Fifteen years ago, growing up as a working-class kid in Manhattan's Chinatown, Wu, who immigrated legally to the United States at age 5, became entangled with a dangerous crowd. He took part in several muggings with other teens and landed in a reformatory.
The New York Times ran a moving story
on Wu's transformation. Inspired by some stern words from an Italian-American judge, Wu served his time, got his GED, and after his release, worked his way up to from clerk to VP at a major company. But once he came forward to secure legal status as a citizen, his past resurfaced and threatened him with a punishment he never anticipated.
His recently naturalized mother regretted not jumping through the hoops sooner in order to protect her son:
Mr. Wu’s mother, Floren Wu-Li, 57, blames herself. Interviewed in the tiny sixth-floor walkup on Spring Street where Mr. Wu lived with his fiancée, she acknowledged that he would have derived citizenship if she had secured it for herself while he was still a minor. But she was naturalized only four years ago, when she was allowed to take the test in Chinese.“We were very poor and worked very hard and had no time to look after Qing when he was a child,” she said, weeping as her daughter translated. “I had no time to learn English back then.”
No doubt immigrant advocates will hail Wu's pardon as a victory. But the redemption story shouldn't eclipse the countless other stories that never come to public light, stories with unhappier endings
. Those include immigrants who never committed an actual criminal offense, but were nabbed nonetheless in ICE dragnets
. There are also many others like Wu who made some bad decisions, but unlike Wu, never had a real chance
to right their course in adulthood. Then there are youth of all backgrounds shunted into the juvenile justice system
as children and criminalized for life
As Governor Paterson noted in a public statement, Wu's case exemplifies the potential for individual transformation, but it also provides "the opportunity to make a forceful statement about the harsh inequity and rigidity of the immigration laws."
Politicians and the media are always intrigued by stories of personal triumph. But the uniqueness of Wu's story isn't so much his remarkable individual struggle, but the systemic injustices that prevent individuals like him from realizing their human potential. We can try to fix immigration policy one pardon at a time. But it's much more efficient to hold the entire immigration system accountable for upholding the civil rights of all who pass through it. You could call it "amnesty." Or just call it redemption for a system that has long trespassed against the least powerful among us.