When Shoujiang Li left his house the morning of March 25 a little earlier than normal to pick up a few things before his shift, his wife Yanyun didn’t expect it to be the last time she saw him for at least a month, and probably much longer.
Within minutes after leaving his home, Li was arrested by ICE. The family had been living in the country for more than 20 years, and Li has a Social Security card and had been paying taxes for more than a decade. He worked as a cook at a Chinese restaurant to support his wife and four daughters, who range in age from 16 to 3 months.
“It’s like the sky collapsed in on us,” Yanyun said in her dining room in her Northeast Philadelphia home, cradling her newborn baby. Her three other daughters, all of whom were born in the country, gathered around the table with her. Li is the sole moneymaker for the family, as Yanyun was staying at home to raise the baby. He also is the only one in the family who can drive.
Now, the family is trying to spread the word about their case, both to reach out to anyone who may be able to help and raise awareness of the realities families in this country are facing. A family with religious values, they asked their church to write a letter to send to attorneys. They also reached out to the Northeast Philadelphia Chinese Association.
“There are a lot of prayers going out for your family,” Pearl Mingchu Huynh, president of NEPCA, told the family in their dining room. “You shouldn’t feel so lonely.”
Moved by their case, Huynh stepped up to help the family, voluntarily serving as a translator for Yanyun, helping to spread the word and translating letters Li wrote to his family from prison.
“I have been in jail for 19 days,” one of the letters reads. “The days here are long, dreadful and lonely. I don’t know how I made it through these days. I cannot believe we are married for 18 years and my first letter to you is written in jail.”
In a letter Li wrote to a potential lawyer that his family agreed to share with the Times, he stated he immigrated to the country in February 1994 and went to court the same year to pursue citizenship. He writes that he was introduced to an “unscrupulous” service agency that didn’t notify him he was scheduled to appear in court until 25 minutes before the hearing.
“By the time I arrived to the… immigration office, I was already more than an hour late. But my lawyer was even later than me,” the letter reads, saying his lawyer claimed to be stuck in traffic. He was soon told the hearing would be useless.
“They’ve been here for so long, if they go back to China they can’t really get used to the lifestyle there,” the 16-year-old daughter said. “I definitely can’t go because I was born here and I can’t even read Chinese. It would be like a whole new world.”
Li and Yanyun lived in New York City for over a decade, where Li owned his own Chinese fast food restaurant. To save money, the family lived in a single basement comprised of only three bedrooms and a bathroom. They estimated the total size was about as big as the kitchen and dining room of their current home.
Yanyun said the family saved “every penny” so they could move to Philadelphia about three years ago and afford a home to give their children a better life. The daughters struggled with their studies in New York, where they said academics were more competitive and the basement was a poor environment to grow up and study in. They spent most of their time at their father’s restaurant growing up, completing their homework there so their parents could work and care for them at the same time.
“Many Chinese families are not well to do and work hard on their labor like this family here,” Huynh said. “They saved every penny [when they lived in New York] to do what’s best for their kids.”
Their older daughters are aged 16, 10 and 9, and all of them achieve very high grades in school, including straight As. Each of the three daughters went to their teachers and asked for assistance in writing a letter to attorneys pleading for help in their case, and two of the teachers agreed to help.
“Next week I’ll be taking the Keystone exams but I feel really stressed,” said the 16-year-old, trying to remain upbeat. “This whole thing has affected me.”
Without Li to drive them, Yanyun described having to take the bus to and from the grocery store with her baby. Huynh assured them other families are experiencing the same struggle.
“You will be OK,” she said.