The Texas Democrat talks about his emotional plea for the immigrants he represents.
The 85th Texas Legislative Session in Austin created an unlikely video star: Rep. Gene Wu (D-Houston), who stood at the podium—voice breaking, eyes welling—and urgently denounced SB4, a bill that would give law enforcement unprecedented powers to demand immigration papers based only on “reasonable suspicion.”
News outlets around the state and beyond picked up the video of Wu’s emotional speech. “Some are here as citizens. Some are here without papers,” he said. “But they are all my people.” La emotiva defensa, as Univision called it, was fitting for Wu, who moved from China as a child and now represents Houston’s District 137, one of the most diverse districts in the country. SB4 ultimately passed the House in a party-line vote in the early hours of April 30. Wu talked to R&K from his office in Austin.
Roads & Kingdoms: What’s the emotional climate in Houston right now?
Gene Wu: When we started out that day, we had known it had been coming down the line for a while. I think a lot of us had been dreading that day for a while. Most legislation is merely about policy—in my state it’s all about tax dollars. It’s usually not something members would take personally. This bill was something that members took personally. This was very deeply emotional and personal for people. Like myself, many of our Democratic colleagues are immigrants themselves, many of them are children of immigrants, they represent districts with large immigrant communities—even large communities of undocumented. It was already a tense situation.
R&K: What’s the biggest message you have for sanctuary cities?
Wu: This was a solution is search of a problem. This wasn’t about criminals or sanctuary cities. It was about keeping a promise to the primary voters in the Republican party. This was about politics and nothing else. I want to be very clear: there are no sanctuary cities in Texas. That’s one of our complaints in the bill. As the law is written, no Texas city is a sanctuary. Every location complies with federal law. This is the number one thing to be mad about.
They didn’t expect an Asian-American to speak up about immigration
R&K: What do you want people to take away from the video of your speech against SB4?
Wu: I’m hoping what sparks, what people can learn from the video, is that people need to speak up. I think what one of things that draws people to the video is that they didn’t expect an Asian-American to speak up about immigration, thinking ‘Oh, it’s just a Hispanic issue.’ It’s not. One out of every seven Asian-Americans is undocumented. 90,000 are in Texas alone. The vision of the undocumented is a guy that does day laboring and it’s not. A lot of the undocumented community is that they’re here studying on a visa and it lapses, or the attorney screwed up or they forgot to turn in paperwork on time because they’re studying for finals. In Houston we just had two doctors become accidentally undocumented. Someone in my family—my cousin—her paperwork lapsed and she was undocumented for about a year. And we don’t like to talk about it. I did correct myself: there were Germans that were rounded up in World War Two. But they were 11,000 German nationals. There were 120,000 Japanese Americans taken, 62 percent were American citizens. That’s a big difference. It dawned on me: myself and my sons will always be seen as outsiders no matter how long we’ve been here.
R&K: Your speech repeatedly mentioned children. What are the stakes for immigrant and refugee children in Houston?
Wu: Right now in the U.S. we have around 2 million people we call DREAMers. They come here when they’re very young and through no fault of their own—they’re children and they don’t make those types of decisions—they were brought here. I’ve met a some of them personally—a lot of them live in my district—and they’re some of the most amazing people in my life. Some of them are valedictorians, some of them are going to college getting degrees in engineering, mathematics. Some are going to medical school. And this law affects them as much as everyone else. Because it’s no longer about criminals. It’s about every single person who is an immigrant. And we’re stepping out of undocumented immigrants; it’s immigrants as a whole. Police are allowed to ask anyone they stop—and it doesn’t have to be an arrest. It could be for a traffic ticket. Or the police say: I just want to talk to them. If the police say “Hey I want to talk to you,” that’s a detention and they can ask for paperwork. It creates an atmosphere of fear and harassment.
The ones that helped make the Texas miracle: we’re looking to throw them out like they’ve done nothing for us
R&K: How do we get to a compassionate policy on immigration then?
Wu: The end game has to be immigration reform. This is a man-made problem. The immigration crisis is a self-inflicted problem. We created this mess. The U.S. could have applied stricter immigration rules or sent people back at any time in the last three decades. But we didn’t. We invited people in because we wanted cheap labor. We wanted people to pick our lettuce, make sure our grass gets cut. We wanted these things. The ones that helped make us great, that helped make the Texas miracle: we’re looking to throw them out like they’ve done nothing for us. We’re talking about people who have been here for 30-40 years and were treating them as trash that we can throw away.
R&K: If you were to be in charge of reform, what would be your first step?
Wu: I’d go back and put in a proper work visa program. A lot of undocumented immigration started because we cancelled a lot of valid work visas in the 80s. There’s always an anti-foreigner reaction when we have a recession. They recalled these agriculture visas so Americans could take these jobs. They didn’t. And they don’t now either. Americans don’t want to go outside and pick lettuce. And people said, well just come over anyway or just don’t leave. [The farmworkers] don’t want to go back and forth because it puts their families in danger. I’d want to have proper visas so people could come and go without punishment. First though, would be amnesty for the people that have been here for 40 years and have built up our country. They’ve not hurt anyone and they’ve spent their blood, sweat and tears building our country. We want those people. Our country was built on immigrants who wanted to build a better life. The ones who work 14-16 hour days, 2-3 jobs just to make ends meet.
Even the “good immigrants”, we’ve had laws passed against us because we were different
R&K: Can you talk about the effect this bill has on your district?
Wu: One of the reasons why I got so emotional about this is it felt like a personal attack—not just on myself, but on my people, my district. I have one of the largest immigrant and refugee populations in the state. We’re over 50 percent Hispanic. But it’s not Mexican majority. There’s Honduran, El Salvadorian, Peruvian, Colombian. A lot of those people have a fear of trying to escape a gang or war-torn area. But that’s not just it. We have a large Asian population from all over the world.
There’s a big Burmese refugee population that’s come in recently. Large Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian, Pakistani population. We also have Africans; we had a whole bunch of Ethiopian restaurants just pop up.
We have people from all over Africa. Refugees from Syria, Iraq; a baby group of Afghans just came in about five years ago. We’re starting to see their restaurants pop up. Just an amazing group of diverse people. What really killed me was that this bill didn’t see them as human beings. Even the people who are here validly—with permission—will get swept up in this. They may be jailed because there’s a misunderstanding; they don’t speak English. We told the Republicans: even US citizens will get swept up with this. They said: “Oh, that’s inconvenient.” [My constituents] range from being citizens to having green cards to having visas to being undocumented and it was sad that nobody cared. They’re wonderful people and they make Houston so vibrant. I don’t care about their status; they were willing to work hard and do what they do to achieve the American dream. It’s the story of my family. Even the “good immigrants”, we’ve had laws passed against us because we were different; they needed a punching bag.
R&K: You mentioned restaurants popping up; do you find food to be a unifying factor?
Wu: Food is a huge unifying factor here. You guys work with Anthony Bourdain? Almost all of his Houston episode was filmed in my district. We’re very happy—not just because they showed the diversity and beauty of the city, but the haters were SO mad about it.
R&K: What can we learn from the food culture in Houston?
Wu: Bourdain essentially caught a quarter of our ethnic diversity. You can tell what groups have been there for about 5-6 years because that’s what kind of restaurants pop up. That’s usually the amount of time it takes for people to get settled, start working and save money. And what they’ll do is make it a family thing and say, “Hey everyone pitch in 10,000 dollars,” and the first thing they own is a restaurant. You can tell who is comfortable. I’m really looking forward to some Iraqi and some Syrian restaurants. Some Burmese restaurants. The Ethiopian restaurants just started popping up. Ethnic food in Austin? Eh it’s alright. Can’t hold a candle to us. On a Saturday afternoon you could spend 2-3 hours choosing where to eat. You say: narrow it down to a country, and you can’t. There’s just so much. My wife and I are huge foodies.
R&K: How do you think Houston and your district will influence the country in the future?
Wu: Houston has a lot of little enclaves. One city council member calls it the Ellis Island of Texas. No matter what ethnic group you are, there’s some group of your people in my district. Even though we have these enclaves, there’s an understanding and everyone works together, spends time together. This is what America is going to look like. It’s what Texas will look like in 20 years. It’s what the nation will look like in 40 years.