When Joyce Xi attends her commencement at Yale this week, she will join not just the ranks of educated men and women, but a very distinctive subset.
She will be an Asian American who now knows exactly what it’s like to undergo the extreme xenophobia of her own country.
But only as an associate.
She was just collateral damage, the unintended target, in her family’s ordeal.
The main focus was her father, Dr. Xiaoxing Xi, former head of the physics department at Temple University. Under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, aka the FISA Act, the law reserved to deal with the nation’s most significant terror and security threats, the U.S. government went after Dr. Xi with a vengeance.
If you saw Dr. Xi on 60 Minutes recently, then you saw him re-enact what happened May 21, 2015, when the FBI came pounding on the door of his suburban Philadelphia home.
Armed to the hilt, the agents cuffed and arrested Xi as his family watched in “disbelief.”
Surely it was a mistake, right?
But it wasn’t; the government was for real.
At least for five months or so. During that time, Dr. Xi, a naturalized American citizen, was portrayed in the media as one who was alleged to have traded secrets to China. Only after tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees was Xi able to get the government to understand the federal grants required talking to scientists in China. And that the “secrets” he shared weren’t secrets at all. Indeed, what the government had alleged, the sharing of the technology behind something called the “Pocket Heater,” was never shared with anyone in China.
But racial profiling of Chinese scientists is not a new thing.
And so in September, Dr. Xi joined the list of Chinese American scientists and academics who have been officially racially profiled and publicly humiliated as alleged spies, only to have all charges dropped when it’s discovered they weren’t really spies at all.
Lost civil liberties aren’t easily restored. Especially after the damage that gets done in the interim.
Joyce Xi knows as Dr. Xi’s daughter. Even after the dropping of charges, the last year has been a living hell.
“This is something that has shaken our whole family and my dad should not have been prosecuted to begin with,” Joyce Xi told me in a phone conversation recently.
“That we’ll carry with us forever,” she added. “It’s not just going to go away. And we hope this never has to happen to anybody ever again.”
Xi took some time off school to work with the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco, where she helped shape a new petition drive that’s calling for an independent investigation on how these cases are brought forward.
She’s also calling for a public apology to her family and to other scientists who have been unfairly profiled.
As a self-described “Asian scientist,” she has a hard time understanding how the government got to the point where they could accuse her father.
“It was entirely clear my dad did not do what they said,” Joyce Xi told me. “We had to be dragged through this entire process despite the fact my dad never did anything. And that was a scientific fact. That was pretty disconcerting.”
But the case has given her a different perspective on what she’d like to do with her life after college.
“I intend on standing up against these kinds of injustices in the future,” Joyce Xi said. “Racial profiling is not something isolated to Chinese Americans, either. It’s affecting other communities. … I will probably continue to speak out, fight the fight to make sure this sentiment doesn’t drive law enforcement.”
Joyce Xi’s graduation will hopefully be a life-changing moment that will help her entire family forget the last year.
But her launch of the petition drive is like a gift to her father, a reminder that civil liberties count in a just and diverse America.
Emil Guillermo is an award-winning journalist and commentator. He writes on race, politics and society at http://www.aaldef.org/blog.