The Asian Law Caucus: Changing Lives for the Better

In honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Morrison & Foerster welcomed Aarti Kohli, executive director of the Advancing Justice Asian Law Caucus, to deliver a virtual presentation on the racial and cultural biases that Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans often face, and what her organization is doing to serve API communities and implement systemic change.

Having immigrated to Queens, N.Y., from India when she was seven years old, Aarti has experienced the life of an Asian American immigrant first hand.

“My parents didn’t have jobs. We were fortunate, though. They spoke English, and they were educated,” Aarti explained. “In Queens, I expected fairy tale castles but I actually saw a lot of poverty, and I saw the diversity of this country, and—as we moved to the suburbs—I saw the inequities in the school systems, in the libraries, in the resources. And I was very fortunate to be on a career trajectory that would give me the opportunity to empower immigrant communities.”

Those opportunities sometimes come in the form of filing lawsuits. A suit that MoFo worked on with the Asian Law Caucus, among other groups, involved an unanswered Freedom of Information Act request seeking documents describing the FBI’s interactions with members of the Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian communities.

Following approximately two years of litigation in that suit, about 100,000 pages of documents from the federal government came to light. Some of them showed that local police officers and FBI agents were being trained using a curriculum that discriminated against members of the Asian American community. As a result of the disclosures, the training materials at issue were discontinued. The results of the case actually helped form new surveillance policies.

“Collaborations between law firms and public interest organizations are such an important part of the pursuit for justice,” Aarti said.

The lawsuit that inspired the Asian Law Caucus’s formation stems back as far as 1972, when the San Francisco Police Department went after Chinese gangs by sweeping Chinatown, Aarti explained.

“They went around Chinatown and ended up just arresting any young men who were out on the streets to bring them in and interrogate them,” she said.

Eventually Berkeley Law students got involved, realized there really wasn’t another place for this community to go, and decided to file the Asian Law Caucus’s first lawsuit, Chann v. Scott.

“In the police officers’ depositions, the discrimination was just so blatant,” Aarti said. “They said things like, ‘Well, we can’t tell them apart, so we just bring them all in.’”

Many of the more recent lawsuits that the Asian Caucus has filed involve immigrants’ rights. Class actions filed on behalf of the Cambodian and Vietnamese communities assert these groups’ due process rights are violated when—because of the current administration’s focus on deporting Southeast Asian immigrants—the members of these communities show up for their Immigration and Customs Enforcement appointments only to be told that they must leave the country immediately, without any notice.

“Any wide range of crimes can make you deportable if you’re a green card holder,” Aarti explained. “A lot of refugees came into the U.S. with very young children, all green card holders. They came from violence and war and then were located in communities that had a lot of violence and trauma. Many of these young Southeast Asian men joined gangs for many reasons: for a place to belong, for protection, to escape what was happening in the home. And through gang membership, they committed crimes. And so they went to prison, and in the last few years they are being deported without notice—despite often having turned their lives around.”

Despite the breadth of the lawsuits the Asian Law Caucus brings, their work goes far beyond court cases. Before COVID-19 closed down the nation, the organization was handling a lot of workers’ rights issues.

“We were dealing with a lot of wage theft and sexual harassment of Asian immigrant women,” Aarti said.

Since the pandemic, the Asian Law Caucus has been inundated with requests for help navigating state bureaucracy and filling out unemployment forms. ALC’s members are also fielding questions about what employers can force employers to do and the organization has been holding clinics in various Asian communities. “And it requires a lot of cultural competence and language ability to navigate all of that,” Aarti said.