By Arlene Dennistoun
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Marsha Chien, the daughter of parents who emigrated from Taiwan and an Assistant Attorney General in the Wing Luke Civil Rights Unit, had “no qualms about taking the strongest possible stance” in Washington state’s lawsuit against President Donald Trump’s travel ban.
When news first leaked about Trump’s Executive Order prohibiting people from coming to the United States from seven selected countries, Chien had strong feelings about it because of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 — the first law restricting immigration into the United States. Chien reflected on how America had historically unwelcomed Chinese people and treated them as foreigners. “It felt really raw to me to hear this was going to happen to another population.”
As part of her research for the case against Trump, Chien read court decisions involving the Chinese Exclusion Act, and it was painful. Chien recalled the language in the cases, referring to Chinese people as “strangers in our land,” and the court’s decision that it was okay for the government to fear “an Oriental invasion.”
Chien has pursued civil rights since she became a lawyer, graduating from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 2010. In 2012, Chien won a Skadden Fellowship for her dedication to a career in public interest work. As a Skadden Fellow, Chien wrote an op-ed in 2013 for The Hill, a newspaper and website published in Washington, D.C. Proposed amendments to a congressional bill excluding immigrants from becoming U.S. citizens, based on their ability to speak English, were “exclusionary, unprecedented, and unnecessary,” Chien wrote.
As a staff attorney with the San Francisco Legal Aid Society’s Employment Law Center, Chien sued the California Department of Corrections (DOC) for refusing to consider an applicant for a job based on a 10-year-old felony for which he was never convicted. Chien won that case in federal district court. The applicant had used an invalid social security number while undocumented. The DOC’s policy of barring any applicant with a felony from being employed sounded reasonable, but Chien looked at the particular facts of the case and saw the discriminatory impact on Latinos, which “excluded anyone who was once undocumented.” When someone has become a legal U.S. citizen but can’t get a job because they were undocumented at one time, “that hurts the American dream.”
Chien was also involved in the lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against Abercrombie & Fitch because of their headscarf ban involving one of two Muslim women.
Hired in August 2015, it’s no surprise Chien landed in the Civil Rights Unit at the Washington State Attorney General’s Office. There was only one other attorney, the head of the group, Colleen Melody, before Chien became the second attorney appointed.
As a civil rights attorney for the state, Chien works on discrimination cases in housing, employment, and public accommodations. She’s excited to work on cases impacting vulnerable people, but her favorite cases aren’t necessarily ones involving “bad actors — that’s like whack-a-mole. Hitting somebody who’s an obvious bad actor is the kind of case that’s easily remedied.”
Chien’s most intellectually stimulating and personally satisfying work involves cases where a deeper look at a seemingly reasonable and neutral policy exposes a discriminatory impact. “I think that gets to the heart of a lot of discrimination that exists today — institutional discrimination.” Ordinary people may not see policies as discriminatory, but if you think it through, “we may see that certain policies contribute to the way our society is segregated.”
The journey to becoming a civil rights warrior
Before becoming an attorney, Chien joined the Peace Corps after graduating from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service with a degree in economics. Chien went to a Mayan village, Chirrepec, in Guatemala, where she helped a tea cooperative with agricultural marketing and business development.
Chien got the tea cooperative up and running, arranged agricultural tours, and educated women who weren’t able to participate. To the community’s surprise, the fermenting, drying, and packaging machinery were donated by Taiwan, because Guatemala was one of the few countries that recognized Taiwan as a representative of China.
During her stay in Guatemala, Chien learned Spanish and Q’eqchi’ (Kekchi). The Mayan community’s extreme poverty became a bit “normalized,” after living there for two years, and “became a way for me to respect their lives, regardless of their poverty.”
After the Peace Corps, Chien wanted to practice international human rights law abroad. She spent a summer working at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and found she didn’t like it as much as U.S. law. She began focusing on human rights law in America.
Chien is from Virginia and found it “refreshing” to see politically active Asian American communities in California and Washington state. Because of her prior civil rights work in Spanish-speaking communities, Chien is not as familiar with Chinese American or other Asian American issues, and doesn’t see as many civil rights complaints from the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, compared to other communities. Chien wants to strengthen the partnership with the API community, has attended Asian Pacific Islander Coalition meetings, and feels she’s filling a needed role.
Committed to civil rights advocacy
Although the state won its lawsuit against Trump to stop the travel ban, fear of traveling remains for many. The Attorney General’s Office spoke with numerous people affected by the prohibition, and not all of them were from the seven affected countries. People from India and Pakistan were also afraid to travel and canceled trips given the uncertainty of the ban and the fear of being targeted.
There’s a tremendous amount of discretion left to individual officers or agents in how they treat selected travelers.
Despite the temporary restraining order, it’s difficult, said Chien, to track whether everyone is following the court’s order. Some officers and agents feel somewhat emboldened to do what they view is right, or what they think the current administration thinks is right. When people operate out of fear, said Chien, “individual discretion is all over the page.”
Some polls show most Americans support a travel ban. It was difficult for Chien to hear her friends supported a travel ban, too. Chien chocks that up to fear. When you’re fearful, said Chien, “there’s no end to what you might do.” People are operating out of fear, and I get it.” Chien understands fear drives people to lash out or act in ways that are not rational.
Chien is seemingly unwavering in her commitment to civil rights for all. She’s unsure she could even be a lawyer if she weren’t advocating for civil rights. “I’d probably find some other profession.”
Arlene can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.