Bay Area Activist Would Bar Door To Others
Jessie Mangaliman, Mercury News, May 11
A decade ago, she was Suzanne Feinberg, a suburban mom who joined a neighborhood fight against an Orinda housing development.
Today, she is better known as Yeh Ling-Ling, a Vietnamese immigrant who is one of the Bay Area’s most vocal and impassioned critics of immigration.
As the executive director of Oakland’s Diversity Alliance for a Sustainable America, the woman dubbed by her opponents as the “anti-immigrant immigrant” makes no apologies for her belief that excessive immigration saps the country’s resources and should be curtailed. And she’s fully aware of the inherent contradiction of her life story.
“If the U.S. government had told me in 1980 that the bus was full, I would have understood,” said Yeh, 51, who returned to using her birth name in 1994, when she began her crusade.
In a simmering election-year debate over immigration reform, Yeh is perhaps the country’s best known advocate of a view that was once dismissed as extreme but is gaining prominence in some quarters. Last month, the Sierra Club, the country’s oldest and most influential environmental organization, averted an attempt by immigration critics connected to Yeh to win seats on its board.
Two of the losing candidates in the contentious election, Richard Lamm, former governor of Colorado, and Frank Morris, former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, serve on the board of directors of Diversity Alliance. They garnered more than 20,000 votes out of 171,000 cast, an achievement Yeh considers a milestone in her campaign to curb immigration.
“You can’t have quality and quantity at the same time,” said Yeh, who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1996.
Immigration, she believes, negatively influences a number of pressing issues facing the nation: homeland security, overcrowded schools, the national budget, health care and the environment. The United States could immediately solve overpopulation problems, she said, by shutting its borders and letting only the skilled, chosen few enter.
The eighth of nine children, Yeh was born in Saigon to affluent Chinese parents. But when war broke out in 1957, the family fled to Cambodia. Beginning in 1970, the family and thousands of others came under siege by the genocidal purge of the Khmer Rouge. Yeh lost her parents and a sister in that war. She and a brother went to Taiwan, where she learned Mandarin, Cantonese and Taiwanese.
From Taiwan, she went to study law in Paris. But after being denied residency in France, she decided in 1980 to join a sister who had immigrated to Southern California in the 1960s.
Yeh landed a job with a San Francisco attorney in the late 1980s, working as a senior paralegal, helping immigrants complete their immigration papers. It was there, working with low-income immigrants seeking to stay permanently in the United States, that Yeh became convinced that immigration was exacerbating many of America’s social problems.
“It was a shock that she became so completely involved in anti-immigrant positions,” said David Strand, the San Francisco immigration attorney for whom Yeh worked. “I disagree with her so much.”
Yeh traces her concerns about overpopulation to seeing her father work hard to support nine children. He would have enjoyed his life much more, she said, with one or two children.
“If my father had stopped at two, I wouldn’t be here. I know that,” said the divorced mother of a college-age son.
Limiting population growth was at the heart of Yeh’s first public cause — in the mid 1990s she fought against a housing development near her neighborhood that she worried would crowd roads and schools and exhaust community services.
Many fellow immigrants and immigrant advocates find Yeh’s views particularly painful.
“I don’t want to give folks like her more credit than they deserve. This is quite a minority point of view,” said Traci Hong, an immigrant from Korea who is an attorney for the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium.
Eric Ward, field director of the Center for New Community, a faith-based civil-rights group in Chicago, said Yeh represents a self-loathing perspective that is not representative of immigrant and ethnic communities in the United States.
“Yeh Ling-Ling is an anomaly. She’s the Ward Connerly of the anti-immigrant movement,” said Ward, referring to the University of California regent who has fought to ban the use of affirmative action in college admissions nationwide.
But Yeh also has found growing support across the country, including from immigrants such as Maria Hsia Chang, a Hong Kong native and a political science professor at the University of Nevada in Reno.
“The critics are saying that if you’re an immigrant, you have no right to advocate any kind of moratorium,” said Chang, who’s on an advisory board of Diversity Alliance. “I find that criticism extremely curious.”
It is no coincidence, Chang said, that immigrants like Vishwas More, a retired Stanford University scientist and former member of the board of governors of the California Community Colleges, serve on the Diversity Alliance board.
More, who immigrated from India, said Yeh’s perspective as a critic is important.
“As immigrants, we understand the issues better than people who were born here,” More said.