Labor Secretary Nominee Julie Su Shaped by Work on 1990s Sweatshop Trafficking CaseBreaking News
tags: immigration, labor, Asian American History, Sweatshops, Julie Su, Garment Industry
Julie Su, President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the Department of Labor, was just 26 and two years out of Harvard Law School when she took on the defining case of her career that led to profound immigration and labor reforms.
In 1995, as a staff attorney at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, Su led a team of lawyers to secure legal immigration status and $4m in stolen wages for 72 enslaved Thai nationals in a garment sweatshop in El Monte, California. The case eventually led to federal protections for victims of human trafficking. Su, a Wisconsin-born daughter of Chinese immigrants, later earned a MacArthur genius award for her representation of the garment workers.
“She’s a creative, rigorous, incredibly committed public servant,“ said Ai-Jen Poo, a labor activist and the president of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. “Growing up in an immigrant household and working as a civil rights lawyer gives her a unique perspective on both the incredible opportunities and the inequities that exist in this country.”
Su, now the deputy labor secretary, was nominated to lead the labor department in February, to replace outgoing Marty Walsh. She’s facing an uphill battle to confirmation, though, with business lobbying groups and prominent Republicans campaigning against her. That was on display in the first confirmation hearing Thursday before the Senate health, education, labor and pensions committee, where Republicans criticized her record as California’s labor secretary and a handful of moderate Democrats remained noncommittal to voting her through. (The Senate narrowly confirmed Su as deputy secretary in 2021 by three-vote margin, along party lines.)
Labor advocates say Su’s political career has been shaped by the enduring legacy of the El Monte sweatshop case – a grassroots campaign that “turned my life upside down and changed me forever”, Su has written.
If confirmed, the veteran civil rights attorney and California’s former top labor official – who’s endorsed by the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, the Congressional Black Caucus and more than a dozen Asian American advocacy groups – would be the first Asian American cabinet secretary to serve under Biden.
After federal and state authorities freed the Thai garment workers in a pre-dawn raid, they were immediately sent to an immigration detention center and forced into orange prison uniforms. Su and her team secured their release after a week.