, to clarify the law to show that these rights can even go further than what are on the books. And for all you can say about what Trump has done, he’s provided us great material to bring more lawsuits, to hopefully expand the rights, or expand the legal kind of precedent for rights for the gamut of people that live in our country.
RS: [omission] This is Robert Scheer and I’m talking to Laboni Hoq, who’s a very skilled lawyer and comes out of a civil rights movement where you fought a lot of battles for Asian Americans, for others. And you now find yourself on the front line of worrying about undocumented people, many of whom are Spanish-speaking and from Mexico or Central America. Take us to the current moment. Trump has certainly upped the ante; he’s hiring more border patrol, building more prisons on the border, and he’s broadened the basis on which you can arrest people and stop them. So where are we now? Are we in a time of a reign of terror for these people?
LH: I think we are. I mean, I think we went from a period where you did have, under the Obama administration, plenty–you know, probably record numbers–of deportations, but they were done in a way that kind of became a little bit more predictable. And what Trump has done now is he’s just thrown out the rule book. And he started from scratch, and basically any one of those 12 million people you mentioned who are here without documentation could be subject at any time. So it really does feel like a reign of terror, for both that community as well as the community at large, because we all interact with people who are undocumented all the time. They are our cooks, nannies, gardeners; they are our shopkeepers; they are our small business owners. And the idea that at any moment, these people who are dear to us can be deported is really, really terrifying and really sad. And so it’s an issue that we all as a community need to think about. And in terms of helping them, we need to, whether you’re a lawyer, whether you’re an employer, whether you are somebody who is just a member of the community, maybe they go to your church or your synagogue, or whatever–we need to provide sanctuary for them. And I think you mentioned the sanctuary city movement, the sanctuary schools, and courthouses, and hospitals; you know, we need to kind of step up in that game.
RS: Well, from a legal point of view, and you’re obviously a well-trained lawyer, can’t ICE agents and border patrol folks within a hundred miles of the border and so forth, they can just with impunity arrest people and tear families apart. And as a lawyer, what weapons do you have?
LH: There are some people, like you said, those that are right around the border, that are a hundred miles from the border, unfortunately they don’t have as many rights. But everybody has these due process rights. So they’re the right to be presented with information about what you did wrong, and the right to explain why you are in the situation that you are to a neutral arbiter. And I think the majority of the undocumented people have those due process rights; it’s a matter of having lawyers, having people to take them to court, having resources to exercise their rights. And that’s something that we can do; you know, we as individual lawyers, but we as a state. You know, in California we’re seeing politicians step up and create what’s called a Universal Representation Fund to provide lawyers to these folks who are going to get caught up in this system at greater rates and greater numbers. And so we’re hoping to see that process speed up as quickly as possible so that we can. There’s a lot of people who want to help these folks; I think our organization, Advancing Justice, has seen record numbers of people come forward and want to volunteer with us. Other organizations like the ACLU and other nonprofits have seen similar people step up to want to help, lawyers and nonlawyers. So we need to get organized. We need to get our resources together, we need to get our politics together. And some people unfortunately will be out of luck; some people, there are some expedited processes that can happen for particularly vulnerable people right around the border, that they can be summarily deported. But the vast majority of people do have these due process rights that I talked about.
RS: So let me ask you about the response of the community. Where I met you is at this Japanese-American event commemorating the concentration camps of World War II. And I was really impressed that there seemed to be in the audience, and among the people we talked to, and the questions, really a genuine human rights commitment across the board. But I’m not naive; I know there’s probably people who feel, what’s a nice Bangladesh young lady like you doing worried about Mexican-American undocumented, and so forth. And does the organization get pushback? Is this a live issue for debate and concern?
LH: You know, it may be, but I think what we see more is that in a moment like this, we realize how interconnected we all really are. If you look back at the history of this country, there are people of all different races and ethnic backgrounds who have been targeted, and it’s just different times for different people. You know, we’ve seen the African American community from really time immemorial be the targets; post-9/11 we saw the Muslim community be the targets, and that’s continuing and getting worse now, as we see. So it’s a time for us to remember that we can all be in those shoes. And so the idea that you only stand for yourself, you know, this is a time to look beyond our silos and really be, you know, we hear this word of being allies and being in solidarity. But I think that people feel that more now; I think people in my organization have always had that as an ethos, but I think we see that more broadly in progressive circles.
RS: So let me just conclude this by switching to a subject we haven’t talked about, the other group of immigrants that have been subject to fairly severe persecution and objectification and demonization–the Muslim group. And of course most Muslims in the world are actually closer racially and genetically to you, from Bangladesh, than they are to the Arab Muslim. And we have very large Muslim populations living very different ways around the world. But somehow they’ve all been lumped together, right, in this category. And in fact, one of the groups that’s subject to the most violence are the Sikhs, who actually have a very different whole stance in relation to all this. And are you concerned as a woman of color from Bangladesh, I mean, that your family, people you know, are going to be subject to this kind of physical attack and abuse?
LH: I am. I myself am a Muslim-American, and I have cousins who live in the Inland Empire here in California. It’s a slightly more conservative part of Southern California; some of my aunts wear hijabs, the religious head covering. And you know, luckily nothing has happened, but I do worry for them, and I do worry for the safety of people; we’ve seen this rising, you know, with the rhetoric and with the actual policies that are being put in place, we see a commensurate rising tide of hate incidents across the country. We saw in Olathe, Kansas, the shooting of three individuals, two of whom were from India. And like you said, they’re not Muslim, but they get caught up in the same kind of backlash as the Muslim populations, the very diverse Muslim populations.
RS: Well, it’s what–again, I don’t want to single out Trump, although he is the President, so I guess we get to single him out now; he’s the leader of the whole free world–kind of gag on the words when you say them. But he certainly has been the most prominent person to introduce bullying and objectification of the other. And of course it began with the excuse being 9/11 and national security. And the irony here is that on the one hand, we claim that we’re interested in supporting the freedom of people, whether they live in Egypt or in Pakistan or anywhere else, and we claim that we care about religious freedom; and yet we’ve lumped all these people together in a cartoon imagery. And I was struck the other night because it happens to be the Persian new year, which is celebrated by Jewish and Muslim and other Persians, you know. And I was at the home of some people who are basically secular, but their grandmother is observant and they come from this tradition. And they were–you know, I can’t speak for them, but I felt fear in the room. You know, where you can go, and when you should go, and what you can say, and what you wear. And I mean, palpable fear. And bringing it back to the rounding up of the Japanese Americans, the reason we have to study history–here we took a group of people who had done nothing wrong. They didn’t vote for the emperor of Japan, many of them had been here longer than 95 percent of the rest of Americans; you know, they were deeply into agriculture and worrying about their crops; their neighbors admired them for their skills in agriculture, the way they tended to their land. And nonetheless, you could just rip these people out of their lives, put them in internment camps, restrict their movements, and actually threaten their whole future. And that’s what we’re doing with–you know, yes, we do it with Mexican Americans, we do it with, you know, from all sorts of places–but then this large group of people called Muslims. And here, we’re–look at the world, OK, you got a situation where we have managed with the hatred of somebody like Trump to lump Shiite and Sunni, you know, educated and uneducated, Asian Muslim and Arabic Muslim and so forth, all together in a grouping that is basically dismissed as despicable. Right?
RS: So the beginning of the whole pogrom mentality is the dehumanization, the simplification, the objectification of another people. And as a Muslim American, yes, this is something that must be truly alarming.
LH: It is. And you know, it’s alarming when I see that the statistics show that over 50 percent of the population is supportive of this Muslim ban, or it’s sometimes called a travel ban, but it’s really a Muslim ban. And that is the eye-opening thing, is that there is a lot of ignorance about who Muslims are, what they stand for, conflating all Muslims with radicalization. These are the narratives that we hear, and that unfortunately seem to be winning the day. And so it is going to be a very uphill battle to make sure that we can change that narrative. And I think it’s wonderful to see that after the ban was put in place, we had over 40 lawsuits filed on behalf of this Muslim community; so that’s heartening to see. It was heartening to see all of the protest activity around the country. But we have to keep pushing back and, you know, educating our fellow Americans about who Muslim-Americans are: that they are our neighbors and our friends. There’s just a lot of misinformation that needs to be corrected, and it’s going to be a long, long haul. But I’m glad to be here to talk about that.
RS: So I want to thank you for coming in and doing this podcast. It’s been another edition of Scheer Intelligence. Our producers are Rebecca Mooney and Joshua Scheer. Mario Diaz and Kat Yore are the engineers at KRCW. And a big shout-out to Sebastian Grubaugh at USC for providing the engineering here at this marvelous university at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. See you next week.