The Journey Home
Washington attorneys share their experiences immigrating to the U.S.
Published in 2018 Washington Super Lawyers magazine on June 18, 2018
Washington state’s immigrant population has more than doubled since 1990, a boom reflected in its legal community, whose immigrant members have journeyed here for a variety of reasons.
Hector Quiroga came in 2000—when narcoterrorists were assassinating officials in Colombia, where his dad had been a judge and senator. Kripa Upadhyay’s parents were activists under a repressive government in Nepal. Her family was targeted with pressure-cooker bombs and home shootings.
Others came for the opportunity. “My husband had just gotten a job at Microsoft,” recalls Pallavi Mehta Wahi with K&L Gates, who moved here from New Delhi. “It just felt to me and my husband like America was a better option for us long-term. Very cliché: We saw a land of opportunity, and we saw a place that was very welcoming to immigrants.” One attorney—Chi-Dooh “Skip” Li at Ellis, Li & McKinstry—wrote a book titled Buy This Land, describing his personal journey and his organization that makes farmland available to the poor in Central America.
Here are the stories of eight attorneys who came to the States from India, Nepal, China, Colombia and elsewhere.
THE OLD COUNTRY
KoKo Y. Huang, principal, Jackson Lewis (Seattle), born in Shanghai, China: I came to the U.S. when I was 2. My parents were looking, with China opening its doors, at all the educational opportunities the U.S. would not only bring for them, but for me. They came here with a couple hundred dollars in their pockets.
Chi-Dooh “Skip” Li, founding partner, Ellis, Li & McKinstry (Seattle), born in Bombay (now Mumbai), India (Chinese heritage): I was born in India, because my father was a nationalist-China career diplomat. In my father’s family, my grandfather was the patriarch. He was one of the first supreme court justices in China after the republic was formed. He had a big house and lots of servants. In 1947, when I was about 2 years old, [my father] was assigned to a post in Kuala Lumpur, which was then Malaya, still a British colony. My parents came to my grandfather’s house to bid him goodbye on their way to take a ship to go to Hong Kong, and then Malaya. He told my father and my stepmother, “The baby stays with me.” My stepmother came to my room, swooped me up and took me out with them—completely in violation of my grandfather’s wishes. My grandfather was furious. I look at that as having saved my life. … In 1949, after the Communists took over China, my father was given notice by the British high commissioner that he and my family would have to leave [Malaya] very quickly.
Ken Payson, partner, Davis Wright Tremaine (Seattle), born in Japan: My mother grew up in a small mountain village in post-war Japan without running water. Her family grew most of the food they ate. Very rural and meager existence. In the mid-’60s, she was a young woman and moved to the nearest big city, and that’s where my father was stationed at the U.S. Marine base. He was Caucasian-American, grew up in the Midwest. Very common story: I think I was unexpected; they got married shortly before I was born. We moved to Chicago when I was not even a year old.
Kripa Upadhyay, managing partner, Orbit Law (Seattle), born in Kathmandu, Nepal: I immigrated in 1998 from Nepal. My parents followed later. My father spent several years in and out of prison because of his activism. In the 1990s, when we had the revolution for democracy in Nepal, things got very, very bad. They had what they called a pressure-cooker bomb, which is a homemade bomb, and they’d put it in a pressure cooker and leave it outside your door. The bomb [left outside our door] was defused, so nobody was hurt. [Another time,] there was a shooting in the house. My parents were at home, and the bullet basically went through the bedroom. There was a kidnapping threat against me personally. Coming here was a combination of basically all of those factors. It was “it’s probably best for me to get out,” and the education opportunities in the U.S. were much greater than in Nepal.
Hector Quiroga, co-owner, Quiroga Law Office (Spokane Valley), born in Bogota, Colombia: The country was in a lot of turmoil. My classmates were children of high-ranking politicians in Colombia, so you go to a party, and there are five kids and 20 bodyguards. It was just crazy. And some of the houses I went to, you couldn’t open the window because the window was a good foot thick of glass, bulletproof. It really felt like we were living under siege. I came [to the U.S.] in January of 2000, with the idea that I would learn English and then go back. I came on a student visa to the University of Texas. I was learning English at the time; I didn’t speak any. As this was happening, the situation in Colombia worsened.
Li: We ended up, through the kindness of both the British and the Australian high commissioners, getting immigrant refugee visas to Australia [from Malaya]. We settled in Sydney, until my father was recalled to diplomatic service with the reconstituted nationalist government in Taiwan. I began attending school in Sydney, basically speaking Chinese and English at the same time. We went back to Taipei, Taiwan, for three years. Then [my father] was assigned to a post in Guatemala; we were there for three years. That’s where I picked up Spanish. Then he became ambassador to Colombia, so I finished high school in Colombia, then came to the U.S. for college.
THE TRIP OVER
“Reena” Malabika Ghosh, owner and founder, Ghosh Law Firm (Seattle), born in Lucknow, UP, India: I went to graduate school on the East Coast, at the Medical University of South Carolina. I came by myself from India. The [first] flight was to go from Bombay to Delhi; and in Delhi, in winter, there are usually huge amounts of smog. Needless to say, my flight got canceled. This is the first time I’m traveling all alone by myself by plane. [The next leg] took me from Munich to London, and of course, on my flight in London, there was an engine problem. They had to fly in the engine part by Air Canada. I arrived in JFK at 4 o’clock in the morning, and I had a very interesting experience there where I didn’t have sufficient coins on me to be able to call anybody. I wasn’t familiar with using the phone box. I had a $5 bill. … I tried to figure out how to make the call and didn’t succeed. Luckily, my cousin came to pick me up. I spent the weekend with him and my aunt in New Jersey. And I got introduced to malls, because my suitcases were missing for about two days.
Chun M. Ng, partner, Perkins Coie (Seattle), born in Hong Kong: I came over with my family from Hong Kong in 1966. Most people just think about the civil rights movement [being] for African-Americans. What’s lesser known is there was a series of laws that were enacted: The Immigration and Nationality Act repealed the old Chinese exclusion acts of the late 1800s. To make a long story short, my family owes a lot to Martin Luther King Jr.
Upadhyay: I was 20 when I came to the U.S. I came from a boarding school that was run by Irish Catholic nuns and priests. It was a lot of structure—standing up when the nuns came into class and standing up when they left, and addressing everybody as “sir” and “ma’am,” and putting your hands behind your back when you talk to teachers. You don’t do that at colleges in the U.S.
Huang: My dad came here and was an electrical engineer. My mom has always been a teacher. As a kid, I would go to Chinese school on Saturday mornings. English, for me, is a first language. My parents have really worked hard to make a good life for themselves here, but in elementary school, I could help them with reading over documents, explaining terms to them, translating.
Ng: In our house, it was still very Chinese. We spoke Chinese, we spoke Cantonese. … We were in public housing for several years, and everybody held down a job except me. I have five brothers and sisters. My older sisters are 18 and 19 years older than I am, so they were going to school and working at Chinese restaurants, being seamstresses at sweatshops, and my dad worked as a cook. I would come home from school and, a lot of times, it was just me at home. I’d turn on the TV and I’d watch Gilligan’s Island, Partridge Family, just 3 to 6 o’clock, until someone came home.
Ghosh: I went to graduate school in South Carolina. I made great friends. Playing pool Friday evenings and a bit of beer—what’s not to like about that? And then, the scary time: My cousins were all here visiting me for graduation, and we went into one of the bars maybe 17 miles away from downtown, in one of the beach towns. I walked in and the bartender lady said, “Honey, turn around and go away. I cannot protect you here. You should leave now.” Nobody looked like me. Apparently, I walked into the wrong place.
Li: However you might think the immigration system is hard for people today, it was much worse back then. It was so arbitrary. You’d take a number and you’d wait and wait and the clerks would ignore you. They’d be chitchatting among themselves and you wouldn’t dare ask for attention, because they’d basically snap at you. Finally your turn comes, you go to the counter, you say what you want. “Well, do you have this form?” They’d always have a checklist and I never seemed to have everything they wanted. Everything was an ordeal.
Quiroga: In Spokane, I’d stop at the [traffic] light and look around, and when people made eye contact, I’d get really nervous and aggressive, like, “Why are these people looking at me?” You’re always checking your shadows. It took a while for me to kind of relax and just be OK.
Payson: My dad got out of the Marine Corps and ended up leaving the family. My mom worked very hard; we both had a paper route. We’d get up at 4 in the morning, 365 days a year. She had other jobs to make ends meet: She worked as a janitor, worked in a fishnet factory. Inevitably, the racial taunts would come my way. I would sometimes have weird food, compared to the other kids, in my lunch. Instead of tidy little Wonder Bread sandwiches, I might have some country sushi.
Ng: The first personal computers were coming out in the mid-’80s. There was this modem card that I wanted to buy, and it was $500: a Hayes smart modem—1,200 baud! I made up a story [for my parents]: “I can dial up and do programming and homework from home—I don’t have to drive out to the computer lab.” When in reality, I wanted it to play computer games. They said OK. It wasn’t really until about [age] 30 when the light switch starts to go off and you realize, “[My mom] makes about $2.50 an hour, that’s about 200 hours, that’s probably 20 percent of the life savings.” That’s how selfish kids are.
THE JOURNEY TO LAW SCHOOL
Quiroga: I thought I was born to be a lawyer. If I’m not a lawyer, I might as well just go sell shoes. I just knew it, always. My grandpa and both my parents are lawyers. My uncle’s a lawyer. I did Spokane Community College for two years, then Gonzaga for the undergraduate; I was an economics honor student. I applied to many [law] schools. You look at the statistics, and for non-English speakers, it’s a tough thing, definitely.
Li: I got a letter from the Washington State Bar Association saying, “Sorry, you’re not a citizen, so you’re not eligible to take the Bar exam in July; you’ll simply have to wait until you are a citizen.” This is spring quarter, 1970. I was not eligible to become a citizen until sometime in the fall of 1971. I thought to myself, “Well, I’m not sure this is right. I’m not sure this is constitutionally allowed, to discriminate against me; I meet all the other requirements.” When the Bar association refused to grant me a waiver, I decided, “I can challenge this legally.” So I went to the dean of the law school and I asked him, “Would you give me permission to do an independent-study class that would constitute my taking on my own case?” The dean was tickled by the idea. I filed that in the Supreme Court in my third year, in April or May. I got a notice back almost within a week—an order from the court that grants me a waiver to take the Bar exam and sets a case for a hearing on the merits later. In July I took the exam, and found out in September that I’d passed. The next week I argued the case, pro se, before the Supreme Court. Three months later, I get a call from a classmate who was clerking for a justice at the time for the court, and he says to me, “Skip, I have good news and bad news for you. The bad news is I can’t give you the good news.” He was sworn to confidentiality. So I knew that I had won.
Pallavi Mehta Wahi, managing partner, K&L Gates (Seattle), born in New Delhi, India: When 9/11 happened, there were emails sent around at that time telling South Asians: “Don’t go to big gatherings, don’t be laughing too much; you don’t know what will happen.” And I have these friends at the Court of Appeals who said, “We will go to trivia night every Tuesday and you’re going to come with us.” And I said, “I don’t know, guys, I’m a little uncomfortable.” And they said, “Absolutely not. You’re coming with us.” Every moment when I have been hesitant in any way, someone, without me asking, has stepped up and helped me bridge that hesitancy.
THE CURRENT STATE OF IMMIGRATION
Huang: It’s an unprecedented level of scrutiny. For a business immigration client recently, we got the request for evidence, which is when you submit an application to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and they come back to request additional information. The request we got was basically a kitchen-sink request for about 15 to 17 pages of things they wanted. Our response to the government was 41 pounds—we had to weigh it for the delivery service. We just got an approval last night on it.
Quiroga: Things that, before, I would think was a textbook case that should be approved, now we’re getting challenged. Also, the fear in the community is just insane. Immigrants are so petrified of having any contact with law enforcement at all. People are calling and asking us, “Do I have to go to my traffic ticket hearing?”
Upadhyay: It’s heartbreaking. My client today is Afghan, served in the Afghanistan air force, trained by the Americans, and that’s why the Taliban came after him. Yet here’s this guy who was stuck in detention the last eight months. We have clients who are being ripped apart from their families.
Payson: I supported myself through my long and intermittent college career by cooking. I went through a period where I tried to get my mom to teach me her recipes. She said, “I don’t have recipes.” She just cooks it. I had her tell me what the ingredients were and had her recreate everything. I created these little recipes of my mom’s recipes, and they’re pretty close. There’s a country dish called Kimpira gobo, and it’s julienned burdock root and carrot, chili flakes and sesame seeds, sautéed with sesame oil, soy sauce and mirin. My daughter is thrilled when I make it.
Upadhyay: [My parents] came to the U.S. much later in life, and so they basically had to start from zero. But Mom is now the executive director of InterIm CDA, one of the oldest nonprofits in Seattle. She’s working on issues of homelessness and people of color and of marginalized communities. My dad, when he came to the U.S., worked as a court interpreter helping immigrants understand their rights in the U.S. justice system. So they’ve continued the activism in the same vein [as] they’ve lived their whole lives.
Wahi: At my son’s daycare, I really wanted them to celebrate Holi, which is this tradition in India where people throw color at each other, and it’s this celebration of spring. They were very happy to do that. I went and picked up my son and they said it was great, everyone had a great time. But children were allowed to stand under the swings if they did not want to do it. There were five children who did not want to do it and would not participate, and my son was one of them. He’s 3 ½. He tells me, “Mama, it’s just too messy, I’m not gonna do it.” So it’s like, your best-laid plans.