AAPI Heroes Who've Fought for Change in the Criminal Legal and Immigration Systems

This Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Vera spotlights changemakers who have worked tirelessly to create a more just society for all.
Dominic Arenas Senior Digital Content Strategist // andrew uhrig Digital Designer
May 23, 2024
Photo credits: Grace Lee Boggs: courtesy Quyen Tran; Fred T. Korematsu: courtesy Shirley Nakao; Chol Soo Lee: San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images; Grace Meng and Pramila Jayapal: U.S. House of Representatives. Illustration by andrew uhrig.

Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities have been integral players throughout United States history, yet their role in shaping the ongoing effort to ensure equal rights for all often goes unsung.

AAPI leaders are essential in the fight for racial equality and immigrants’ rights. From successfully lobbying Congress to pass the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which granted redress to formerly interned Japanese Americans; to introducing legislation that would secure a universal right to federally funded representation for anyone facing deportation who cannot afford it, these forward strives continue to inspire and invigorate Vera’s mission to transform the criminal legal and immigration systems. Here are just a few of the AAPI leaders who have endeavored to create tangible change.

Grace Lee Boggs (1915–2015)

Grace Lee Boggs was a Chinese American philosopher and activist who supported the Black Power movement through community organizing.

After earning her PhD in philosophy from Bryn Mawr College in 1940, Boggs had difficulty securing an academic position due to discrimination. She moved to Illinois and eventually found work at the University of Chicago’s philosophy library for a low $10 weekly stipend.

Determined to put her studies into practical action, Boggs became involved in tenant organizing, connecting her to Chicago’s Black community. She partook in the planned 1941 March on Washington—a successful mass action organized by A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin that demanded equal employment opportunities—and was consequently inspired to center her activism on racial justice, working people, and people experiencing poverty and homelessness.

Boggs would become a key advocate for civil rights for seven decades. From the late 1950s to early 1960s, she served as an editor for Correspondence, a newspaper dedicated to advocating for workers’ rights. Alongside her husband, James Boggs, she, too, made vital contributions to the Detroit community, including organizing the 1963 Northern Negro Grassroots Leadership Conference and creating Detroit Summer, an intergenerational, grassroots, and multicultural collective committed to empowering youth to improve their communities. Boggs published several influential books, including Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century (1974), which evaluates the lessons that can be drawn from various revolutionary struggles.

Tamara Ching (b. 1949)

A transgender woman of Native Hawaiian and Chinese descent, Tamara Ching has advocated for LGBTQ+ people, Asian Americans, sex workers, and people living with HIV.

As a teenager in 1960s San Francisco, Ching experienced police harassment and violence regularly. At the time, city laws criminalized appearing in “dress not belonging to his or her sex.” For San Francisco’s transgender community, Ching said, this meant that “[t]he police could harass you at any time.” The Compton Cafeteria riot of 1966—when drag queens and transgender women fought back against police harassment—became a galvanizing moment for the city’s LGBTQ+ community, in which she was embedded. The city’s cross-dressing law was finally repealed in 1974.

For decades, Ching has sought to empower LGBTQ+ people, sex workers, and immigrants, working to build support systems that enable them to live their lives authentically and safely. In 1988, she received a two-year grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to develop an HIV prevention and treatment program for immigrant transgender sex workers. And in 1993, Ching provided testimony before the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, arguing for the inclusion of language protecting transgender and bisexual individuals in the city’s antidiscrimination ordinance. The commission’s findings ultimately contributed to the expansion of the ordinance in 1995 to protect people of all gender identities.

Fred T. Korematsu (1919–2005)

In 1942, Fred T. Korematsu was arrested for refusing to report to an internment camp for Japanese Americans. Two months after the United States’ entry into World War II, President Roosevelt, via executive order, authorized the U.S. Department of Defense to create areas from which anyone could be excluded for the purposes of “protection against espionage and against sabotage.” Although the order itself did not specify an ethnic group, the U.S. military used the order to forcibly move more than 110,000 Japanese Americans living along the West Coast into internment camps—despite having determined that they posed no threat to national security.

The federal government charged Korematsu with ignoring the military relocation order. In court, Korematsu argued that, “[a]s a citizen of the United States [he was] ready, willing, and able to bear arms for this country.” The case made its way to the Supreme Court, which ruled against Korematsu, upholding the legality of the executive order and the forced relocation of Japanese Americans due to “the military urgency of the situation.”

History vindicated Korematsu. Decades later, in 1983, his conviction was overturned, and he became active in the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations, lobbying for acknowledgment and compensation for Japanese Americans who had been forcibly relocated and interned. The U.S. government issued a formal apology for the policy, accompanying with it $20,000 in reparations to each person incarcerated under the executive order. At the height of the War on Terror in 2004, Korematsu filed an amicus brief in support of the people detained at Guantanamo Bay, arguing that they, too, were being deprived of their civil liberties under the all-too-familiar guise of “military necessity.”

Chol Soo Lee (1952–2014) and Kyung Won Lee (b. 1928)

Chol Soo Lee’s decade-long imprisonment for a crime he did not commit sparked a grassroots coalition to prove his innocence and organize around a pan-Asian American identity. In 1973, after the death of a gang leader in San Francisco’s Chinatown, racial profiling during the investigation led to Lee, a Korean American, being accused of murder. Lee’s trial, marred by racial bias, ended with his wrongful conviction.

While Lee was in prison, civil rights journalist Kyung Won Lee’s investigative reporting revealed several missteps in the case. His work ultimately inspired the founding of the Chol Soo Lee Defense Committee, a grassroots coalition of Asian American activists that mobilized to raise awareness about the case and overturn Lee’s sentence. Their collective advocacy efforts, along with Kyung Won Lee’s more than 120 investigative articles arguing Chol Soo Lee’s innocence, led to Lee’s acquittal in 1983. He had spent nearly 10 years in prison, including four on death row.

Despite winning his freedom, Lee never received an apology or compensation from the state. After prison, he struggled to reconnect with his community and to meet his own expectations of a life that would not disappoint those who had advocated for him. In Lee’s own words, he was “not an angel on the outside. At the same time, [he] was not the devil.”

Chol Soo Lee and Kyung Won Lee both went on to further contribute to their communities. Kyung Won Lee founded Koreatown Weekly, the first Korean American national newspaper written in English, and used the paper to foster a multiethnic and bilingual media landscape. He also lectured on college campuses about investigative journalism focused on communities of color. Meanwhile, until his death in 2014, Chol Soo Lee gave public talks to Bay Area youth, urging them to engage with the Asian American community. His autobiography, Freedom Without Justice, was published posthumously in 2017.

Pramila Jayapal (b. 1965) and Grace Meng (b. 1975)

U.S. Representatives Pramila Jayapal and Grace Meng are both congressional pioneers. Jayapal, who represents most of Seattle, is the first South Asian American woman elected to the House of Representatives and one of only two dozen naturalized citizens currently serving in Congress. Meng, whose district is in Queens, New York, is the first and only Asian American member of Congress from New York State.

Jayapal is a member of the House’s Education and the Workforce and Judiciary Committees. She chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Immigration Task Force for the Congressional Asian Pacific Asian Caucus and serves as vice chair for the Congressional LGBTQ Equality Caucus. Before her election to Congress, she advocated against post-September 11, 2001, anti-immigrant policies and founded the advocacy organization, OneAmerica.

Meng first entered public life upon her 2009 election to the New York State Assembly. Since becoming an elected member of the U.S. House in 2013, Meng has supported legislation that removed offensive language referring to Asian Americans from federal law. She has additionally introduced legislation that would improve access to menstrual products for students, people experiencing poverty or homelessness, and people in prison. Meng previously served as a public interest lawyer.

In 2023, both Jayapal and Meng, joined by Representative Norma J. Torres and Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Cory Booker, introduced the Fairness to Freedom Act in Congress. The act would guarantee the right to government-funded representation for everyone facing deportation who cannot afford it.