In 1993, the Golden Venture, a boat run by human traffickers left port in China packed with immigrants bound for America. After a stop in Africa, and months at sea, the boat and its poorly-treated passengers ran aground at Rockaway Beach, N.Y. At first, those aboard were incarcerated in New York, and Tsiwen Law, L’84, watched from afar. But soon the detainees were shipped to Lehigh and York County, Penna., bringing them a lot closer to Law.
A founding member of the Asian American Bar Association of Delaware Valley (now the Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Pennsylvania) Law advocated that the association take on the defense of these detainees. The Association’s Board agreed, and along with the Philadelphia and York County Bar Associations, they organized the defense of almost three hundred detainees. Law was assigned two cases that would cause him to be far more selective in choosing pro bono cases in the future, pushing him towards a different kind of pro bono work: fighting for the legal rights of the Asian immigrant communities.
Currently, the focus of Law’s pro bono work isn’t on individual cases, but instead is focused on creating overarching programs that improve the law and the administration of justice in order to benefit as many indigent individuals as possible. He compares it to the Parable of the River in which a village notices babies floating down a river, one after another. Most of the villagers gather to rescue each baby that floats down, but a lone villager claims they should travel upstream to discover why all these babies are floating down. The time Law spent on the Golden Venture case — one client’s representation lasting eight years, all way to the Board of Immigration Appeals — made him realize that he could do more good by working upstream on the root of these issues.
Even though this different sort of pro bono work began in 1993, his service to the Asian Pacific American (APA) community began long before. “While I was growing up, my father had volunteered 15 years of his life to building a community in New York Chinatown, the legacy of which was the two tallest buildings in that community, now known as Confucius Plaza. He imparted to me the determination necessary to achieve the rights of APA immigrants,” says Law, a member of Law & Zaslow, L.L.C. Following that, he chaired APALSA during law school; after law school, he taught Asian American Studies at Penn and Temple for 13 years.
Considering this, it should be no surprise that Law is a founding member of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Pennsylvania, for which he also formed and chaired the Community Outreach committee, which provides legal education to the Philadelphia-area Asian community. Although the Philadelphia Bar Association runs the People’s Law School for a similar purpose, that program isn’t effectively reaching the Asian community for two reasons. First, it’s taught in English and many members of the Asian immigrant population lack English proficiency. Second, the class is offered only after regular work hours, but many in the Asian immigrant community do not work regular hours. The Community Outreach committee not only presents in the language specific to each community, and at convenient times, but also on topics of particular importance to each community.
But one of his most influential projects grew directly out of the Golden Venture case. One of Law’s Golden Venture clients was tried in Baltimore. In York County, the INS Courts had arranged for competent Fujian interpreters, but in Baltimore, the judges had arranged for Mandarin Chinese interpreters with little experience in legal protocols. While trying his case, Law, fluent in the dialect being spoken, noticed that the interpreter was incorrectly translating the defendant’s statements. The interpreter was manipulating the case through mistranslation. What Law found most frustrating was not the interpreters’ inaccuracies, but that instead of dismissing him, the judge merely sent him to another courtroom where he would be able to manipulate another case.
Because of this, Law has spent the years since working towards the implementation of statewide interpreter competency testing in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, drafting a resolution to mirror the testing done at the federal level. After ten years, the bill was signed into law by Gov. Ed Rendell.
Although there is still a lot of work left before the law reaches its full effect (such as finding enough interpreters who pass the test to supply as large a state as Pennsylvania, ways to pay the $1 million required to set up the language protocols and the $1 million to administer the testing), Law says it is already helping by increasing a “sensitivity to interpretation competency” that wasn’t there in 1993, when the Golden Venture ran aground.