In September AIM interviewed Charles Foster, an immigration attorney from Houston, Texas, who was featured in the great new movie, “Mao’s Last Dancer,” a true story about a ballet dancer from China who sought and ultimately gained refuge in the United States. Foster was his attorney, and was played in the film by Kyle McLachlan.
Foster also advised George W. Bush and Barack Obama on immigration policy. He supports the lawsuit filed by the Obama administration against Arizona, and opposes the Arizona law. But his story and his perspective are interesting. We posed the tough questions to him, and felt that people can sort through the arguments, and come to their own conclusions.
Below are some excerpts from the interview, and you can listen to the entire interview, or read a transcript of it here.
Representatives of Madam Mao were sent to look for the perfect body—literally looking at millions and millions of young schoolchildren. To make a long story short, Li was plucked out of his village, along with, perhaps, a thousand others. Then they would move up to the Canton level, up to the state level, eliminating them as they would go. At the end of that process, there were 40 children selected. At the age of 11, Li was taken out of a village where he had never seen a plane, never seen a car, and was, really, taken from the 17th century into Beijing—it was barely in the 20th century—and for the next seven years, virtually seven days a week, was trained in a fashion that parents of children here in America that may put their kids in ballet class could never imagine—and he didn’t even know what the word ballet meant—and at the end of that process, was a remarkable talent.
Li, like so many people that come to America, felt like he had found a country very different from what he had studied about. Rather than seeing capitalist oppression, he saw a land of milk and honey, and, on a very personal basis, he made a decision that’s made every day by thousands of people: He wanted to live and work in America, where he had more opportunities, artistic freedom. But he recognized that that decision, to stay in America, was going to set off a storm, at least back in China, and so part of the movie, as you know, is when Li goes back to the Chinese consulate, as a face-saving measure, to take personal blame, to exonerate his mentor, Ben Stevenson, the head of the Houston Ballet. Unexpectedly, the Chinese physically grab him—it takes five guys because, as you see in the movie, to achieve the abilities that Li did, it takes an athlete. He was probably stronger than a Washington Redskins linebacker in terms of his upper body strength, his leg strength.
…when the Chinese seized my client—actually, while I was in another room, thinking I was negotiating, or at least explaining some of the legal basis upon which Li had to remain in the U.S., which was very clear, it was no problem from the U.S. side—as I focused on what was in the best interest of my client, individually, as lawyers do, setting aside any personal thought of what was in the better interest, the group interest, or the interest of the Houston Ballet, I realized that one of the consequences, I thought, I would be forever banned from China. But I’ve actually, ever since then, continued to have very active relations with China, [including] as chairman of the Asia Society…
Well, that evening in the consulate, the negotiations went on 21 hours, and the Chinese kept on telling me that if Li stayed it would be a humiliation, an embarrassment, to China. My response was, I agreed with him, but I said, “Let’s keep this a secret. It can be our secret. But if you hold Li, you’re going to put this on the front page of every newspaper in the world.” It became, momentarily, a very big story, because it was put on the front page of every newspaper in the world.
When the picture starts, China is outside of the system. It is, you could say, virtually a rogue nation that has no stake in the game. Today, China has one of the biggest stakes in the game. They are one of the two or three major players in the world economy. So while that causes issues and tensions between the U.S., as you’ve mentioned—for example, the value of the yuan, the renminbi—in the long run, the mere fact that it is playing such a significant role in the economy is a restraint. The military issue is of concern, but I think that we have to put that into perspective, in the sense that China sees itself, now, as a major power, and having a first class military goes with that status in the world, and it’s proper for the United States to express concerns, have issues, to monitor, but it was not ever realistic to say that a China that had grown into, at least, an economic superpower was going to keep a military that was the same they had in the 1950s.
When I realized that this great book, Mao’s Last Dancer, was being turned into a movie, I had more than passing interest about the script, and who was going to play me, and in the end I was very pleased with the performance of Kyle MacLachlan.… I think he does a good job. Overall, the movie, as you pointed out, is a remarkable movie. As far as I know, everybody who’s seen it says, if not a standing ovation, the movie uniformly gets a big round applause from an audience in a way I’ve never seen. It’s a great story, very enjoyable.
I think the most unique situation was when then-Governor Bush was clearly going to be a candidate for President in 2000. I had followed President Bush and I only knew him slightly. But I did know one thing, that he had very strong views about immigration. So several mutual friends recommended that I work in his campaign on immigration policy—I wound up being, at that time, his only policy advisor.
As President Bush said, why should we have our border patrol—he told me this—chasing someone’s nanny? What are they doing now? Mostly, they’re chasing someone’s nanny coming back from vacation, strawberry pickers, the guy fixing your home, mowing your lawn, building your house. Why not route those people into a temporary program so we can focus on the bad guys? That’s comprehensive immigration reform.