Halting the Exile of an American

"He knows no other language, no other people, no other habits, than ours; he will be as much a stranger in Poland as any one born of ancestors who immigrated in the seventeenth century. However heinous his crimes, deportation is to him exile, a dreadful punishment, abandoned by the common consent of all civilized peoples." ~ Judge Learned Hand, 1872-1961, commenting on the deportation of an American-raised, but Polish-born resident.

Overcoming a difficult adolescence and going on to achieve remarkable success as an adult is not as common an occurrence as we would like to believe. Even less so for someone who ended his teenage years in detention and made use of a second chance that so many squander.

But it does happen.

Qing Hong Wu, 29, was one of those rare examples. His story was the story of the American promise of equal justice and economic opportunity, an example that the system can work and can be fair. But came one morning in November 2009, when everything changed for Qing at a meeting with the United States Immigration & Customs Enforcement ("ICE"). On the basis of Qing's misconducts as a 15-year old minor, ICE committed a spectacular trespass against the basic rights of an American by detaining him for deportation.

Qing has lived in the United States as a lawful permanent resident since the age of 5. His parents emigrated from China to New York City in 1985 with him and his two sisters in hope of a better future. As is the story common to many immigrant families, the parents worked long hours at modest jobs just to afford the basic necessities for their children. Qing was a gifted student, but with limited parental supervision, he fell in with the wrong crowd as a teenager.

In 1995 and 1996, Qing aided in committing various robberies, for which he was arrested. With the assistance of legal aid counsel, he pled guilty to four charges of robberies as an adult, even though he was only 16 at the time and did not understand the immigration consequences of his plea. Qing went to jail with a promise to himself that he would make up for all the pains he caused his family, that he would study to make up for lost time, and that he would be a model citizen going forward. He went on to obtain his GED while in jail and, for good behaviors, he served the minimum possible sentence and was released early in 1999 at the age of 18.

Following his release, Qing began working to support his family in addition to continuing his educational pursuits. By 2004, he had obtained numerous certificates in computer science, earned a degree in Computer Information Systems and gained employment as a system administrator with the New York City Patrolmen's Benevolent Association. After his early release from parole, Qing continued to work hard, support his widowed mother and achieve admirable professional success. He rose through the ranks of a reputable public company, where he held the position of Vice President of Information Technology in 2009 at the age of 29. His success shined a light on both the American dream and a functional justice system at work.

Qing loves his country and has been proudly identifying himself as an American for as long as he could remember. To formalize this relationship, Qing submitted an Application for Naturalization with the U.S. Immigration Service in 2007. ICE unexpectedly responded with a notice requesting that he attend a meeting with a deportation officer. At a November 2009 meeting, Qing was detained by ICE and has since been held at an immigration detention facility in New Jersey. He is now facing deportation to China on the basis of his convictions as a minor -- considered aggravated felonies under U.S. immigration law.

We live in the America of redemption and renewal. And Qing was a perfect example of the promise of its human laws. In the eyes of the justice system, Qing has more than paid his debt to society. In fact, our criminal law does not even recognize deportation as a form of additional punishment reserved for non-citizens alone. Yet, the immigration system now operates separately to derail the future of a person who has been leading an exemplary adult life. It is hard to imagine how someone at ICE, even with just a cursory familiarity with Qing's life story, could make such an onerous decision. Whatever the reasons may be, federal immigration agents clearly did not consider countervailing family and fairness considerations. In addition, the apparent lack of any legitimate public interest behind uprooting a person's life makes ICE's action all the more unjust.

Deportation of criminal aliens has a long history premised on the general principle that a country may rightfully deport foreigners who pose a threat to the security of the country or may harm or cause disorder to the public welfare. But they know enough to avoid ICE, they live on the edges of society. The ones who would harm us hide. But not Qing Wu, who led his mainstream American life in the open, paid his taxes, went to work, and held positions of trust. His voluntary submission to ICE and the ensuing nightmare is proof of an innocent desire to complete his naturalization, proof of his good character, proof of his good "citizenship", and proof of his good intentions.

The deportation of Qing Wu, his exile from his home, is not reasonable, or appropriate, or just. It is a bureaucratic knee-jerk response, a grab at the lowest hanging fruit and the easiest to grab without regard to the equities of his condition and results in grave injustice for the person, his family and to us all. Qing has been a legal permanent resident in the U.S. since the age of 5 with well-established family and community ties. He is an American in all respects, even though his green card may say otherwise. A deportation of Qing is more akin to an exile from one's home nation than a return of a person from a foreign land. Justice would be better served if our federal immigration agencies can recognize that what makes a person an American is not contained within a document, but that it depends upon that person's relationship to this country and his contributions to it.

Qing's life is not the only one profoundly impacted by ICE's deportation effort. His family, employer and the community are also adversely affected. Qing's friends, sisters, fiancé and widowed mother, who depends on Qing for financial and emotional support, have suffered greatly from the toll of having a loved one detained by the government. The pain of being separated from Qing half way around the world would be unimaginable to them. Unfortunately, ICE's action - a manifestation of extreme nativism run amok - may very well force this loving American family into permanent separation.

As shocking as ICE's action may be, Qing is facing a steep uphill battle in seeking any relief at all from the federal government. Immigration laws in the past two decades have increasingly embraced the certainty and severity of immigration consequences for non-citizens with prior criminal convictions. The limited forms of statutory relief from deportation are generally available in cases involving the least serious of crimes only. Because Qing's prior convictions are considered aggravated felonies under immigration laws, his chance of getting any relief from ICE, the immigration court or the Board of Immigration Appeals is not promising.

The state government can be another venue to seek relief. A definitive way of averting deportation is to obtain a full pardon of the prior convictions, in which case the basis for ICE's deportation would be null. Pardon is an extraordinary remedy in the Governor's power that is very rarely granted. However, the facts of Qing Wu's case should demonstrate a compelling case for a pardon, one that is well justified by public policy and the basic notion of repent and fairness so fundamental to the criminal justice system. If Qing's pending petition to the Governor of New York proves to be successful, Qing would be able to stay here at home and one day join the rest of his family as legally recognized citizens of this country.

More than half a century later, Judge Hand's words still ring true. Qing's youthful transgressions belong in a distant past; he is being punished for the actions of the child he was and has so obviously left behind. Deporting Qing Wu would amount to a banishment of an American, his exile, and a denial of property and all else that makes life worth living. It would truly be an abandonment of all common sense.

Kendrick Nguyen is a practicing attorney in New York City. He is Mr. Wu's pro bono counsel with respect to the pardon petition currently filed with Governor Paterson of New York. To voice your support for Qing Wu, please email the Governor and his staff from the following website: