An International Immigration Incident with Attorney Charles Foster

One Saturday afternoon, I stumbled on the movie Mao’s Last Dancer.  I was riveted by the colors, the music and the dazzling costumes!  This story is about a professionally trained ballet dancer named Li Cunxin, who arrived in the U.S in 1979 from China on an exchange program to dance with the Houston Ballet Company during the political policies of Deng Xiaoping.  On the eve of his departure back to China in April of 1981, Li Cunxin defected to the U.S.  Caught in this international firestorm was a pivotal immigration attorney named Charles Foster. Just couple of months after this international incident, Mr. Foster was voted in as the 35th President of the Association of Immigration and Nationality Lawyers (un-popularly known as AINL at the time). Laughter aside, here is how the organization evolved into the present-day national organization better known as American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) according to Mr. Foster:

I was the last president of Association of Immigration and Nationality Lawyers (AINL) – I would testify before Congress and people would laugh and snicker [because of our acronym.] I quickly changed the name to AILA and drafted the logo myself.

Q: How did it feel to be the first non-East Coast President of AILA?

It was really just a New York organization when I got involved in 1976 or so…. When I was elected President, I noticed that every President was able to set the board meeting locations. (Those board meetings had only been held on the East Coast previously.] Following our first meeting in New York as the last agenda item, I announced the data and location of future board meetings starting with Houston, then Seattle and so forth. There was huge uproar of disbelief as I walked out the room!

By the third meeting, however, we had established a national office to be located in Washington, D.C. We also created a budget and hired a permanent Executive Director. Now our board meetings are held quarterly (rather than monthly when I was President) at locations all over the country and ironically, not that often in New York City.

Fast forward 30 years, Mr. Foster, who is now Co-Chairman of FosterQuan, LLP, took some time out of his busy schedule to indulge my curiosity about the defection of Li Cunxin, the ballet dancer from China: Q: How did the time of Li Cunxin’s defection affect your term as AILA President?

There wasn’t a big impact with AILA, but for a few days it was a huge international incident in every newspaper, but I made sure that it didn’t last long as I did not want to alienate Li from his home and family in the PRC.

Q: In the event Li Cunxin was detained Chinese Consulate and forcibly sent back to China against his will, did you have a Plan B (alternative)?

There was no plan B, I put all my chips on the table. When I first met Li, I met with him in my office. The only thing unusual was that the meeting was quite secretive. I knew him by reputation but other than that, he was a routine case. Just like anybody else, he wanted to stay to pursue his artistic career. To me, it was a straightforward case. …

It never once occurred to me that the Chinese would seize my client and hold him against his will. Nor was there a time, as the movie accurately portrayed, for me to confer with Li regarding strategy. During the course of our discussions with Chinese Consular Officials, when I was asked to go to a separate room for what I considered to be more discrete discussions, after some period of time I sensed something was going wrong and when I rushed back to the main room, Li had been seized by 4 or 5 guards and was gone. I never had a chance to talk with Li there because he had been dragged away. …

The bravest thing I had to do was to represent what I thought was the interest of Li without really being able to know his state of mind or communicate with him. After extensive negotiations failed, I had two Federal Judges, including the Chief Judge of the U. S. Court of the Southern District of Texas, the U. S. Marshall, the U. S. State Department, the National Security Council, the FBI and even President Reagan and Vice President Bush involved. In the back of my mind, I often wondered what if Li had walked out at some point during the 24 hours of back and forth negotiations simply saying that he had been resting or had changed his mind and asked me why I had stirred up so many folks to help him.

Q: How did it feel to have an Emmy-nominated actor Kyle MacLahlan portray you in the film?

It was a surreal experience. … I was very pleased with Kyle’s performance. I’m a big movie buff so I knew Kyle’s work very well. When I saw the film at the Toronto Film Festival, watching the film was very different. It’s like seeing your life but only a dot here and a dot there. That audience gave [the movie] a 15-minute standing ovation!

Q: In the thirty years that have passed since this incident, do you think U.S. immigration laws have evolved to adapt to the changing needs of the performing arts industry?

Absolutely! The performing arts industry deals with the most extraordinary performers -particularly in ballet and opera. They benefit immensely from foreign talent. Our immigration laws, more or less, works in the performing arts. They are today much better than in the past. You still have to meet the regulatory standards. …

Thank you to Mr. Foster for sharing such interesting experiences from your professional past. I can honestly say I’m a proud member of A-I-L-A. One final piece of advice Mr. Foster gave me about leadership:

If you have a vision for whatever you’re leading, you have to go for it!!