The Importance of Asian Immigrants: Tom Hanks and Yick Wo

You only rarely see a fictitious lawyer in a movie cite a real case. I cannot recall ever hearing any character utter the name of a Chinese immigrant among the many Asian Americans who litigated all the way up to the United States Supreme Court. Yet Tom Hanks, playing attorney Jim Donovan, in Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies, references Yick Wo v. Hopkins in standing up for due process.

In the hit thriller based on Cold War events, Hanks/Donovan loses as court-appointed counsel for a Soviet spy who is shown to us from the start as not only accused but certainly guilty. Donovan's pleas about principle were not effective given the politics of the time and the panic about "the Iron Curtain" descending over the world.

The insurance lawyer then is vindicated when his idea is put into play. Looking to his day job, he proposes that the convicted man serve as a safety policy. He might just prove useful. (Spoiler alert: The next paragraph reveals the plot for those unaware of the incidents.)

The Communist agent is offered in a prisoner exchange for downed American pilot Francis Gary Powers, along with a hapless graduate student. The attorney is drafted by the CIA as an unofficial representative to close the deal. He is to visit Berlin as its wall is being built. Hanks as Everyman enables the story to stop short of being didactic as a study of rule of law and the skills of negotiation. He is introduced to us in a scene that suggests a smooth shadiness, as he rationalizes his division of funds among accident victims.

Displaying an earnest attitude and ample period detail, the drama is effective because it is entertaining. It could not be more timely. The alarm about the atom bomb, communicated effectively by a child's efforts to prepare his family, seems quaint, as such anxieties usually do in retrospect. Yet it was in its era as acute, if not more so, than our contemporary apprehension about terrorism abroad and at home. "Duck and cover" is back again.

In this context, Hanks/Donovan has to rely on whatever precedent is available. He remains calm, though even he is perturbed by his client's equanimity in a running gag.

Yick Wo is an important decision. Handed down in 1886, when hatred of Asian immigrants was open -- and had led to legislation excluding people on the basis of race, a bar that lasted for generations -- the opinion establishes the proposition that regulations must be enforced in a neutral manner, without deliberate disparities. In San Francisco, the requirements for laundries were being manipulated to deny virtually all Chinese a license while permitting everyone else of other backgrounds to run their businesses. (The Court had a concept of substantive due process with which it could ignore the contradiction of Yick Wo by "separate but equal.")

Although public officials vied with one another to be more tough in preventing Asians coming here and abusing those already present, the Justices did not uniformly reject their claims. It was the opposite. Chinese entrepreneurs prevailed in Yick Wo. Their argument was novel.

That was not the only instance of Asians, contrary to an image of passivity and submissiveness, challenging unfairness and winning. Even public officials who would approve of discrimination against Asians had their limits.

Birthright citizenship was upheld in Wong Kim Ark. There, the Solicitor General, who represents the nation, had stated in his brief that American citizenship would not be worth possessing if Chinese could hold it.

The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, tested in a quartet of cases, the most famous of which involved Fred Korematsu, also has been much referenced lately. Whether the example is positive or negative, that mass incarceration is the model to be either followed or avoided.

These discussions about Asian Americans confirm that this group has arrived. Asian Americans have been here for generations. But they have not always been accepted as such -- as Americans, equal citizens in a diverse democracy.

The change is profound. The ease with which we look to Yick Wo, Wong Kim Ark, and Korematsu shows that what once were merely margins have defined a new mainstream. The cases highlight the bridge building function of law, because issues that were specific to a particular community turn out to have universal application.

The study of history is vital. My point is not to promote ethnic pride. I am an integrationist, not a separatist. (For that matter, the earliest scholars of the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Japanese American internment were white men, Charles McClain and Roger Daniels, respectively; they produced original work of reference quality.)

The story of Asian immigrants is an American story. It belongs among the set of narratives we share about how this nation came to be, a city upon a hill, unique and ideal.

The essential line in Bridge of Spies, declaimed by Hanks as Donovan, is about "the rulebook, the Constitution." Speaking to an intelligence operative, his antagonist throughout, he points out that he is Irish in ancestry and the other man is German in lineage. What is it that makes them both Americans, the hero asks, but their agreement to be bound by rules. That is our pledge to one another.