Interview: Immigration Attorney Margaret Wong
By TNAT Staff TNAT sat down with Margaret Wong, President and Managing Partner of Margaret W. Wong & Associates. An immigrant herself born in the former British Colony of Hong Kong, Mrs. Wong uses her 35 years as a lawyer to help New Americans navigate the complicated legal system. She is the current co-chair of the Immigration Law Committee for the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, and chair of the Cleveland Bar Association’s Immigration Law Section, and is the author of “Immigrant’s Way.” Her firm has even represented both President Obama’s aunt and uncle in deportation hearings.
TNAT: Your parents left the civil war in China before immigrating to the United States. How did you get the United States?
I am the beneficiary of the Celler quota act [Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965]. I came in ’69. Those were the days where I don’t like to tell people, “oh I’m foreign.” I think it’s more chic now — if you had asked me that 20 years and say, “Margaret you’re from Hong Kong,” I would feel very offended. Now I’m so proud of it, you know, to go back to my own roots.
But Hong Kong in those days — there was only one University, and I know I won’t get in. I’m not that smart. So my mom thought I should come and at least get a better education. My father is so anti-communist; America wanted to get out of Vietnam, my father was totally against communists, so my father wanted America to join with the world to fight against communism.
TNAT: How did you get into Law?
Wong: I had a mentor who was a great lawyer 6 years older than me. But I never thought I could. Because In Hong Kong, there were only two majors: you major in Art, even in highschool, or science. Art is more writing, music, domestic home stuff. Science is more pre-med, pre-chemistry. In those days chemistry was a big major. So I was a chemistry, biology major hoping to become a doctor
We’re all writers and publishers…I’m the first lawyer actually. My father is one of the nine founders of a very famous anti-communist company. And that’s why he wanted to go to Hong Kong — he didn’t want to go to Taiwan so people would think he’s in their pocket. In those days there was a lot of anti-propaganda money. Anti-communist people in Taiwan were supported by Chiang Kai-shek .The anti-communists in China were slowly killed. My grandfather was killed by the Chinese. So we came from a political family. And in those days, being in publishing and writing, you didn’t want to make a lot of money, because then people think you’re in someone’s pocket.
TNAT: What was the moment that drove you to go specifically into immigration law?
Wong: Oh I didn’t. It was survival. I kept getting fired, and I kept getting fired, and I couldn’t get a job. So I took some accounting courses from John Carroll University, which was two blocks from my apartment. I was really young and poor, I went through a horrible relationship, I didn’t even have a car so I couldn’t drive. By then I was 26 years old and finally I started, not because I wanted to start, it was just because somebody said “I couldn’t afford to hire you, but why don’t you do this.”
In those days, nobody did immigration. They all want to be corporate council, law partners. Now it’s very competitive.
TNAT: There is this negative stigma attached to those wanting to immigrate to the US — that many are uneducated, or poor, or lack skills. Considering your background and success, how do you feel about that portrayal?
Wong: It’s wrong. See the sad thing is…if people close their eyes and think of “immigrant,” immediately they say they don’t have papers. But what they don’t know is the last 30 years we changed. Even if you look at my history — of course I was young and poor. But through the years we’ve gotten married, we have two income families, we pay a lot of taxes. But the media is not up with people in the field.
Just like immigration law: you have the executive branch, the president Obamas, they want to get votes, and they say ‘this is this.’ Then you have the professional managers. So in immigration now, we have no leaders because they all quit.
And then you have people like us, with ICE, with CIS. We are the in the fields, we’re the ones who tell them what we can do for you, we’re the ones who go to jail and bail people out.
You have John Morton [former ICE Director] who quit, and a lot of second tier managers who want to protect their jobs. So the deportation is way, way high, and it’s really sad.
TNAT: You spoke earlier a bit about the shame you had in being labeled an immigrant. Could you explain that a bit?
Wong: The media story always talks about deportation, but there are so many singers, dancers, baseball players that are highly successful that you don’t hear from. if you listen to them — like me in my 30s and 40s — you never tell people, “oh, I’m an immigrant.” You want to be mainstream, you want to be white, you want to be just like any other American woman, you want to be pale and not burn in the sun.
So I always had my big diamonds, and my big jewelry, and my nice watch just to overcome the insecurity. But now, most of us immigrants are older, and we will write a book and talk about the immigrants. But how much older can we get? Because by then, I’ll forget it. So we need the next generation to come up, and we need to change that image.
These aren’t criminals; these are just people with statuses on pieces of paper. But American people don’t see that.
TNAT: But people do treat them like they’re criminals
Wong: That’s right.
TNAT: Do you feel that it was always this way?
Wong: No, no. In the 90s there was a big boom on privatization of the jails. That’s why Homeland Security took immigration in as a first branch. The federal judges now in the past 10 years don’t have to listen to guidelines. So the criminal people, they don’t have to go to jail as much.
But the jails need surviving. Who is going to support the jail money? They use bonds to pay for it…so now they’re putting all the immigrants there. They make $150 a night by putting an immigrant there, and after two months they deport them. Why don’t you deport them the first day?
The privatization is driving immigration. In my days, green cards were made by the government. Now they’re subcontracted by private companies. The whole National Visa Center is subcontracted. The whole mailroom of immigration is subcontracted. It’s awesome how much money they make off people like us
TNAT: What are your feelings on the current political push for finding a permanent path to citizenship?
Wong: I’ve been really pushing Ohio state senators and congressmen. Any states with people who listen to me, I talk. Some of these aids — it’s not the chiefs, not the senators, it’s very much their chief of staff or head of legal assistance — some people told me it would be a longshot, some people said maybe by December. So, we’ll see. I’m optimistic.
And the sad thing is they don’t even need Senate or Congress approval. If they only listened to the rank and file people like us. If they only lowered the percentage of deportation, used more prosecutorial discretion, and we motioned re-open more cases — we’d be fine. Because we are eligible to adjust — we could get a green card, but for certain requirements. If they loosened it, we got it.