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.

Research for Scholarly Impact and Policy Impact

John Trasviña, Dean of the University of San Francisco School of Law, writes about his experience with research in policymaking and the importance of scholarly impact and policy impact.
John Trasvina
John Trasviña, Dean of the University of San Francisco School of Law


I came to the University of San Francisco (USF) School of Law committed to training the next generation of leaders and lawyers following many years of public service and advocacy, especially in the areas of immigrant rights and civil rights. My previous work allowed me to see first hand how public policy and advocacy were greatly informed by research, which then influenced many of the policies, laws, and public actions I helped to implement as Assistant Secretary of the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), and Special Counsel for Immigration Related Unfair Employment Practices at the U.S. Department of Justice.

In the Academy, our work in the classroom is incomplete without preparing our graduates to achieve their professional goals and serve our communities in myriad ways.  In recent years, we have added clinical and experiential educational opportunities to the core of what we offer at the USF School of Law. Today, our global externships in China, Mexico, Vietnam, and across Europe are larger than ever and foster an understanding that globalization can help promote justice and the protection of human rights, while building legal skills for contemporary issues.

But our responsibilities to communities and to the profession do not end there. Faculty research and engagement are fundamentally intertwined and have the potential to deeply influence social change through both their scholarly impact and their policy impact.

Recently, the USF School of Law faculty was recognized as being in the top third in the nation in terms of scholarly impact.  In “Scholarly Impact of Law School Faculties in 2015: Updating the Leiter Score Ranking for the Top Third,” a group from the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minnesota ranked all accredited law schools based upon the number of times other law faculty and scholars cited articles written by each law school’s faculty.   Not surprisingly to me, our faculty ranked in the top third nationwide, 64th out of over 200 accredited law schools.  The study reviewed the scholarship of ten outstanding professors at each law school and documented the number of times their law reviews or other scholarly articles were cited in other law reviews and publications.

This scholarly impact is certainly an important indicator of how our professors’ expertise and stature are recognized by other scholars in their fields.  However, another measure is policy impact, how our faculty research is actually used by people outside of the academy—judges, appellate attorneys, policymakers, advocates, and media opinion makers—to advance particular aims.  In my previous work in the U.S. Senate, law professors and other scholars would send me their research papers and articles describing various missteps by Congress or the Administration on a bill, law, or regulation. My typical reaction would be that it was important research to understand but I was receiving it after any possible action could have been taken. It made me wonder why I could not get access to this work in the midst of the battle or controversy when that research could have been deployed for maximum effect. This frustrating realization about the limits of scholarship in the academy leads to my main point. Beyond scholarly impact, our faculty members engage in meaningful policy impact.

When the Connecticut Supreme Court narrowly struck down that state’s death penalty in the summer of 2015, at least one justice cited an amicus brief prepared by USF School of Law Professor Connie de la Vega.  And when California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law the California Electronic Privacy Act (Cal-ECPA) in October 2015, a bi-partisan victory for civil libertarians and service providers with support from the law enforcement community, our own Professor Susan Freiwald provided much of the academic backing as an issue expert for the bill’s authors.  She also testified before committee hearings in Sacramento, organized several academics across the country to get engaged, and together they prepared and submitted a scholarly analysis and support letter to Governor Brown.

Our faculty members in all fields can assist local, state, and federal policy makers as well as advocates by conducting research, offering expertise, conducting surveys and promoting public dialogue.  Our outstanding Center for Research, Artistic and Scholarly Excellence (CRASE), led by Professors Christine Yeh and Saera Khan, can guide professors in all fields who seek to widen the impact of their important research and scholarship.  At the School of Law, we benefit from and support the CRASE and its initiatives and encourage all interested USF colleagues to participate.