Ming Hsu Chen Joins UC Law SF As Visiting Professor

Ming Hsu Chen—an expert on race, immigration, and citizenship—has joined the UC Law SF faculty as a visiting professor for the 2021-22 academic year. While at UC Law SF, she will teach Legislation and Administrative Regulation plus the seminar Citizenship and Equality: Interdisciplinary Perspectives in the fall semester and Constitutional Law II in the spring semester.

“I’m delighted to be at UC Law SF, which is one of the most diverse law schools in the nation and is positioning itself as a leader on issues of race, diversity, and immigration,” Chen says, citing the college’s renowned Center for Gender and Refugee Studies and recently established Center for Racial and Economic Justice. Another attraction, she says, is that UC Law SF is home to numerous scholars working at the intersection of law and other fields such as history, sociology, and political science.

Chen, who earned a PhD from UC Berkeley, a JD from NYU Law, and a BA from Harvard College, is trained in socio-legal methods and her writing crosses into political science. “Professor Chen is a highly respected interdisciplinary scholar whose work has focused on race, immigration, and the administrative state,” says Provost and Academic Dean Morris Ratner. “Her recent book, Pursuing Citizenship in the Enforcement Era, deepens our understanding of citizenship from the perspective of noncitizens, integrating theories of citizenship, empirical data, and policy analysis. I am confident that our students will be delighted to engage with and learn from Professor Chen, and our faculty is enriched by her visit.”

Chen was recently promoted to full professor at the University of Colorado Law School, where she also serves as founding faculty-director of the Immigration and Citizenship Law Program. Last year, Chen published Pursuing Citizenship in the Enforcement Era (Stanford University Press), which is based on interviews with over 100 immigrants of various legal statuses. This emphasis on empirical research grounded in lived experiences of the law is a hallmark of both her scholarship and her teaching. Her courses, for example, typically have a fieldwork component. In her fall seminar at UC Law SF, Chen expects that students might interview immigrants, volunteer at a citizenship workshop, or observe a citizenship ceremony. She also works to give her scholarship a practical impact and life in the broader world. During her book tour, Chen held academic workshops and lectures, but also spoke with journalists, policy experts at think tanks, and government officials about how the principle of expanding citizenship could be implemented in the real world.

Pursuing Citizenship, Chen says, is about the necessity of obtaining formal citizenship. The book’s premise is that formal citizenship is something all people should aspire to and the government should grant more widely, even if it may not be enough by itself. In her next project, Chen aims to examine the “insufficiency of citizenship” – the ways citizenship serves as legal cover for social and state abuse. For instance, she says, Black Americans have been citizens since passage of the 13th and 14th amendments and women have been able to vote since the 19th amendment. But formal citizenship is no guarantee of full citizenship.

Chen didn’t initially imagine life as a legal scholar. As a law student, she clerked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and expected she would work as an impact litigation lawyer, following in the footsteps of greats like the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. “As I started to work on these issues, I recognized they were the right issues. But to my surprise, litigation was not the right tool for me,” Chen says. “My brain was wired to think about the ideas, the history, and the impacts of policies rather than winning strategies in court.” She tells her students that if they care about issues of equality and social justice, they will find that law can play an important role in that overall battle, but it may not look the way they anticipate.

For Chen, working at UC Law SF is an adventure and a homecoming. She grew up in Orange County, earned her PhD at UC Berkeley, and has immediate family in both Northern and Southern California. Chen and her husband, civil rights attorney Stephen Chen, have long worked with Bay Area Asian American and Pacific Islander leaders and community groups. “I’ve lived in a lot of places,” she says, “but my heart is in California.”

The state has also shaped her work. Chen came of age in Orange County during the passage of Prop. 187 (1994) and Prop. 209 (1996), which banned affirmative action and all but eliminated public benefits for undocumented immigrants. Chen’s writing is rooted in the racial intolerance and xenophobia she witnessed as the child of immigrants and an Asian-American woman growing up in California. “Part of the responsibility of being a law professor and a legal scholar is bringing your voice and lived experiences into what you write and teach,” she says. Chen notes that while the primary targets of discrimination shift, discrimination itself is a constant feature of American life.

That Chen recognizes the challenges of the past and present is not to say she’s fatalistic about the future. “When you care about race and immigration, it’s easy to get discouraged, as there’s a long history of injustice in those areas,” she says. “But we can recognize that in confronting intolerance, we stand on the shoulders of legal scholars, advocates, and community organizers who have been doing this work for many years. Our individual efforts are part of a larger movement. We are connected in time and in space to all those other people pushing.”