Ming Hsu Chen is an author and professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder. After her time at Harvard University, NYU Law School, and UC Berkeley, Chen worked for the Brookings Institution along with several other civil rights nonprofit organizations. Her book, “Pursuing Citizenship in the Enforcement Era,” focuses on immigrant integration and was published during a time where much of the political rhetoric focused on opposing immigrants. Get to know Professor Chen.

Professor Chen is a speaker for TEDxMileHigh: Vision. Register for the virtual event on December 5th here

What Was a Moment in Your Life That Influenced Your Career?

In high school, I drove from the conservative Orange County, California to the more liberal jurisdiction of Long Beach to register voters and engage the public in discussions. I focused on Proposition 187, the “Save Our State” ballot initiative that sought to bar undocumented immigrants from public benefits. Despite our best efforts and a subsequent lawsuit that kept it from going into effect, the initiative passed in 1994 and became the centerpiece of Governor Pete Wilson’s presidential campaign and a template for Clinton’s welfare reform in 1996. 

The experience taught me that you cannot rely on majorities to protect minority rights because they are, by definition, not the winning vote. 

Sometimes you need counter-majoritarian institutions like courts to protect those rights. In college and law school, I sought to protect minority rights and have always felt suspicion toward mainstream politics as a protector of rights.

What Was the Biggest Turning Point in Your Life?

An initial turning point in my life was the start of law school. My first year of law school was 2001 and my first week was that of September 11th. I still remember seeing the planes hit while I walked to civil procedure. The ensuing discrimination against South Asians and immigrants brought race and immigration together in my career path. 

I gained perspective on immigrant clerking in the 9th circuit court of appeals, which receives the highest number of asylum applications. I made the intersection of race/immigration via language rights the subject of my doctoral dissertation. I’m now a tenured professor writing at the intersection of both subjects.

Another turning point was during my 1L summer when I received my dream job as a clerk for the NAACP LDF, the organization where my hero Thurgood Marshall made his name. On my first day in the office, I was assigned a brief to accompany a motion to compel discovery. I hated it. The issue was not constitutional law, and the brief was due in 24 hours, hardly allowing for the kind of slow deliberate process I pictured. 

However, I discovered that I was more interested in the footnote than the motion. I realized my interests in law were fueled by researching and writing about the course of law rather than arguing it in court. Karen Narasaki, ED of NAPALC and career mentor, once told me you have to find your slice of the battle as opposed to trying to do it all. Sonia Sotomayor, then 2nd circuit judge, told me you have to like the day-to-day of your job and not only the idea of your job. 

At times I’ve been embarrassed that I’m not engaged in direct action, but teaching, thinking, and writing books seem to be my slice of the battle. So, I try to take that seriously and do it well. I put ideas into the world of value to the warriors and communities who are often too immersed in the daily battle to think big.

What Are Three Facts About You That Are Completely Unrelated to the Subject of Your Talk?

  1. My parents are immigrants, so I grew up learning English at school and from books. Consequently, I know very little slang and get common sayings wrong.
  2. I love to read etiquette columns because they teach me about social norms, which turn out to be more important than the laws that I teach.
  3. My first dog was named Piglet. 

Who Are Three People, Living or Dead, That Inspire You the Most? 

  1. Yo-Yo Ma – I admire Yo-Yo Ma for popularizing classical music and garnering respect among his discerning peers and the public. Though not part of his music, I admire his humbleness and generosity, as witnessed on the lawn seats at Tanglewood when it rained and he applauded us for staying to listen to the full Bach cello suites. I appreciate his openness to experimentation with different cultures and musical techniques, e.g. Silk Road. (I would put Lin Manuel Miranda in a similar category.)

  2. Maya Lin – An Asian-American artist and scientist whose prodigy and polymath skills are sheerly impressive. I named my daughter after her.

  3. Thurgood Marshall and RBG were masterful lawyers and craftsman, tracing the arc of an ideal and extending it in a manner at once brave and seemingly inexorable once accepted. Both have the added benefit of enormously compelling stories. Thurgood Marshall fought for racial equality during a time when he had to stay in segregated hotels and eat in different restaurants than his white co-counsel. 

    RBG applied Thurgood Marshall’s technique to gender equality, making her ideals common belief in the law. They both stuck with it, applying hard work and total commitment to their values. Though it does not matter to her craft, I admire RBG’s humor, modesty (recognizing that her challenges paled to Thurgood Marshalls because she never feared for her life), and grace.

What’s Your Favorite TED or TEDx Talk?

Many of my favorite TED/TEDx talks are professors who have made their findings accessible and relevant to a broad audience. Almost 15 years ago, I saw a TEDxBerkeley presentation on gecko feet and how they have inspired scotch tape and climbing shoes. Though I am not a scientist, I still remember it. 

My friend Mehrsa Baradaran’s talk on the color of money and the simple solution of postal banking has garnered attention in Congress and among Elizabeth Warren-style advocates for the poor. Many of these talks remind me of what it was like to be in college. To feel enlightened and inspired to learn by someone whose expertise lends them authority.

What’s a Piece of Advice That You Live By or That You Give Other People Constantly?

As much as I admire sheer genius, I’ve never seen myself as a genius. Indeed being regularly surrounded by literal geniuses in the academy makes me see the difference. Instead, the success I seek to cultivate in myself and others is borne of hard work and focus. I also respect doing things for their inherent value, over and above what is required or in self-interest. Frequently I’ve told younger academics and grad students that it’s good to do things that don’t “count” for tenure, so long as you understand why you’re doing them. 

What’s the Biggest Challenge You Face in Your Day-To-Day Work?

My biggest challenges relate to insecurity intertwined with my identity as an Asian American woman. Though I was born in the U.S., I am always afraid that I will be considered foreign. For years I resisted studying immigration law because I didn’t want people to think I was an immigrant. On the day to day, when touch screen devices and multitasking give rise to typos and autocorrections, I worry that the receiver will wonder if I’m a non-native speaker and thus revise and rewrite obsessively. 

Being a working mom has also been hard since I want to be seen as a “good” mom and a “good” worker for whom the fact of parenthood or career is incidental. I lean on my husband and a team of professionals to help me avoid question in both spheres. 

Name One Thing We Aren’t Spending Enough Time Thinking About as a Society. What Would Be a Good First Step?

Much of my professional vision is dedicated to making the marginalized mainstream. This manifests itself especially in studies of racial minorities to illuminate constitutional values like equal protection or noncitizens to understand the value of citizenship.

In a polarized nation, I think the way we get there is to focus on the common good and the values that bring us together as a nation. Though my substantive values align with progressives, it’s actually a conservative idea to believe that we benefit from shared traditions and beliefs. In my book, the recommended paths for achieving “full citizenship” are premised on shared institutions like civilian service, a national identity, and a perhaps naïve belief that the federal government can prod private people to follow its lead and appeal to their better angels.

If You Could Achieve One Goal in the Next Year What Would It Be?

To turn my book into long-form journalism such as the articles in The New Yorker or Atlantic Monthly or the New York Times magazine. This would help me translate my specialized knowledge into something of meaning to a broader audience and of practical value to society. It would be great to turn some ideas from the book into reality. For example, fee equalization for immigrant benefits such as adjustment of status and naturalization, or a Refugeecorps that can be a fulcrum of multicultural understanding and civilian service.

I would also like to leverage my book into a solid step in a career progression – be that as director of a university-based research institute, a D.C. think tank/policy/journalism fellowship, or a bigger platform in a top-notch university.

What Action Can the TedxMileHigh Community Take to Support Your Big Idea?

The model of spreading ideas could help with the goal of popularizing knowledge. By leveraging its core ideas in libraries and bookstores, OneRead programs, and online media the TEDxMileHigh community can help spread the word about my book, and thus my big idea. The opposite goal of garnering respect among experts could mean academics stamping my book with approval or policymakers taking the recommendations seriously by sponsoring or implementing an idea. 

In terms of public impact, Colorado could become an incubator for pursuing citizenship given that it is moderately diverse and less extreme in politics than the coasts or the conservatives. This would mean civic renewal through welcoming community campaigns marked by language training, citizenship workshops, and sensible immigration reforms.