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Friday, April 19, 2024

UC Davis alumna Olivia Serene Lee reflects on 140th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act, AAPI Heritage Month

Lee shares her family’s history in the U.S., how her time at Davis and upbringing inspired her career in immigration law and her advocacy in the AAPI community

By MAYA SHYDLOWSKI — features@theaggie.org 

This May, which marks the 140th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act and Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, UC Davis alumna Olivia Serene Lee remembers the tumultuous and proud history her family has had in the U.S. Now an immigration attorney and partner at Minami Tamaki LLP in San Francisco, Lee shares how her upbringing and time at UC Davis inspired her career as a lawyer and advocate.

May 6 is the anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act, a law passed in 1882 restricting Chinese immigration into the U.S. It was the first exclusionary law passed by the U.S. government that limited immigration from a specific part of the world. 

The Act came after many Chinese and Chinese American laborers came to the U.S. to help complete the first transcontinental railroad in 1868, which ran from Omaha, NE to Sacramento, CA. When the railroad was completed, many of these men had to find other employment, which in part spurred the claim that some Americans made that Chinese immigrants were replacing American workers — a fear that is often still reflected in modern politics. 

Lee’s paternal great-great-grandfather was one of the many Chinese men who traveled to California for work. Lee’s great-great-grandfather was unable to bring his family with him initially, so both of her parents were born in Hong Kong, but moved to the U.S. during their childhoods. 

Lee’s parents’ families both settled in the Bay Area upon moving to the U.S., and Lee said that her family has strong ties to San Francisco’s Chinatown, where some of her relatives are prominent figures as civil rights activists and community members.

In 1947, Emma Ping Lum, Lee’s great-aunt’s partner, became the first female Chinese American lawyer in California and the U.S. Though Lee said though Lum and Lee’s great-aunt were not legally allowed to get married at the time, Lum was a part of the family. As she was growing up, Lee remembered calling Lum a cousin. Lee feels that her work now is following in Lum’s footsteps.

Lum’s father, Walter Uriah Lum, was also a prominent San Francisco figure. He was born in 1882 — the same year the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed — and spent his life fighting against it as a civil rights activist and the founder of the Chinese Times newspaper. 

Walter Lum even has a street named after him in Chinatown in San Francisco, where Lee was raised before attending UC Davis in 1998 as one of the first students to major in Asian American studies. 

In 1999, UC Davis added Asian American studies (ASA) as a major, 31 years after the first ASA course was taught. 

“It was quite memorable how the community came together to ask the administration for more resources to create an [Asian American studies] major and to offer more faculty positions,” Lee said. “Witnessing something so momentous was such an honor. It was an inspiring moment.”

Before majoring in ASA, Lee got involved with the Asian American community on campus by working as the director of UC Davis’s Asian Pacific Culture Week, which she said was a highlight of her college experience. 

Among Lee’s role models and mentors at UC Davis were professors and administrators that helped found the ASA department. Lee accredits much of her journey through college and involvement in Davis’s Asian American community to Theresa Montemayor, a UC Davis alumna herself. 

Lee said that Bill Hing, a professor at the School of Law, was also a critical part of her path to a life in law.

“I didn’t think I was going to go to law school,” Lee said. “It was through meeting him and learning more about Asian Americans, the legal system and immigration histories that really changed my trajectory to what I do now.”

Lee graduated from Davis in 2003 with dual degrees in biochemistry and molecular biology and Asian American studies. She began working in the nonprofit sector before becoming a paralegal and attending law school at Santa Clara University (SCU), where she focused on critical race theory and immigration law. 

While at law school, Lee was involved in the Asian Pacific American Law Student Association and the Asian Law Alliance in San Jose. During her second year at SCU, she worked with Minami Tamaki LLP in San Francisco, where she is now a partner.

As a Chinese American and San Francisco native, Lee said that she is proud to work in immigration law, especially with Minami Tamaki LLP. Donald Tamaki of Minami Tamaki LLP was on the pro bono team of attorneys that reopened the Korematsu v. United States case, a landmark case restricting Japanese immigration into the U.S. in the wake of World War II. 

Today, Lee said that she prioritizes her involvement in community and professional organizations as well as civil rights groups. She is an elected director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and serves on both the American Bar Association’s diversity and inclusion council and the board of Chinese for Affirmative Action, one of the co-founders of Stop AAPI Hate.

Lee calls her work rewarding. She said that she is grateful for her time at UC Davis, as she accredits the ASA department and all it taught her about the experiences of the Asian American community for where she is in her career today.

When asked what advice she would give to Asian American and Asian students in institutions of higher education, she simply said to follow your passions.

“What really inspired me [to go into immigration law] is that I have this interest in learning about people’s histories and their pasts,” Lee said. “That’s what I find so inspiring and fulfilling in this type of work.”

Written by: Maya Shydlowski — features@theaggie.org

Correction: This article previously had several factual inaccuracies that have now been updated.  The article incorrectly stated that both of Lee’s great-great-grandfathers traveled to the U.S. Only Lee’s paternal great-great-grandfather came to the U.S., which has been updated in the story. Lee’s mentor at UC Davis was incorrectly identified as Dr. Gertrudes Montemayor. Her mentor was Theresa Montemayor. Lee’s law firm, Minami Tamaki, was also previously misspelled. Finally, the article has been updated to more accurately reflect the nature of the relationship between Lee’s great-aunt and Emma Lum.


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