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Bias Greets Visitors to White House

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 11, 1997; Page A01

Several Americans with approved clearances to visit the White House were initially prevented from entering the complex because security guards assumed their Asian surnames meant they were foreigners, according to Secret Service officials and the White House aide who had cleared them in advance.

In two instances, security guards raised questions about the guests' nationality, even though the visitors were U.S. citizens and were on a list that showed they had received permission to enter. In the first case in late July, a guard called the White House aide who had given the clearance and told him that the guests' names looked "foreign, you know, Asian, Chinese."

In the second incident, which occurred last week, Secret Service security guards changed the visitors' citizenship from American to "foreign," based on their Asian surnames, a Secret Service spokesman acknowledged. One of the guests was Yvonne Lee, a member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

There have been at least two other occasions this year in which Asian Americans were questioned at the White House gate about their citizenship or in which tourists were forbidden from taking pictures outside the White House because of their race, according to participants.

The incidents come in the midst of the unfolding campaign finance scandal, including allegations that Clinton administration and Democratic Party officials gave foreign nationals, many of them Asian, wide access to the White House. In one controversial instance, Clinton had coffee with a Chinese executive who heads a leading arms company.

In their rush to disclaim responsibility, both the White House and Secret Service acknowledged some mistakes have been made but blamed them on low-level security officials overwhelmed by requests for White House clearance.

A spokesman for the Secret Service said it has "zero tolerance for discrimination of any fashion," and said it has begun an inquiry into one of the incidents after a complaint. In the incident involving civil rights commissioner Lee, Special Agent Arnette Heintz said an employee "wrongly made an assumption" about Lee and now "realizes he was wrong."

White House spokesman Barry Toiv said: "We find it unacceptable that any American would be made to feel unwelcome at their White House."

Individuals who have appointments with White House officials must go through an elaborate clearance procedure before they ever arrive, one that was tightened earlier this year. The White House person being visited provides the guests' names, birth dates, social security numbers and citizenship to the Secret Service clearing center for appointments. Foreign nationals must be personally escorted once they enter and all the clearance information is relayed to guards at the entrances.

Yet those who were recently stopped at the gate, including Lee, had already cleared those hurdles but were stopped nevertheless.

"I see this as an isolated incident," Lee said yesterday. "But it only goes to show that under the current climate, it is possible that individuals are taking it upon themselves to conduct extra scrutiny of people whose last names happen to be Asian American."

A series of other incidents provoked by the campaign finance scandal are detailed in a complaint to be filed today with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The 27-page filing by a broad coalition of civil rights groups alleges that public officials, the Democratic and Republican parties, and the media, have "engaged in a pattern of bias based on race and national origin" against Asian Americans. Among the petitioners are the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium and the Organization of Chinese Americans, two prominent national groups representing Asian American interests.

The groups want the commission, an independent, bipartisan agency that monitors the enforcement of federal civil rights laws, to investigate the incidents, hold hearings and document the bias and its impact on Asian Americans.

The panel has no formal power, but issues reports on its findings that can then be used by Congress or other officials to implement policy changes. Edward Chen, the lawyer for the petitioners, said the complaint does not allege any "actionable law violations," but said the incidents deserve scrutiny.

Although the groups say they want a full investigation into the allegations of campaign finance misconduct, they accuse the Senate panel probing the issue of unfairly targeting Asian Americans. For example, the panel have not sought testimony about illegal foreign contributions from Thomas Kramer, a German national who was fined $323,000 in July, the largest financial penalty ever imposed by the Federal Election Commission for violating laws against foreign contributions.

The complaint also said that Sen. Fred D. Thompson, (R-Tenn.), head of the Senate panel investigating campaign finance, made opening remarks about a Chinese government plan to subvert the U.S. political process that have yet to be backed up by public evidence. Those remarks have created a false impression that Asian Americans, especially of Chinese descent, are somehow linked to a Chinese conspiracy, the complaint alleges.

The complaint also alleges that the investigation has had a stigmatizing effect on other Asian Americans both in and outside government:

  • Political appointments have been derailed, including that of Chang-lin Tien, a former chancellor of UCLA at Berkeley and one-time candidate for energy secretary. *Suspicions are being raised that Asian Americans, no matter how long they have lived in the United States, will have "divided loyalties." California State Treasurer Matt Fong, who plans to run for Senate next year, was recently asked by veteran national reporters "whether his loyalty is divided between America and China — even though he is a fourth-generation American," the complaint said.
  • In response to the campaign finance inquiry, members of Congress introduced nine different bills that would prohibit campaign contributions by legal permanent residents, many of whom are Asian American.
  • Inaccurate and unbalanced news coverage and anti-Asian remarks by public figures that "lend an aura of legitimacy" to anti-Asian sentiment. These include headlines like "Chop Suey Connection," and news articles that invariably describe Asian Americans as "mysterious."
Two members of the Senate committee, Sam Brownback (R.-Kansas) and Robert Bennett (R-Utah), have also made racially offensive remarks, for which they later apologized.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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