Biden nominates first Asian American woman as deputy labor secretary

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Julie Su has fought to protect low-wage workers for 17 years, freeing enslaved Thai workers in 1995.

Julie Su, President Joe Biden's pick for deputy labor secretary, is set to make history as the nation's first Asian American woman in the role.

Su, the current California labor secretary whose nomination was first announced on Wednesday, would serve beside Labor Secretary-designate Marty Walsh, who is also awaiting full Senate confirmation.

The historic pick echoes that of Chris Lu, the first Asian American man to serve as deputy labor secretary under former President Barack Obama. Lu served until the end of Obama's term in 2017.

Su's storied career includes 17 years as a civil rights lawyer championing protections for low-wage workers and working to protect immigrants from becoming victims of crimes like human trafficking, the Los Angeles Times noted.

In 1995, Su fought for and freed 80 enslaved Thai garment workers who had been forced to toil for 18 hours a day at a Southern California sweatshop. In 2001, the MacArthur Foundation awarded Su with a Genius Grant Fellowship for her defense of the Thai workers, who received legal immigration status as a result of her efforts.

"Not only did she free the enslaved workers, she successfully prosecuted the human traffickers responsible and prevented the exploited workers from being deported. She went on from there to push for anti-sweatshop legislation and to stop the exploitation of truck drivers at the ports," said Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA), who applauded Su's nomination this week.

In 2019, the American Bar Association presented Su with the Margaret Brent Award. During her acceptance speech, she said she became a lawyer "to become a translator of the language of law for those who are marginalized, discriminated against, and exploited," after growing up translating for her parents like many immigrant children.

That year, California Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed Su as secretary of the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency. From 2011 to 2018, Su was California labor commissioner. She was also former litigation director at the legal advocacy nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice–Los Angeles.

"Working with the Thai garment workers revealed just how vulnerable and invisible Asian immigrants can be," Conne Chung Joe, the legal group's CEO, told NBC. "Julie's work has been intentional to serve marginalized people who fall through the cracks of our society. Her work in California set policies to serve those most in need."

Asian American Pacific Islander lawmakers across Capitol Hill have praised Su's nomination.

"President Biden's choice to nominate Julie Su to serve as Deputy Secretary of Labor is a clear indication of a new chapter for America - one that values different perspectives and lifts up the most trusted and experienced voices from every corner of our nation," said longtime California Rep. Doris Matsui (D), in a statement. "Julie has been a powerful leader for the AAPI community ... providing a voice for the voiceless."

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) said, "I am excited to see President Biden nominate such a brilliant, talented, and experienced leader as he recognizes the wealth of contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and continues to build an administration that reflects the diversity of America. Julie will ensure that the voices of working people are always at the table."

A daughter of Chinese immigrants, Su speaks Mandarin and Spanish. She graduated from Stanford University and Harvard Law School.

Su joins other history-making Asian American women in the Biden administration. Vice President Kamala Harris, who is of Black and Indian descent, became the first woman and Asian American to serve in the role. Katherine Tai, of Chinese descent, will become the first Asian American woman and woman of color to serve as U.S. trade representative. Neera Tanden, who is of Indian descent, is also set to become the first woman of color to head the Office of Management and Budget if she is confirmed.

Su's nomination is significant, as it comes at a tenuous time in the country, with a shocking rise in hate crimes, violence, and attacks against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

An October STOP AAPI HATE report found at least 2,700 racist incidents against Asian Americans since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. More recently, a spate of violent attacks on Asian Americans and Asian elders has prompted public outry, with one 84-year-old Thai-American man brutally killed after being shoved to the ground during his daily walk.

Meanwhile, Biden has pledged to do what he can to address the problem. Late January, he signed a memo to combat bullying, racism, discrimination, and xenophobia directed against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

In a Monday White House briefing, press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden is "concerned about the discrimination against, the actions against the Asian American community, which is why he signed the executive order and why he's been outspoken in making clear that attacks, verbal attacks, any attacks of any form, are unacceptable and we need to work together to address them."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.