Faculty Spotlight: Bill Ong Hing

When Bill Ong Hing completed law school, he intended to work as a legal aid attorney focusing on housing issues in low-income communities. Instead, he landed a job in immigration law. Along with continuing his work with immigrants through the University of San Francisco Immigration Clinic, Professor Hing’s scholarship and teaching is devoted to uncovering the current unjust practices and policies used against refugees and immigrants. During our discussion, we talked about his working with community organizations and the Immigration Clinic.

Bill Ong Hing

How did you first become interested in research?

I was a legal aid attorney for a number of years, and when you are a lawyer, you really do wonder about why the law is the way that it is. You wonder why the people you’re representing are in front of you. If you’re interested in them, it requires research. Sometimes it’s relevant to understanding your client better and your ability to represent them. I’ve always been interested in people’s backgrounds and what motivated them to be where they are and how they ended up where they are.

When you work with individuals who have very interesting life stories, you want to be able to do a good job for them. But also, when you are working in a community, you often hear and see very similar stories, and you want to know why are you seeing recurring problems. It might be housing issues. It might be discrimination issues. It might be language difficulties. When you realize that there’s some phenomenon that’s producing a problem, then you step back and explore the bigger picture and whether or not there are other ways of addressing it.

How has your research transformed from working with individuals and clients to doing larger legal scholarship?

When you start thinking about individual cases and situations, you realize that there are social phenomenon or laws that have wide influence on people. If you want to write about that as a scholar, you understand what policies led to a particular law and if those policies make sense. Another reason is wanting to come up with ideas that help society and your students understand why things are as they are and what it would take to make changes and make people’s lives better. Scholarship is an excellent opportunity to actually put those ideas down in writing. It complements, in my opinion, what activists do in the community.

What are some of the social issues you focus on?

My main focus has been on immigration policy and refugee issues. I’ve written a lot about why people get deported, and whether or not deportation laws make sense when the people have already gone to jail and they were here lawfully as refugees or immigrants, but they made a mistake. If they were citizens, they would have gone to jail, and when they got out, then they go on to lead their lives. But if you’re an immigrant, you get deported after you go to jail. I’m also writing more about the government’s stepped up deportation efforts against unaccompanied children and mothers and children fleeing violence from Central America. This is an unnecessary tragedy that is being visited upon these individuals.

I’ve also written about, how big of a role family is in immigration. For a number of ethnic groups, family immigration is the big issue. They want to be reunited with family members and there ae backlogs for people immigrating from different countries, like the Philippines or Korea or India. Scholarship is a way for me to write critiques of the system and how it could be made better. Recently, I’ve also written about racial justice on issues related to police racism and racial profiling. Not just with respect what we read a lot about today in Ferguson and police officers and black victims, but also racial profiling of Latinos and Asians that take place, that lot of people are not aware of.

What led you down this line of inquiry from family dynamics to current issues of racial profiling?

My interests in different areas of scholarship come from many sources, so it can come from clients in the Immigration Clinic or students who are raising very difficult questions that are not in the class materials. As a teacher, you’re trying to make the students think about whether or not things make sense. But very good and sharp students make the professor do that as well; so great ideas can be generated from students.

Other times, and perhaps most often, it’s from what’s happening with certain institutions and areas that I follow. Because I am interested in immigration, I’m interested when Immigration and Customs Enforcement or the Border Patrol arrest young people coming across the border that are fleeing persecution and instead of helping them apply for asylum, they end up in custody or in detention. Today in Europe, there’s a serious refugee situation with respect to Syrians and other Middle-Eastern refugees. And yet some countries of Europe are very open and warm in terms of their welcome for refugees, other countries are not. It’s an invitation to consider where the United States falls in that arena. Those are kinds of examples of common everyday things that are happening that give rise to my interest in scholarship and writing and researching about those issues.

As an academic, how does your work intersect different groups?

I think when you recognize that there are communities out there that we can work with and help, your experience as an academic is much more meaningful. I volunteer and I represent immigrants in partnership with other programs. Here at the law school, we represent immigrants in an immigration clinic that I helped to start. But there are also community-based organizations that need help in fundraising, so I’m on the board of several community-based organizations who have a range of fundraising needs.

Then there are politicians, both nationally and locally, that might be entertaining different legislative ideas and that’s an avenue where an academic can play a big role because academics can have credibility with policymakers. There also are community groups, and I don’t mean agencies but I mean PTAs and other organizations whose members want to stay informed and are very interested in what’s happening in society. When I get invitations to speak in front of groups, I’m happy to do that because I think that is part of our job as scholars and academics. One thing that I really like about the University of San Francisco is that it has a real commitment to the community and to social justice. My colleagues and the administration have always been very supportive of going out and doing community work and speaking with community groups.

Can you tell me more about the Immigration Clinic?

In the summer of 2014, there were large numbers of unaccompanied children that arrived at the border, mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras and some from Mexico. In fact, that year 2014, about 65,000 arrived. And then there was another equivalent number of women and children who arrived. When that occurred, a certain number of them were released from custody and many of them were transferred to the Bay Area or to other parts of the country where they had friends or relatives. Once they were transferred here, all of them were put in deportation proceedings. Friends of mine in other nonprofit organizations asked if I would help out with cases and I did. I realized that there were just not enough legal services available. I was fortunate enough to raise money to hire a full-time attorney and a full-time office manager/paralegal to help with the cases. At the end of 2015, we had around 80 cases; today we have close to 100 cases They are all youth or women and children that are facing deportation, almost all Spanish speakers. The workload involves going to court a couple of times a week. It involves counseling people who have had some pretty sad and violent experiences; a lot of post-traumatic stress is involved because there’s been abuse at the hand of gang members, sometimes it’s domestic violence, other times it’s drug cartel-related violence. It’s hard to say no to representing these clients. That’s the reason the Immigration Clinic started.

How has the individual experiences of these people impacted you?

I’m outraged, to be honest, that our government actually would detain women and children who are not flight risks. They’re charged very high bond amounts of several thousand dollars or have to wear very uncomfortable ankle bracelets. I’m very disappointed that the government has made their deportation a high priority under the auspices of sending a message to others back in those countries that they shouldn’t come here. It’s very short-sighted because those people really don’t have a choice. They’re fleeing violence and it’s a choice between fleeing or staying and risking their life day to day. The way it’s affected me primarily is that it’s made me even more committed to train students to help do this work, to work with more community agencies to try to come up with a political strategy to convince the government to stop this, to work with other attorneys to help bring legal actions against the government to try to stop the deportations and detentions. It’s motivated me more. That’s the main impact this experience has had on me.

What do you see as your role as an educator to bring these experiences into the classroom?

I think that the classroom becomes much more interesting when you can bring in real issues. Obviously, in every class you always have to do a little bit of history and straight legal analysis, but in the immigration class that I teach, the students are much more interested when you talk about real clients who are facing the law that you are learning about. You understand how the law works against particular people or how it works to help certain people, or how the law of asylum would work, or how the law of family reunification would work in certain circumstances. Real experiences bring the class to life.

Do you find that students need convincing to pursue immigration law?

There are definitely some students who enter law school with a passion for social justice and some of them focus on immigration. Those are the students that I don’t need to coach. But at graduation, I’ve also been scolded by parents who said, “My daughter came to law school because I wanted her to go work downtown. But because of your influence, she’s going to be an immigration lawyer now.” I usually take that as a compliment even though sometimes it’s not intended that way. When some students hear and experience what I’ve been describing, it’s life-changing for them.

What brought you to USF?

I’m interested in social justice and public interest, and that’s very consistent with the mission of the law school, and the mission of the whole university. I love the focus on helping the needy and addressing the social needs of people who are low-income and disadvantaged.

I think that the support for public interest at USF is stronger than other schools. There’s such a strong sense of social justice here. For many years, each summer, the university sent a group of faculty and staff to El Salvador to learn about the history of El Salvador and the role that Jesuits, in particular, played in social justice battles in Central America. I was fortunate enough to go on one of those trips and it’s a great example of the university wanting to remind people of an important history of unfortunate violence and upheaval. The university wants us to remember that history, and examples like that serve as continuing inspiration and impetus for doing good work.

Scholars Speaking Collectively to Reframe the Public Debate

Kevin Kumashiro, Dean of the School of Education at the University of San Francisco discusses the importance of engaged scholarship and reflects on his experiences of working with communities of researchers.

Kevin Kumashiro
Kevin Kumashiro, Dean of the School of Education at the University of San Francisco

A decade ago, to a packed general session of the International Conference on Teacher Education and Social Justice, one of my mentors, the late Eric Rofes, rattled the room with his claim that professors occupy an assimilationist profession: we get hired and promoted by writing journal articles that speak to a small group of colleagues, and we actually discourage scholarship that speaks outside of the ivory tower.  We need, he argued, to reframe the identity of the academic so that, central to our work is the goal of significantly impacting practice, policy, and public consciousness.  We need to be public, engaged scholars.

A decade before him, one of my grad school advisors, the fabulous Elizabeth Ellsworth, wrote an essay, “Claiming the Tenured Body,” that illuminated the ways in which academia values the singularity or uniqueness of our work rather than the dialogical nature of knowledge production and the potential of collective action.  Put in conversation with Rofes, her argument makes me wonder what it would look like if university researchers were to place more value on speaking collectively and publicly as scholars to impact the public sector.  

In education, where the rhetoric of so-called reforms contrasts starkly with the realities of what is actually happening in our nation’s schools, such intervention is desperately needed.  

I was living in Chicago at the time of the mayoral election that followed the announcement by Richard J. Daley, the longest serving mayor in Chicago history, that he would not be seeking re-election.  Throughout the fall of 2010 prospective candidates poured out, from career politicians to long-time community activists.  But as campaigns ensued, a notable lack of debate was happening about public schools.  Across the board, candidates seemed to be repeating the same narrative about what’s wrong – people aren’t trying hard enough – and what’s needed –more testing, more accountability, more consequences that differ little from blaming and punishing the victims of broken systems.

In January, as election day approached, a group of Chicago-area researchers came together to strategize a response.  We wanted to challenge the all-too-familiar rhetoric and to re-frame the public debate, that is, we wanted to steer the conversation away from scapegoating individuals to addressing the bigger picture of the systemic problems, and to insist that evidence and research be forefronted in these conversations.  We identified four broad visions, fleshed out with recommended actions, pledges for leaders, and resources for further inquiry, into a working document, Chicago School Reform: Myths, Realities, and New Visions (the statement was revised in 2015 and is available at www.createchicago.org).  The four visions were: Provide bold leadership that addresses difficult systemic problems and avoids scapegoating the “usual suspects”; develop and implement education policy and reform initiatives that are primarily research-driven, not market-driven; improve teaching and learning effectiveness by developing standards, curricula, and assessments that are skills-based, not sorting-based; and ensure the support, dignity, and human and civil rights of every student.

We recruited at least ten researchers in each area who made themselves available to educational leaders, public officials, and the media for elaboration and further dialogue about the accompanying myths and realities, and gathered almost 100 signatories, forming the Chicagoland Researchers and Advocates for Transformative Education (CReATE).  Setting the stage was a statement of values concerning public education in a democracy, which emphasized that schools in a democracy should aim to prepare the next generation to be knowledgeable and informed citizens and residents; to be critical thinkers and creative problem-solvers; to be ready to contribute positively to communities and workplaces characterized by diversity; and to be healthy, happy, and able to support the well-being of others with compassion and courage.  We released the statement that March in a public forum with over 200 in attendance, where we highlighted both the work of researchers and the work of several organizations (of students, educators, parents, and community members) to advocate for research-based school reform.  The event and statement received some press coverage, but more importantly, it also led to additional initiatives, including research partnerships with the Chicago Teachers Union, forums for elected leaders, an ongoing series of research briefs and public events, and open letters on various policy issues.

When I moved to San Francisco a couple years ago, I again found myself in the midst of a community of scholars eager to act collectively and leverage our scholarship in order to reframe the public debate and impact educational policy.  We launched a new network last year, called CARE-ED (California Alliance of Researchers for Equity in Education), and as our first project, submitted in January 2015 an open letter to the U.S. Department of Education on behalf of several hundred university-based researchers in California to raise concerns about the proposed federal teacher preparation regulations.  We also helped to gather over 2000 signatures from researchers across the United States to raise concerns and make recommendations about the place of testing in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  Both letters have been covered by the media, and provide opportunities for educative conversations not only in public spaces but also within our professions.  

We are currently tackling our next project, and we look forward to continuing to explore the possibilities for improving education when we situate our work in broader social movements for equity and justice.

Kevin Kumashiro is dean of the University of San Francisco School of Education and author of Bad Teacher!: How Blaming Teachers Distorts the Bigger Picture.  @kevinkumashiro

Kindred Spirits

Joshua Gamson, Professor of Sociology, reflects on his book Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinship, and he explores self-determination in making of families and expanding our understanding of kinship.

Joshua Gamson
Joshua Gamson, Professor of Sociology,

At the end of my recently published book, Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinship, I began to think through the implications of telling family stories the way I’d done in the previous two hundred pages. In the book, I set out to tell personal, intimate tales of unconventional family creation—via adoption and assisted reproduction; by gay, straight, and trans folks; coupled, single, and multi-parent families—while revealing how they were shaped within and against social, legal, and economic structures. I asked how telling such stories as complex encounters with inequality might allow us to think and act differently rather than telling these stories as individual tales of inventive, dogged pursuits of parenthood.

The stories as I told them point toward an “expansive view of reproductive freedom.” Citing the sociologist and legal scholar Dorothy Roberts, I asserted that “reproductive liberty must encompass autonomy over individuals’ reproductive life—a woman’s choice to end her pregnancy, for instance—but must move beyond that,” to acknowledge and transform the economic and political inequalities that shape family-making decisions. “Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice,” I quoted from Roberts, “not individual choice.” I noted that a commitment to reproductive justice doesn’t currently inform social policy, though it could, and I basically left it at that.

I don’t disagree with myself, but those bare bones could certainly use some meat on them. I’m trying now to flesh out the connections between reproductive rights in the sense long used by feminist pro-choice activists (the right for women to control their own reproductive lives), reproductive justice in the sense Roberts and other black feminists have articulated (in Roberts’ words, “not only a woman’s right not to have a child, but also the right to have children and to raise them with dignity in safe, healthy, and supportive environments”), and the sorts of family-making inequities I describe in Modern Families. Such inequities are multiple and intersecting, running through and across the stories in the book: The restrictions on family-making due to discrimination and stigma that queer people and single parents often face; the restricted access to assisted reproduction primarily to people, straight or not, with considerable financial resources; the potential and actual exploitation of poor women in the U.S. and elsewhere as paid surrogates; the vast inequalities in the adoption world between countries that “send” children and those that “receive” them, and between individuals who give up kids for adoption or fostering and those that become adoptive parents.

These various aspects of reproductive and family-making politics—which include different life experiences, widely varying positions of advantage and marginalization—are connected by a couple of shared threads. The first is the basic assertion that family justice requires self-determination in making of our families and in the use of our bodies in the creation of kinship, free from coercion and stigma. Clearly, that’s not where we are. When abortions receive no public funding and women’s health clinics are targeted; when adoption statutes and agency practices favor heterosexual couples; when in vitro fertilization is costly and not covered by most insurance; when surrogacy law is an uneven patchwork that requires money and legal assistance to pursue, and often leaves gestational carriers vulnerable; when black families cannot assume that their kids will be safe from state interference and violence; when paid family leave is only a reality for a small portion of the population; when the most effective methods of contraception are prohibitively costly for many: Self-determination about whether, how, and when to make a family is unevenly distributed and unevenly supported. When it comes to the personal, life-changed decisions about having or not having children, and about how to raise them, the most marginalized folks—women in the global South, poor women of color in the U.S.—have a lot less freedom than others.

The second connecting theme is that both culture and policy operate on a very narrow understanding of reproduction and kinship of what two recent critics have called “nuclear family privilege.” Family justice requires an expanded understanding of kinship that goes beyond the nuclear and beyond the biological. As the social change organization Forward Together puts it, most of us “fall outside the outdated notion that a family consists of a mom at home and a dad at work,” yet “too many of the policies that affect us are based on this fantasy.” Policy and resource allocation need to serve families as they really are and to tap into the insights, suppressed by marginalization and invisibility, of diverse family forms. What would family policy look like, for instance, if it centered on the effective ways single women often make use of extended, multigenerational social networks, as so many black, Latino, and working-class families have done for a long time? What would it look like if it built on the combinations of biological and social kinship—sometimes called “chosen families,” “fictive kin,” or “voluntary kin”—that foreground not biology so much as intention, commitment, and reciprocity in the making of family?

These two themes sometimes stand in complicated tension, in part because social class is a central constraint in reproductive and family choices in the United States. So, for instance, while being gay, single, or both means being subject to legal and bureaucratic restrictions in your decision-making, having money can quite easily help you bypass those restrictions—you can pay for adoption or surrogacy services and legal fees. And “family diversity” is expanded through decisions tied to social class: women who place children for adoption, donate eggs, or serve as surrogates for same-sex couples often do so (though not exclusively) because their financial circumstances make such choices rational. Securing reproductive justice for a gestational surrogate in India, not to mention in Indiana, may make it harder for same-sex couples building their family through surrogacy.

These tensions are hard but must be confronted. An expansive approach to reproductive justice certainly brings together disparate experiences of disadvantage. An economically privileged lesbian couple navigates family-making terrain quite differently than an economically marginalized single mother, just as the choice to pursue or terminate a pregnancy is quite different depending on whether you have access to healthcare, whether or not you face the racialized stereotype of single-motherhood-as-irresponsibility, whether you’ve got job security, and so on. But shared across these differences is the same pursuit: the freedom and conditions to make families if we want, when we want, how we want, and with whom we want. The challenge is to link ourselves, in thought and in practice, to those who are absent from our everyday lives but who are also struggling to make family freely, safely, and with dignity. We are, at the very least, political kin.