A second child during China's one-child policy becomes an immigration lawyer in the US
I came into this world as the second child of my family during the stringent era of China’s one-child policy. To avoid governmental persecution, we took refuge in a secluded rural area where my mother was forced to give birth at home without any medical attention. As I grew older, my inquisitive nature drove me to question why my sister and I lived apart, and why I seemed to be the cause of additional paperwork at school. As a second child, my parents grappled with the bureaucracy of incorporating me into a system known as “hukou,” China’s household registration.
This struggle with my household registration continued throughout my education in China, often leaving me on waiting lists. At times, I questioned my worth and intellect, wondering if my status as a second child somehow made me less intelligent than my peers. As fate would have it, when no other children were willing to join an English class in the early ’90s, I found my golden opportunity.
My father played an instrumental role in nurturing my confidence to steadfastly pursue my beliefs while creating an environment conducive to enhancing my language skills. He would often surround me in a world of Hollywood movies, Disney films and American music. Our home became a sanctuary filled with CDs and tape recordings. Among my most cherished memories are the evenings when, after dinner, my father and I would embark on our little journey toward the local video rental store.
These excursions were like a hunt for buried treasure; sometimes we’d find a new film to bring home, a clear and high-definition recording that promised an evening of immersive enjoyment. On other occasions, our hunt would yield less rewarding finds—tapes recorded surreptitiously within a movie theater, the grainy images and muffled sounds a stark contrast to our coveted high-definition tapes.
Yet even on these less fortunate days, my father found a way to make the most of our situation. He’d encourage me to focus on the conversations in the films, coaxing me to dissect the dialogue regardless of the poor visual quality. His ingenuity, I realized, wasn’t just about making do but about creating learning opportunities from seemingly unfavorable situations. Upon my initial encounter with Western culture, I began to ponder if there existed a place where my status as a second child would go unquestioned. Simultaneously, another aspect of my identity, long considered taboo, gradually surfaced: my identity as a gay man.
Harboring questions and doubts, I journeyed to the U.S. to attend Ohio State University in fall 2011. Once there, I assumed a leadership role advocating for LGBTQ+ communities, beginning to share my experiences of unfair treatment related to my identities. Simultaneously, I discovered the inherent value of democracy: the opportunity for one’s voice to be heard, a right sadly denied in my homeland. Determined to amplify my voice and represent others like me—those denied opportunities because of their identities—I decided to pursue law school.
During my time at Suffolk University Law School in Boston and my internship with U.S. District Judge Marianne B. Bowler, I became deeply intrigued by the U.S. Constitution’s commitment to ensuring due process and equal protection for every individual. The myriad interpretations of laws also caught my attention.
After graduating in 2017, in 2018 I returned to China, where I ventured into international arbitration, handling corporate disputes and white-collar crimes. But this work left me feeling disconnected from helping individuals, and I pivoted toward immigration practice.
While I initially started this practice in China, I moved back to the U.S. in June 2022 due to my employer’s headquarters being in Washington, D.C. In November 2022, I established my own practice, L Law Firm.
In the U.S., there’s arguably no practice area quite like immigration. It’s incredibly challenging and intricate yet profoundly personal. Immigration policy frequently changes, and I vividly recall how particularly arduous it was practicing during Donald Trump’s presidency and COVID-19, with many stringent and often unjust policies. But it must be said that being an immigrant in the U.S. is never an easy path. The immigration process involves months, years and even decades of waiting. Empathy and advocacy
Through my own experiences, I often empathize with my clients, understanding their feelings because I’ve walked in their shoes. Most of my immigration practice revolves around assisting highly skilled immigrants such as researchers, engineers, entrepreneurs and numerous other extraordinary professionals. In parallel, I am spearheading initiatives within my practice to advocate for LGBTQ+ family reunifications. Crucially, I am devoted to providing pro bono services, cognizant of the many individuals unable to afford legal assistance.
One of my pro bono cases involved a student at State University of New York in Buffalo who faced an unexpected predicament due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. Originally, he had planned to visit his home in China for the summer break, but he chose instead to remain in the U.S. and enroll in summer classes. Regrettably and unbeknownst to him—with no prior notice from the international student office—he neglected to renew his I-20 form before his summer classes commenced.
The I-20 form, known as the Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status, is a document crucial for international students studying in the U.S. It is not only necessary for applying for an F-1 visa but also for maintaining legal status throughout their studies.
Because of this oversight, he inadvertently fell out of immigration status, even though he maintained good grades and regular class attendance throughout the summer. The international student office recommended he seek legal advice, and that’s when he approached me. He was understandably anxious, being only one semester away from graduation and having already been accepted into graduate school.
Before advising him on the best course of action, I took the time to converse with him about our experiences as international students in the U.S. He eventually implemented my advice, and with the assistance of the international student office, his student status was successfully reinstated. The relief in his voice was palpable when he told me that he could now continue pursuing his dream. It’s stories and successes like this that truly warm my heart.
My journey from a concealed second child in China to a lawyer in the U.S. has been shaped by my experiences, driving my mission to help others surmount challenges and advocate for justice. As a young child eager to find a place for himself, I discovered my path through the legal profession. Despite confronting hardships related to status and identity, I found my voice by learning and practicing law. Even more profoundly, I became a voice for others.
One hot summer night, my father brought home a recorded tape of the film from a video rental store. It was The Lion King. We would rerun it from time to time. He once told me, “One day, you can be like Simba, brave enough to step out of your comfort zone, and you will find the answers for yourself.”
People are drawn to the legal profession for various reasons. For me, it was a journey of self-discovery, a platform to assert my identity and a means to make a difference. My father saw me become an attorney, but he passed away in 2019, approximately six months after my bar admission. Despite the loss, his words continue to inspire me, echoing in my work and guiding my path. And my journey continues.
This story was originally published in the December 2023-January 2024 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “Finding My Voice: A second child during China’s one-child policy becomes an immigration lawyer in the U.S.”
Linchi Liang is the principal attorney at L Law Firm in Washington, D.C., specializing in immigration for highly skilled professionals, including scientists, entrepreneurs, lawyers and those in the entertainment sector. He is a recipient of the ABA's 2023 On the Rise—Top 40 Young Lawyers award and dedicates significant hours to pro bono work.