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An Illegal Immigrant's Tale - From Rags To Stardom

by Alan Lee, Esq.

Last month, I and my wife Lijing met with and had dinner with Tehching Hsieh and his wife Qinqin, and I had occasion to again think that America should embrace and be tolerant of its illegal immigrants, because you never know from where genius will spring. Tehching came to the U.S. as a crewman from Taiwan, jumping ship on the Delaware River in 1974, swam to shore, and dodged immigration authorities for 14 years before obtaining permanent residence in 1988 under the legalization program. He told us that he worked in Chinese restaurants cleaning up after closing because he never wanted to wear a white apron. He was afraid that if he worked during regular hours and the restaurant was raided by INS, he would be too conspicuous running down the street in an apron. He did many menial jobs over the years, including construction, and was arrested in 1982 for carrying a nunchaku stick that he kept in his rucksack for protection. Yet during that period, Tehching created some of the most brilliant and compelling art for which he is now being honored in simultaneous shows at the Guggenheim Museum and the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York. He has lately been the subject of laudatory articles by critics of the New York Times and other art media. His one-man show, "Cage Piece" runs at MOMA until May 18th. His time clock piece in "The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1989" runs through April 19th. His life and works have been published in a large book, Out of Now, by MIT Press, and he was recently awarded a $50,000 grant, his first, by United States Artists. When we visited the museums with Tehching and Qinqin earlier in the day, we could see the banners on the light posts outside the Guggenheim featuring his timeclock work.

Tehching came to this country in a more relaxed time for undocumented immigrants. With today's emphasis on enforcement and raids, he would be in much more danger of deportation than in the 1970's and 1980's. Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA) which stiffened many of the existing immigration laws. He would possibly have already been swept up in the Bush Administration's mass raids since 2007, and his arrest in 1982 would have been certain ground for removal under today's law. We now expect our immigrants to be angels and saints before they can be admitted, and some misdemeanors are counted as aggravated felonies for which there is no possibility of forgiveness during the individual's lifetime. That is a far cry from the purpose of the aggravated felony provision when it was introduced in 1988 as a means for singling out the worst criminals for special treatment and first defined aggravated felony only as murder, drug trafficking, and firearms trafficking.

Tehching's immigration case of sneaking into the country and being arrested for small offenses over the years is a common tale. The problem is that over the years many petty offenses have been upgraded in seriousness for immigration purposes. One recent example is a clerk or cashier selling knock-off handbags or purses or watches being now designated a person with a crime involving moral turpitude. But in such case, there is no intent to defraud the buyer as the buyers know that the bags are fake just from the cheap location and price alone. Who knows how many of the undocumented who have run afoul of U.S.I.C.E. ( the enforcement arm of legacy INS) or the police have innate genius to make fascinating art or build large organizations or do other great things if given a chance. We should remember that most of those who sneak into this country are the most ambitious of their countries' young and not willing to remain locked in their countries' old systems. And even if not them, many of their children become the builders of this nation. Tehching's tale of being an illegal immigrant for 14 years and spending 35 years here in obscurity before his genius was finally recognized in 2009 is a strong argument for more tolerance to immigrants, even of the undocumented variety.

About The Author

Alan Lee, Esq. the author is a 25+ year practitioner of immigration law based in New York City. He was awarded the Sidney A. Levine prize for best legal writing at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law in 1977 and has written extensively on immigration over the past years for the ethnic newspapers, World Journal, Sing Tao, Pakistan Calling, Muhasha and OCS. He has testified as an expert on immigration in civil court proceedings and was recognized by the Taiwan government in 1985 for his work protecting human rights. His article, "The Bush Temporary Worker Proposal and Comparative Pending Legislation: an Analysis" was Interpreter Releases' cover display article at the American Immigration Lawyers Association annual conference in 2004, and his victory in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in a case of first impression nationwide, Firstland International v. INS, successfully challenged INS' policy of over 40 years of revoking approved immigrant visa petitions under a nebulous standard of proof. Its value as precedent, however, was short-lived as it was specifically targeted by the Administration in the Intelligence Reform Act of 2004.

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