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An Open Letter to Jeff Sessions

I hope you will remember that it is never too late to do what is right.

  • June Shih
February 23, 2017

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice

Cross-posted from Medium.

Dear Attorney General Sessions:

Something caught my eye when I watched your confirmation hearing last month: Your little granddaughters sitting adorably in their smocked dresses on your wife’s lap, and at one point, on yours. They caught the eye of some folks on Twitter, too, who were incredulous that you, an outspoken critic of America’s immigration laws, might have Asian-Americans in your family.

As an Asian-American, I was delighted to find out that you have an Asian-American son-in-law, John Walk, who is married to your daughter Ruth, and father to four of your granddaughters. Like millions of other American families, your family has been directly enriched by immigration from all corners of the world.

So I am writing to ask you, as America’s newly-sworn-in top law enforcement officer, to abandon your support for immigration policies that would deny other families the same chance at happiness that your daughter and son-in-law enjoy as an interracial couple, and that you and your wife enjoy as grandparents of such adorable little girls.

I know nothing about your son-in-law’s family history. But I do know that families like Ruth and John’s, and like mine, are only possible because America, after a long civil rights struggle, finally repealed racist laws and opened our doors to immigrants of all races and religions.

As you know, America has not always welcomed people like John and me to her shores. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, America’s first law to close immigration to a specific racial group. The law barred Chinese people from immigrating legally to the United States until it was repealed in 1943. In 1924, Congress passed the National Origins Act, a blatantly racist law that restricted immigration to northern European, or “white” immigrants and severely restricted entry to Southern and Eastern European immigrants — Italians, Greeks, and Jews. Africans were restricted as well, while Asians like me and your son-in-law were banned outright. That racist law stayed in place until 1965, when Congress abolished racial quotas and gave people from all over the world a fairer shot at building new lives in America.

In 2015, you told Steve Bannon on Breitbart that the time had come for a return to the 1924-era restrictions, since America will soon “have the highest percentage of Americans, non-native born, since the founding of the Republic.” You called the changing demographics in America a “radical change” and that it was time to slow down immigration significantly.

But why is that necessary? What are you afraid of? That America is becoming less white? Your own family has become less white, but would you argue that your four Asian-American grandchildren are any less American than your other six?

America won’t become less American by becoming less white. America will only become less American if we suddenly abandon the road to equality that we have been on these last 50 years and go back to discriminating against immigrants because of their race, religion or national origin. The Trump Administration’s travel ban, which reports say some of your Senate staff helped design, is a frightening step backward for America.

What makes this country strong and so admired around the world is that this is a place where, with a bit of luck, anyone who is willing to work hard and play by the rules can have a fair chance at building a better life for his or her family. A place where citizens can speak freely and choose their own leaders.

You’re worried that the newest immigrants might not be able to assimilate— but never underestimate the power of American culture and ideals to make American patriots out of even the newest newcomer. My parents came to this country in the 1960s, speaking terrible English and with very little understanding of America. But my father worked for more than 30 years, day in and day out, taking care of some of our community’s poorest patients in our public hospital. After they became citizens, he and my mom voted in every election — most of the time for Republicans. They admired Ronald Reagan’s vigorous opposition to authoritarianism and his vision of freedom and democracy for the world. They paid their taxes regularly and on time. And they raised thoroughly American daughters who idolized Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, Harper Lee and Louisa May Alcott.

I understand that even Democrats who disagree passionately with your policies will testify to your collegiality. It’s clear you adore your little Asian-American granddaughters. But it’s not enough to be kind to the people who are directly in your own life. The policies you develop, the suits you bring, and the laws you enforce as Attorney General will affect the lives and future of millions of real people with children and grandchildren who, at the end of the day, are not and do not look so different from your own.

Scripture says, “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you, too, were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

As you begin your new job, I hope you will remember that America is at its best and at its strongest when each of us welcomes the stranger as ourselves. And I hope you will remember that it is never too late to do what is right.


June Shih