Why you should care
Because the number of Asians and Pacific Islanders in prison has nearly doubled over the past decade.
“Happy new breath” is a kind of mantra for Eddy Zheng, and when you learn the advocate’s story of redemption, it makes sense. Decades ago, when he was a teenager newly arrived in San Francisco, he and two friends ambushed a family in Chinatown, tied up the kids and father, and stole thousands of dollars in cash and merchandise. Tried as an adult, Zheng ended up serving 21 years in prison, for crimes including burglary, kidnapping and assault with a firearm.
Upon his release, Zheng set about trying to do right. He worked with groups of young Asian-Americans to reduce their chances of making the mistakes he had and focused on service to the community, including on a police advisory board. Such efforts were the basis of a gubernatorial pardon last year, as he faced deportation to China. Today, the 47-year-old Zheng is an Open Society Soros Justice Fellow, as well as the subject of a new documentary, Breathin’: The Eddy Zheng Story. We spoke with him about the model minority myth, immigrants’ disadvantages in the legal system and how to ease the process of re-entering society after prison. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
OZY: Tell us about the problems you’re trying to solve.
Eddy Zheng: My focus is to expose the challenges that Asian-American immigrants have to deal with. With AAPIs [Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders], there’s this model minority myth that disempowers many of the immigrant populations since we don’t fit into it. We don’t get the necessary resources and support. Instead, many of them face a migration-to-school-to-prison-to-deportation pipeline. To interrupt that pipeline, as a formerly incarcerated individual, I try to support those currently and formerly incarcerated and to encourage them to tap into cultural history and heal intergenerational traumas. We want to create a prison-to-leadership pipeline for people to own their narratives.
OZY: Can you explain the the migration-to-school-to-prison-to-deportation pipeline?
E.Z.: We usually hear about the school-to-prison pipeline, and how lack of investment in education leads to mass incarceration. For many in the immigrant population, it extends beyond this. We finish serving our sentence and we’re automatically deported. Some migration is voluntary and some is forced, but both can be traumatic. Often when people are relocated to the U.S., they’re living in poverty- and violence-stricken areas. Instead of being the victims, some people turn themselves into the perpetrators as a way to survive.
OZY: What challenges do immigrants face in the legal system?
E.Z.: Most are financially incapable of hiring quality lawyers. When you go through the deportation process, if you don’t have money for a lawyer, you have to represent yourself. And there’s a language barrier. You have to have a translator to go through the legal proceedings. But even with a translator, you may not understand all the charges and laws. I didn’t.
Then there’s the problem of stigma and shame around immigration challenges. In my case, my parents never told any of their relatives or friends that I was doing life in prison. They continued to come up with a lie at every family gathering. My mom had a mantra that I was in school or busy and couldn’t come home. As I got older, she said I was in college, working, out of state, to hide that I was in prison. My parents feared they would lose face if others knew the truth. It’s [a] prevalent [fear] in the Asian-American community.
OZY: What helped you re-enter society, and how can that process be improved?
E.Z.: It was a long road. I spent 19 years in prison, two more in immigration detention. Education saved my life, but the prison system didn’t provide education — my peers did. They helped me learn English by teaching me to enunciate, teaching me sentence structure, sharing with me what books to read. I was able to learn and grow and get my GED, and then I got a better job in the prison system. It helped my self-confidence, and, as a result, I was attracted to learning.