Jinjin Li ’98’s Path to a Legal Career in the U.S.

News of immigration attorney Jinjin “Jim” Li ’98’s murder on March 14, 2022, at his office in New York City was shocking not only to Chinese legal circles, but also to those who knew him from his years as a graduate student at University of Wisconsin Law School.

“The world needs more people like Jinjin Li,” said Emeritus Law Professor Charles Irish, founding director of UW Law’s East Asian Legal Studies Center.

According to the New York Times, Li was killed in an attack at his office in Queens. Police arrested a 25-year-old woman from China, whose immigration case Dr. Li is reported to have refused
to accept.

Li’s path to a legal career in New York City led through Madison, where he spent almost four years in the late 1990s transitioning from a Chinese labor rights activist to an American attorney.

China’s 1989 Democracy Movement

Born in 1955 in Wuhan, Li served in the People’s Liberation Army and, after China’s Cultural Revolution, received a bachelor’s degree in law from the Hubei University of Finance and Economics. He continued his legal studies at Beijing’s prestigious Peking University, where he chaired the graduate student association.

When protests erupted in the heart of Beijing in the spring of 1989 (a movement that ended in the infamous June Fourth Tiananmen Square Massacre), Li was a 33-year-old graduate student focused on constitutional law, with a wife and young son. In interviews and writings, he has described how he quickly became swept up in the activism emanating from Peking University and
was soon being asked legal questions about workers’ rights, including the right to strike, in part because he was wearing a sunhat emblazoned with the phrase “Peking University Constitutional
Law Doctoral Student.”

As he recalled in a 2018 interview with medium.com blogger Grace Wong: “I began to think that this was not a student movement, but a people’s movement. So I made efforts to organize a workers’ movement. With two workers, Han Dongfang at the lead, I encouraged them to start a union under my guidance. I ended up being the legal consultant for the group. I explained to them
their rights and how to effectively organize an activist group step-by-step.”

This group would eventually become the Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation (BWAF), for which Dr. Li drafted the inaugural statement: “Our old unions were welfare organizations. But
now we will create a union that is not a welfare organization, but one concerned with workers’ rights.” The BWAF lasted only fourteen days, ended by the military crackdown the night of June 3. Li was among those arrested in the aftermath. Li was not released until April 22, 1991. In February 1993, he was issued a passport and allowed to leave China for the U.S. He began his American sojourn at Columbia University, but soon transferred to UW Law School to resume his studies in law.

A Career Focused on Immigration and China

After graduating, Li returned to New York, where he passed the New York bar in 1998 and opened a law practice in Queens specializing in immigration. In 2004, he qualified to appear before the
United States Supreme Court, and in August 2010 served as the lead attorney in Bi Xia Qu v. Holder, 618 F.3d 602 (6th Cir. 2010), which held that women who are sold or forced into marriage and involuntary servitude are a “particular social group” for asylum law purposes.

Li also remained involved in pro-democracy projects, advising advocacy groups and speaking to the media in both English and Chinese about Chinese legal topics. In 2011, he published a memoir
in Chinese with Mirror Media Group, with a title that translates into English as “From the Peoples’ Square to the Qincheng Prison.” He served as director of Human Rights in China and chair
of the supervisory board of the China Democracy Party National Committee.

“Jinjin was a big tree, which spread seeds on the earth,” said Wayne Zhu, fellow Queens attorney who officiated at the memorial service for Li, which was attended by over 300 people, including prominent members of the Chinese legal and dissident communities. “He is always living in our hearts. I appreciate UW–Madison for remembering the amazing life of Jinjin.”

By Laurie Dennis