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Interview with: Charles Foster
Interviewed by: David Goldstein
Date: May 28, 2008
DG: Today is May 28, 2008, and we are in the conference room at the offices of Charles Foster. We are interviewing for the Houston Oral History Project. My name is David Goldstein. How are you today, Mr. Foster?
CF:I am very well, Mr. Goldstein.
DG: That is great. Let's begin at the beginning. Why don't you tell us where you were born and your earliest memories?
CF:I was born in Galveston, Texas. __________ although I have no memory of Galveston because my father was sort of an ________ insurance salesman, meaning he could not hold a job, so my earliest memories, always growing up in Texas, would be growing up, perhaps early on in Dallas, Texas, although we continued to move about every 9 months or so.
DG: And what are your earliest memories? What did you do when you were a kid?
CF:Well, in Dallas, I remember my sister throwing some shell rock and hitting me in the back of the head, my father driving us to Tennessee because one of the proud things in my childhood was, on my father's side, he was from a small town in Tennessee that had lived there for generations and my aunt, his older sister, had built a home, really a large log cabin home. She had got all those logs when the Tennessee River Authority, TRA, passed during the Roosevelt Administration, flooded a lot of the low lands. She bought up a lot of log cabins and built . . . and I was there when they were building that. Probably maybe as early as late 1949 or 1950, I remember that. I was born in August, 1941.
DG: Where did you go to school?
CF:I went to school sort of lots of different places. First grade in Dallas. I know I was in Waco in the third grade. Harlingen in the third grade. And, at some point, given my father's lifestyle and the fact that he was an alcoholic, my mother left him, so by the fourth and fifth grade, she had left him penniless just to get to this little town in East Texas called Royse City where my grandfather owned a lumbar yard. So, fourth and fifth grade, I was in Royse City, northeast of Dallas. It was so small, my mother had to teach me in the fifth grade - she was the only fifth grade teacher in this little community, and I think she was faced with teaching me in the sixth grade which probably drove her to move to McAllen. So, I went through the sixth and the ninth grade in McAllen which was a huge influence on my life. This was the first thing that was actually relevant because by the time I got to McAllen in the sixth grade, there was Reynosa right across the Rio Grande - I thought I had arrived to Paris because I had come from a little town where the social highlight of the season would be the opening of the summer snow cone stand. That was the only place you could buy something. And so, by driving across that border to these big cantinas and restaurants, I loved the culture, the special culture at the Texas border. My mother left teaching and became the director of the American Cancer Society, meaning she raised money both for the fundraising and educational campaign. They transferred her to Corpus which was also really a south Texas town. I graduated from high school from W.B. Ray High School in Corpus Christi in 1959.
DG: What are your earliest memories of wanting to be a lawyer?
CF:I wanted to be a lawyer for several reasons. I remember meeting my first lawyer and being impressed I had just met a lawyer. Early on, I read a lot of biographies including several biographies of Clarence Darrell and then a book in his own words. And then, as corny as it sounds, I saw Gregory Peck and later met him at the home of Lynn _______; Gregory Peck playing Atticus Finch from the famous novel, To Kill A Mockingbird. There was something about that story - helping those that needed help, the drama of the courtroom, being able to change lives - that was very appealing to me. The other thing that was dramatically important . . . I started junior college . . . I loved geology and physical geology, and then I discovered that you had to take all sorts of math and chemistry and I was weak in that but I was attracted to the dramatic side of geology, volcanoes erupting and dinosaurs, so I decided first I was going to be a Latin American . . . I wanted to do something international, Latin American because . . . so, at some point, I decided I could combine that, do something practical, have a law degree, and so I began focusing on being an international lawyer. But I had a hard time because I knew I had to make a choice of either being a courtroom lawyer with all the drama or following my other passion which was the international, by that time, international __________.
DG: You graduated from the University of Texas?
CF:I graduated from UT undergraduate in 1963 with a degree in government and a minor in Spanish, and then I went to UT School of Law and graduated in 1967. I took off 1 year . . . when I was in undergraduate school, I was trying to get a fellowship or anything to go to Latin America. By the time I started law school, I received a rotary fellowship which was one of the best ones you could possibly get in terms of total dollar funding. It was about the best. And so, I had a choice - I was going to go to some country where they spoke Spanish. They asked me to pick 3 countries so I picked the 3 furthest from home. Argentina, Chile and Spain. And so, I wound up going to law school in southern Chile at the Universidad de Concepcion for 1 year. I had a wonderful experience. Just to drop some historical references, while I was there, I was pushed literally into a debate with Salvador Ayende (sp?) who was running as a Socialist candidate for president and the whole campus was divided so that instead of having student parties, you were either a member of the Communist Party, the Socialist Party or the National Democratic Party. And all of my classmates thought I should defend American copper interests, so when this man who was an extraordinarily gifted speaker came, they pushed me into a debate and he was very kind. Obviously, I was very ill-equipped to debate someone that was truly a gifted speaker. Later I would hear Salvador Ayende address these huge political concentraciones of 40,000, 50,000 people which I had never seen anything like it until I had seen Barak Obama rally here in Houston.
DG: What were the college years like for you?
CF:For me, it was like being in a candy store. I just loved it because I had been in high school, I had several jobs, I was not very attuned to studying so by the time I got to college, I became compensated, became an over-serious student and really concentrated my studies and loved the diversity of courses I could take at UT. I took a course on the Cuban Revolution, the Mexican history, a lot of courses focused on the governments of Southeast Asia and the Middle East. I became a member of a fraternity that was based upon studying international relations and government. I did not belong to a social fraternity. I sort of looked down in a way upon the people who did because I thought they were missing all the fun things, foreign movies. One of the neat things I did, I joined the Speaker's Committee. I have always been interested . . . I still do that. I have been focused specifically on activities that have allowed me to attract speakers here. But I started at UT and on the Speaker's Committee, I met and actually sort of hosted Roy Wilkins who was, at that time, the president of the NAACP; Ted Sorensen who just wrote the book, Kennedy, who had served as the Chief of Staff for President John F. Kennedy, and most important, Martin Luther King who came to campus and gave what I thought at the time was the most extraordinary speech I ever heard.
DG: What do you remember of King's speech?
CF:I just remember being overwhelmed. I went into this room at the UT student center with maybe a couple of hundred students and this was several years before Martin Luther King would have received the Nobel Peace Prize. He was certainly well-known, I mean, just generally known but he was not the icon that he became. It was long before his "I Have A Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial, so when he gave that speech with all of the cadence and the build-up, the drama leading to a crescendo, I just thought that was extraordinarily powerful and I remember going with my roommate from Corpus Christi whose dad owed the Nixon Restaurant and he sat on his hands because he was protesting because he did not want Martin Luther King to tell his father who he had to serve. He was a nice guy but he felt this was of principle, that people should be able to serve whoever they wanted to in a restaurant, therefore, having the right to send African Americans to the rear alley to receive their food. That is what it meant.
DG: So, you have moved all around and you have been in Dallas and then as far south as the Valley and the border and now you are in Austin. What was your view of Houston during all this time?
CF:I had an impression of Houston as being sort of the big city. Something about the oil industry and the Ship Channel made it sort of more intriguing to me than Dallas. I had an impression of Dallas from my childhood, having attended . . . my mother would take us there to outdoor musicals and on the state fair grounds . . . but there was something . . . and then, I had an aunt near Baytown and so I would sort of come near the periphery of Houston. So, somewhere in the back of my mind, I sort of realized if I was going to practice law in Texas, it would have to be in a city bigger than Corpus Christi.
DG: What year did you graduate from law school?
CF:I graduated in 1967 and I spent a good part of 1967 . . . I worked in 1964 because of a historical figure, Hector Garcia, who was actually portrayed in the movie Giant, who was an ally, early supporter of Lyndon Johnson. I met him when he was campaigning in Corpus Christi in 1960 for president. That was another person that had a huge influence on me, this force of nature, when I did not know . . . just walked into a room of students and Johnson was campaigning both for reelection in 1960 as well as for the presidency and he blew me away. In fact, I still have framed on the wall in my home a picture of a few students and I am sort of there with my eyes wide open, mouth half open because a few of us just sort of liked following -- Peter Piper or whatever it is -- following this guy afterwards. I just wanted to be in his presence. We followed him over to a student dining area and several of us sat around and talked to him. What was I talking about?
DG: You were talking about when you gradated but you were saying the people who had a formative influence on you - Lyndon Johnson and you mentioned hearing Martin Luther King. Was there anybody else that had an influence on you, a ______ influence on you when you graduated, by the time you graduated?
CF:Well, I knew I got off the subject somehow - there was something else - but anyway, those are two big historical figures who to today, I still think back . . . Johnson with all of his pragmatic - a half loaf is better than no loaf, bigger than life - and having also, he was a very dramatic figure . . . when he became president, he tried to be too presidential but on the stump and in person, he just had this huge personality. I went over and met him several times, and I think I got off when talking about Johnson by referring to . . . we talked about something along the way . . . Dr. Hector Garcia, who founded the GI Forum, worked with my mother through the American Cancer Society on educational campaigns so he helped me get a job working for the Johnson Administration as a student. I worked for the Department of Justice one summer in 1964 in the old Star Building which was the subsidiary building for the Department of Justice ______ but the two important things were I got to work in main justice and I would go up there at night and I could see J. Edgar Hoover in his office because the FBI, that was before they had their separate building and they were on one of the floors and I could see his light in his office. And I would think, well, there is J. Edgar Hoover working in there when I would be working up there at night in the library for some reason on that same floor. And the other thing that I remember about the summer of 1964 is I would walk home up Pennsylvania Avenue and you could walk right up the stairs . . . because my rental apartment was right on the other side of the Capitol and the Supreme Court. At that time, it was a rundown neighborhood. I would walk right up the steps. I thought this was such a neat way to walk home. And walked right under the dome and right out the door down to my place. Today, you could not do that. You would need all sorts of security. You cannot walk that way. You've got to come in a special entrance. And so, I always remember this - I was walking right there and there was Ted Kennedy talking to his brother, Robert Kennedy, who was, of course by that time a New York senator and poising to run for the presidency some day. I always regretted I did not have a camera or did not get to introduce myself to both of them at that moment.
DG: So, you graduated from law school? What was your first job?
CF:Well, I graduated from law school in 1967 and when I did - this is something that is historical - I figured that I was going to be drafted into the war and I spent a good part of 1967 trying to get into a judge advocate general's jag program, or there were a couple of other things to do. The Texas Air National Guard because famous when President George W. Bush became a member of that. Anything to avoid real dangerous military service. I figured I had to do something safe and I did not know a single person - I knew lots of students but none of them were eager to go to Vietnam. I did not know anyone that volunteered. I knew all of us were expected to be drafted but we were trying to get into some program that would allow us to avoid military service, combat duty. And then I woke up one day when I realized that since I had taken an extra year in Chile, that if I just graduated later in the summer, I was going to turn - whatever it was - 27 on August 1 or 26 on August 1, that I would not be subject to the draft. So, I just lucked out and I took . . . I had met the General Counsel, Edwin Ford, of American Fruit which ironically was the symbol of American Imperialism in Latin America and by that time, he had become a partner in the major Wall Street law firm of Reed and Priest and he recruited me to work for this Wall Street law firm that, at that time, had represented all U.S. business interests from United Fruit to American Foreign Power which owned all the utility companies essentially in Latin America.
DG: So now, give me the time line then from that first job to how you ended up here in Houston.
CF:Well, I joined that law firm in September of 1967 and worked on cases under the Cuban Claims Act involving expropriation of American Foreign Power's Cuban Light and Electric Company in Havana and I had the opportunity to review a lot of personal correspondence from Che Gavado (sp?) who had been the minister of the economy, assuring the company that that was not going to happen. But anyway, I was there for about a year and a half and I started to realize I was not going to stay in New York for 2 reasons: 1) one day I was talking to a lot of the partners and I discovered none of them actually lived in New York - they were all out in New Jersey or Long Island and I wanted to be part of the community. And every one of these guys lived in a separate little community. And New York was sort of impersonal. It sort of felt like I was on the cattle car when taking the subway although it was only going to be one stop away. And I wound up not doing much international work. They needed me in securities work and I was sort of a fish out of water. I never owned a stock or anything. So, I had a job offer by Schlumberger out on their old headquarters out here on Gulf Freeway and as long as I was down here, I interviewed by a law firm called Butler and Binion that, at that time, was the fourth largest law firm in Houston and they had a remarkable partner, Lyon Brinsmade (sp?), who was one of the great international lawyers representing U.S. oil companies in Latin America, and I went to work for Lyon on April 1, April Fool's Day, in 1969 in the Esperson Building. I think the 10th floor of the Esperson Building.
DG: And how did you end up at your current law firm?
CF:Well, I started to follow the same . . . the same thing happened to me sort of ironically. I started working for this great lawyer who was so competent and bilingual. He had grown up in Latin America and all of our work was being done in Spanish . . . not only was it me but every other associate - we were all half-time associates because he ultimately was such a perfectionist that, in the end, he could never fully use any of us because he was one of these guys that could do it so well, he could never let go and he was right - I mean, he was a master in drafting documents and knowing the civil codes of Latin America and drafting documents in Spanish. So, I got loaned out again to the corporate security section and I worked with Dick Mayor. I helped take companies like Oshmans public and Polar Steel public. I was the junior lawyer on that deal but those were big companies in Houston. And the other big thing that we did was we did the financial work for Lincoln Liberty, so I would get to go with Dick over to the offices of the chairman of the company, Lloyd Bentsen, and deal with him and he was a very different person, Lloyd Bentsen was as a business person than he was later as a politician. And the two other things that are significant: I had not been there very long before the law firm drafted me to work for Paul Hobby when he was a client of the firm, when he was going to run for lieutenant governor. His campaign manager was a fellow lawyer there, a partner called Steve Oaks, and Steve convened the first meeting and said, "Well, who knows the South Texas Valley very well?" No one spoke up. There was a group of us there. He said, "Someone must know it." So, I raised my hand. I said, "Well, I lived in McAllen when I was in the 6th, 7th and 8th grade." He said, "Charles, you are Bill Hobby's campaign manager in South Texas." So, I later had a great privilege of flying . . . Bill had his own private plane. We flew all over South Texas. I kept on thinking that Bill Hobby was going to ask somebody for some money or speak up but my personality, if you knew him, he would never do that. So, I got accustomed after the first couple of times, I learned that he would never ask anyone for anything and if the asking was going to happen, I was going to have to ask on his behalf. Bill would rather play chess or do anything other than ask people for money or for their support.
DG: So, you found yourself managing legal campaigns and doing securities work. Did you get frustrated not being able to . . .
CF:Yes, what happened, David, was by 1973, I was frustrated because I was firmly in the corporate securities section and that was, as I used to tell people, the only possible satisfaction one got out of that work was having a good set of documents without any typos where you could get a printed bound volume of that for your shelf. And so, I just felt like that that was not for me and fortunately, I took . . . I think I got a ride or a bus ride home, with a good friend of mine, a lawyer friend that I had roomed with at UT undergrad law school and had known since high school and he was an associate attorney at Fulbright & Jaworski and he said he was frustrated, and so, let's go start our own law firm. And I probably would never have done that by myself - I would not have had the courage. So, by March 1, 1973 . . . his name was Harry Tindall, and we started in the old Houston Bar Center Building. We sent out announcements and opened our own firm, Tindall and Foster. We had one employee, one secretary, that we shared, a receptionist, and the nice thing was is Ralph Yarborough used to say when he was defeated later by Lloyd Bentsen, when asked what he could do, he said, "I am going to hang out my shingle." And having that law license, you could start up your own business with almost no cost. I think we borrowed $2,000 from Texas Commerce Bank and that was the last time we ever borrowed money. And we did a little bit of everything until we could develop our specialty.
DG: And your specialty was?
CF:Well, when we started, we knew, based on our experience, that to be effective, you had to specialize and I had left Butler Binion thinking I was an international corporate lawyer doing immigration law work on the side. People often ask me about immigration but I had a very strong, compelling, unique - almost unique in the world thought about immigration. I think that was attributed to my fascination with the Border, that many of my friends in McAllen, their fathers were Border patrol agents, and I got caught up with the lure of crossing the border, and I saw that . . . as a Latin Americanist - that is what I called myself, I sort of made that up - I sort of saw that as part of my arsenal, that a true international lawyer would have to know a lot about immigration law. I later discovered . . . I became very active in the international Bar and I never, ever met anyone else where that thought had crossed their mind, that international lawyers never think at all about immigration law. But I had that, I took title 8 out of the law school, an old volume. That was the only book I took from law school - the Immigration Nationality Act of 1952 as amended - and I dabbled in that in the New York law firm and became known as the lawyer in the firm that knew where the Immigration Act was; not that I was an expert. At least I knew how to find the book. And I kept that role at Butler & Binion. Then, when I started my own practice, that became the tale that wagged the dog. I was trying to do a broad international which, under that rubric, you could do just about anything with an international client but early on, I decided . . . no one was doing that full-time. There were a couple of lawyers in Houston dabbling in immigration part-time but by some time 1973, 1974, I thought I could make a living doing sort of a business-related broad immigration practice and that I thought it was extremely important to be able to specialize, to be able to deliver legal services efficiently at a low cost because the opposite of that was what I was doing, because in the international field, each problem I was getting was unique. I often cite one day I would be working on the rights of timber concession holders in Honduras or the civil liability or criminal liability of directors under the civil codes of Columbia, or the rights under the Cuban Claims Act for X or Y. But the characteristic of an international practice is never again would anyone ever become . . . I had become an expert in timber commission laws in Honduras. I remember once writing a memo on that and Butler & Binion charged $25,000 and at the end of that, this old crusty client said . . . essentially we said it was a bad idea, don't do it, and the guy said to me, "Why didn't you tell me that to begin with before you spent my $25,000 to write this memo?" He said, I would have to hire a lawyer to read your 50 page treaties on the timber concession law. So, that made an impression and I was thinking this very elementary thought but it was early on and that is what clients want is what you want when you go to a doctor - they want someone that knows everything about that issue even before you open your mouth so that you can tell them you have no rights in Columbia if you invest in timber, rather than saying, at that time which was the model, I am a lawyer, I am trained as a lawyer and I can find out what the law is. So, I decided I could concentrate on immigration and discovered that that body of law was as complex as the Security Act which, by that time, the Securities Act of 1933, I had become very familiar with; it had all the complexity of the Securities Act or the Internal Revenue Code, but it was dealing with real life human beings and their stories during what all of our families had and that is coming to America and seeking a better life, and being able to represent those people. And achieving that case was a lot better than a bound volume of documents with no typos.
DG: This conversation is taking place in 2008, and when you started immigration, the immigration practice, what you did during your days, has it changed much in that time from when you started or were you doing different things back then when you first started?
CF:Well, yes and no. Fundamentally, what I am doing, broadly speaking, is the same. Taking a variety of facts of aspirations of individuals that have different family relations, educational levels of achievement, job opportunities, coming from different political economic backgrounds - taking all those facts and applying our current immigration law selection system as to who gets to come to America, stay here, work here and achieve lawful permanent residency, so-called green card status and ultimate citizenship. So, that part has remained remarkably the same and the basic framework of our law has remained the same. The different is I was doing that with going through a learning process and developing systems where I would have one secretary and I woke up one day and I said, I can train that bright secretary that has a college degree to become a legal assistant which was, at that time, did not exist, to actually learn substantively a whole lot about some narrow aspect of what I am doing. Not the whole field of immigration law. So that rather than me dictating and saying do this, this and this, that person will be able to gain those skills. Now, from 1973 to 2008, the big difference is I have 35 attorneys working for me and we have somewhere suddenly 5 or 80 highly experienced legal assistants, all with college or advanced degrees. So, I've got 100 people helping me deliver those same services. So today, I am more involved with developing strategies and working with bigger clients, bigger issues and I've got a lot of other people doing a lot of the work as well.
DG: What is the most rewarding aspect of immigration law?
CF:The most rewarding aspect is still the same - being able to help someone achieve status. It is very rewarding. Clients are extremely appreciative. You become their friend for life, you know, the immigration God, you saved me, you were able to do that. Actually, the funny thing is with the passage of time, I see these clients and they forget sometimes the ups and downs. They will turn to their friend and say, "Mr. Foster, he was able to get my green card just like that." They forget all the tribulations that we may have gone through.
DG: What is the most frustrating part?
CF:Clearly that is an easy answer - the U.S. government. It is a huge bureaucracy, it is insensitive, it is impersonal, that is set up with what I call a siege mentality. I am less frustrated today because as a young lawyer, I spent a lot of time going down to the district office, lining up a 3 o'clock in the morning, sometimes with my clients depending on what the local procedures were. I am less frustrated about that today: 1) I have a lot of other junior lawyers that I can make them do that; and 2) Most of the work that was done at a local district office is now done through a regional office. More and more of the work has shifted from personal interactions with human beings, immigration examiners, to remote processing centers which, in a way is good because it does not mean we have to go deal with them in person. Now, when we did that early on, there was a certain uncomfort level because periodically, there would be insinuations - you scratch my back and I will scratch yours and you often had to walk a very thin line that you weren't doing something improper.
DG: Let's talk about the Li Cunxin case which, there is no telling when people will listen to this interview. The movie is being made. The movie will be out soon. Tell us about how that case came to be and what your involvement was.
CF:Well, Li Cunxin, that was a remarkable case. The timeframe was April 1981. Li was and is a remarkable individual. His story is extraordinary, from an existence of near starvation, being picked out of a commune by a program started by _______ Mao to help rebuild what she had destroyed - all the cultural life of China - to rebuild the classical ballet of China, so not because that was good just in and of itself but to compete with the Russians. To make a long story short, Li became the spearhead of that. They went through a huge process involving looking at millions of bodies and he was picked as the perfect body, as one of a handful of people, and out of this from a base of millions of students, eventually a handful were trained and at the top of that pyramid, Li emerged as a superstar and then Dung Shao Ping (sp?) actually comes to the United States, signs an agreement with President Carter, they are going to start exchanging cultural exchange and Li becomes the spearhead of that. He comes here to sort of be polished for the use of ballet because Ben Stevenson, who became a great friend of mine, artistic director, as a UK citizen, could go to China like U.S. and had this relation with China. They sent Li here, and to make a long story short, he decided like a lot of people I knew, not to go back. And I was contacted via a contact of his at the University of Texas, we met here in the office, I gave him what I would . . . other than the fact that he was a ballet dancer from China, it would be like anyone else - I told him what his legal options were through employment, through family. I actually discounted anything to do with a political side of this, on the political asylum, for a very simple reason - he had other very strong options. And then, the reason this became a big story was that one evening when Luisa Serafin, a great, great supporter of the arts of Houston, was giving away a black tie going away party for Li, he did not show up. The Chinese by that time had opened up their largest consulate here in Houston, their very first consulate general. The Chinese accused the ballet, during the course of the evening, of having kidnapped Li and it evolved to a face-saving meeting and I was asked to be there and I felt we were just going to go over the legal options, I was going to explain all the bases why he could stay here, which was not going to be very challenging at all for me. That was pretty obvious. But everything went awry when I was asked to meet in a side room with one of the senior consulate officials, and to my shock, and something that was completely outside of any experience that one would ever have in these types of negotiations, the Chinese, they were so desperate - I think they were so fearful that 5 of their people that had been previously serving drinks literally grabbed him . . . Li was extraordinarily strong. He could leap higher than any dancer in the world. At that time, he was considered the greatest male dancer. He could leap, twist in the air, lift ballerinas with a single hand with a great deal of grace and dignity, 110 pound, if not quite that - you could hope not - but he could do all that. So, it took 5 of them to wrestle him down and, this never came out, but there were a lot of physical blows that were exchanged in order to subdue Li and by the time I had sort of pushed my way back into the room, actually, we got into a fight, too, because they tried to block me. Li had disappeared. We all reassembled. That was a cast of who's who was in Houston because we had Kirkland was chairman of the board, Jack Quarry was the general counsel, all in black tie because they had come from the party. Ben Stevenson. The ballet people were upset because they wanted to take the very first U.S. cultural group, the Houston Ballet, to China and the Chinese were threatening to cancel same. We all sat down and the Chinese senior consul official said, "Does anyone want tea or milk or coffee?" and people started talking. I sort of said, "I am not _________ someone just dragged my client out of here and I don't know about the rest of you but I am not leaving here without him." And the Chinese were shocked. They said they were shocked. They said, "What do you mean? You had assured us that you were a friend of China and that you believed in strong U.S.-China relations?" I said, "Yes." And they said, "Well, what's good for China, Li has got to go back." I said, "You are right." And they said, "What is good for the Houston Ballet is he has got to go back because if not, there is not going to be any PBS tour." I said, "I understand that." They effectively said, "Well, what is the problem?" I said, "The problem is in the United States, everyone in this room may think so, we may all agree, we are in agreement, but Li gets to make the decision. You can't drag him out and force him." And by coincidence, I had been involved with one other forcible repatriation case involving a Lithuanian seaman by the name of Simon Kuderka (sp?), and I knew exactly what had happened in that case. It was with the Soviets. They had seized a Lithuanian seaman after he jumped on the deck of a U.S. Coast Guard cutter. That is another long story. But anyway, I felt like I had all the aces, so I negotiated with them for 24 hours. But during that time, I woke up Federal Judge Woodrow Seals who I knew quite well and Federal Judge John Singleton because I had worked with them on naturalization ceremonies, so I often joked that the most difficult thing I had to do during that whole time was wake up Woodrow Seals at 3 o'clock in the morning to tell him that I need to file a temporary restraining order and writ of habeas corpus. He woke up Judge Singleton, they met me behind the federal building at 6 in the morning to sign . . . I woke up Gracie Sign. She was my legal assistant. She later became the first Hispanic woman, or Hispanic period, ever elected at large and she ran for mayor that year Mayor Brown was elected, Lee Brown. And so, we got the restraining order and I had advised the China Desk. 24 hours later, he was released, and as I told the Chinese who kept on telling me this was an embarrassment to the Chinese government if Li . . . and I kept on saying, "Yes, it is an embarrassment but if you hold him [let's keep it as our secret], if you hold him, the whole world is going to know." I tried to actually block press coverage of the leverage but 24 hours later, we walked out of the consulate right there on Montrose and CBS, ABC, NBC, all had built wooden platform stations for cameras. There were literally hundreds of cameras, hundreds of photographers. We were live on the CBS, ABC nightly news, and worldwide news. So, they eventually had to capitulate. So, that became a very successful . . . Li had a successful life, became a superstar for the Houston Ballet, the biggest star they have ever had in their history, won all sorts of international acclaim and recognition, later did the same with the Australian National Ballet. He could have gone anywhere but he went to Australia because his wife was from Australia. He wrote a very successful book, "Mao's Last Dancer," and, as you say, as we speak, they are turning that into a big budgeted movie that will be released at the end of the year.
DG: I was privileged to hear a video tribute that Li offered to you in which he thanked you for saving his life. Do you think he meant that literally? I mean, the news that he had been physically assaulted is something a lot of people did not know. Do you think he literally feared for his life?
CF:I think he literally feared for his life, and Li says that and he is very generous. He is a dear friend. I am the godfather of his son, Tom, and he is the godfather of my son, Anthony. I think what he means broadly speaking is clearly the Chinese were going to: 1) take him back to China; and 2) I think he feared for the life that he knew that he would never again have the life, that he would have been punished and would have been subject to some punishment. You've got to remember where he came from. He had left and entered this miraculous world of the arts but the world he had left was near starvation and death where his every generation that they could remember were peasants working in the fields living on tree bark and, at the time he left, they were literally borrowing tree bark and a few yams that they would be able to preserve or dig up to live off of, where the thought of eating meat or anything like that was unheard of. So, when he says that he envisioned, at the very least, he would be going back to that other existence of his.
DG: Did you have a sense when it was all happening of the historical import of the moment, the standing up to the Houston Ballet is one thing but to the Chinese government to defend the rights, the individual rights of Li?
CF:Yes, I knew and felt that it was something that was very important. I knew instinctively that this was something extraordinary, certainly way out of anything that would normally happen or any lawyer would normally occur and because of that, number one, the most important thing was the rights of the individual. This gets back to why you become a lawyer. That right, irrespective of what the group think was, you had to defend the right of the individual. And the second thing that I was concerned about were the long-term implications for . . . the irony was I was extremely supportive of U.S.-China relations. By that time, I was no longer just a Latin-Americanist. I had become fascinated with Asia, I had traveled to China, I had done every single thing that was humanly possible by intent to be involved with U.S.-China relations. When Dung Shao Ping (sp?) made his famous trip here, Congressman Mickey Leland being the only one that would travel with him, the Chamber of Commerce held an event at the Simington rodeo. I was there. I wanted to be involved with this and I knew instinctively this was a huge issue - U.S.-China relations - and therefore, there I was the night of the consul, I knew that that was going to have an impact so I wanted to balance that representing Li's interest in a way that was not going to necessarily do any long-term harm between U.S. China relations in general and in particular, Li because I wanted to end this, I wanted to end it so that looking down the road, he and even me but I thought my relationship with the Chinese was over at that point, but I thought I wanted to at least maintain the option, so we did not want to say anything inflammatory because I was hoping that Li would be able to go home someday and see his parents, and I knew that China was going to be a merging superpower. I never dreamed it was going to be as big and that it would be important for Li to be able to do so.
DG: It is a fascinating piece of our history. For that moment, all the cameras were trained on Houston, Texas. How do you think we were perceived by the nation?
CF:Well, I would have to say at that moment, I just think this was a story of a lot of drama and I think Houston, probably if there was any perception at all, we all know that Houston suffers not necessarily from a negative image but a lack of image and therefore, people may have been surprised that the Chinese had their largest consulate here and that even though we had a major international ballet company . . . so, I think if anything, people might have just sort of been surprised that this type of activity was taking place. I think the major interest was of just a huge drama about Li, when he was going to be able to get out, he was being held hostage, and that evening, I was very candidly, since we are taking about history, the Ballet people were conflicted because they actually bought in to the thought sort of without critical thinking, well, he is Chinese - doesn't he sort of belong to the Chinese? Can't they do with him what they want to? And they were conflicted also because, by the way -- they didn't say this -- you are screwing up our chance for glory. PBS is going to cover this first ever cultural group going to China and it just happens to be the Houston Ballet. So, they were not entirely on board but during the course . . . early on, I made a plea saying . . . I do not know if this line will be in the movie because I said this . . . "I don't know about the rest of you but I am not leaving until Li is released," and implicit in that meaning is I don't want anyone to leave . . . somewhere, I became very explicit, we all need to stay here and keep the bright light of truth shining on this, because I did not know what they were going to be doing within 10 minutes or 20 minutes. I knew they had to have some of, that this was premeditated because at the time they seized him, everything up to that moment, other than they are sort of asking me about what I thought about China, they were sort of feeling us out but they clearly intended on reflection at that moment to grab Li, so I figured they were going to put him on a plane early that morning, so I had to take desperate action to make sure that did not happen.
DG: Well, we will look for the movie when it comes out. Let's talk about some of the other highlights of your legal career and your involvement in the international community. You became Honorary Counsel General for the Kingdom of Thailand here in Houston?
DG: How did that come about and what does that mean?
CF:First of all, the city of Houston, to its credit, has a protocol office and has done an excellent job in making Houston, not New Orleans, not Dallas, not Atlanta, as the center for foreign nations to locate their representation, their consulate generals in Houston. It used to be at one point in New Orleans, a big port, but that gravity has shifted to Houston so that by today, in 2008, we have about 87 or 88 foreign nations that have established consulate generals in Houston, embassies in Washington but it is a big country and so they have consulates in other . . . not even the U.S. can afford to have consulates everywhere. So, New York, yes. Maybe LA. Maybe Chicago. And if you are going to have one in the South, it is now clear it is going to be Houston. The other places aren't really serious competitors. If you look at those consulates, about half of them are career and half are honorary. And that is part of how diplomatic relations started. Before we had a professional diplomatic core, a foreign nation would appoint a citizen of that country to represent them in the court and over the years, we have developed a professional consular core. Now, many countries -- again not even the U.S. can afford it - we are having to close consulates -- the U.S., the most rich country in the world. So, small countries often will use honorary consulates. Not all. And so, Thailand was enticed by 1997 to open up a consulate here. That was the first decision. And the next decision, well who is going to represent them? I was asked because I had become a good friend of the then royal time bachelor of the U.S., Vera Pongsy (sp?) - a delightful man and I knew him because by that time, I was chairman of an organization called the Asia Society's Houston Center; now, we call it the Texas Center and I had hosted him here in Houston a couple of times, taking him to the opera, and they originally were going to appoint a friend of the head of the Air Force who happened to be married to the younger daughter of His Majesty, the King, Her Royal Highness Princess Chelaborn (sp?) but by the time the head of the Air Force had his candidate, but he fell out of favor when the Princess sacked him and divorced him and therefore, it was an open slate and I was asked . . . the ambassador contacted me and said, "Will you be our first honorary consulate general?" I said, "Wow, I guess so but I do not know that much about Thailand. I know a lot about China and Latin America." And Vera Pongsy said, "Charles, don't worry. We know a lot about Thailand. You know a lot about Houston, you can help us in Houston." That was 10 years ago and it has been a wonderful experience being part of the consular core.
DG: In the 1980s, you taught at the University of Houston School of Law?
DG: How was that experience?
CF:Great. Being an adjunct professor was wonderful. I taught immigration law for about 5 years. Very demanding because teaching is different than practicing and I thought 5 years was lone enough.
DG: How did the economic bust of the 1980s impact your firm and the League of Professions and your area of specialty?
CF:It impacted us. We stopped growing but we were very proud and bragged that we never laid off anyone and we did not have to borrow any money - we just sort of instead of doing more, what I called employment-based work representing companies that were employing people, we were doing more work on family immigration and deportation work. And I have always kept our firm very . . . I have always said if we cannot be an all-purpose firm, at least we are going to be an all-purpose immigration law firm. So, we have never been tempted just to do the corporate work because of that very factor. If we were just representing big companies, which we do - one of our big clients, for example, was Enron - but easy come, easy go because one day, we had a lot of cases for their employees and the next day, they go into bankruptcy and we have none. So, we were able to survive that quite well.
DG: The Li Cunxin case was front page news but there must be other cases that people don't know anything about it. Is there anything that gives you particular satisfaction that people might not know about that you have been able to do in your role as an attorney?
CF:Well, let me see. I don't think any one single case has the drama of Li's case. I have had so many cases that we have won in court in terms of deportation that have been satisfying us. I supposed another one which is not dramatic but having opportunity for Houston - a couple of things I would mention. Certainly, as a law firm, we have been very fortunate in that we represented almost all the major institutions in Houston, and that means, the Houston Astros, the Houston Rockets, even the Texans, the Houston Grand Opera, the Houston Ballet, of course, the Houston Symphony. So, it has been one of my pleasures, is representing almost every artistic director and, of course, the Houston Rockets - we actually did legal work for Hakeem Olajuwon and later for great athletes like Yao Ming and Louis __________.
DG: You have been recognized as an authority in immigration policy as well as law but not just other attorneys but by the political realm as well. Can you talk about the work that you have done and advising politicians, advising policy makers in this area?
CF:Yes, and that, to me, has been one of my great satisfactions - probably the greatest = and that is I have been able to not only practice immigration law but based upon that experience and teaching and being involved through national . . . I headed up every organization I could. I was president of the American Immigration Lawyers' Association, the National Specialty Bar; I was appointed Chairman of the ABA's Committee on Immigration. I was also chairman of the State Bar of Texas. It was a committee on immigration, sort of a perfect trifecta. Now, I have done a lot but the two things that were most significant were in 1986, Governor Mark White asked me to chair and Louie Welch, to vice-chair, who had been mayor of Houston, a state-wide task force on immigration because, at that time, Congress was considering a major amnesty law and imposing for the first time changing what we call the LBJ Proviso, making employers responsible for who they hired. And so, we took testimonies throughout the state of Texas, had held hearings, prepared a great report, and I had the privilege of delivering that report. Governor White could not do it so I actually went to Washington and spoke to the entire Texas delegation in the speaker's dining room for lunch where I gave our findings and I will always remember that Jack Brooks, the legendary congressman from Beaumont, kept on whispering in my ear as I spoke sort of saying something like, "Charlie, you don't mean that, do you?" or "Come on, tell us what you really think." I am not certain why he was doing that but he was sort of maintaining under his breath a little conversation with me which was very distracting. And the other thing I remember - Ken Hance who I had known as a congressman from Lubbock, Texas, who was very famous because of who he defeated, he defeated George W. Bush to get that position, he walked out of that . . . after I finished, he turned to me and said, "Charles, this is the issue upon which I am going to be elected senator. I am going to run on this immigration platform of being tough." And I thought to myself, well, he got the wrong impression. I mean, he drew the wrong conclusions. But I testified that the amnesty that the Employers Sanctions Provisions would be a failure if they did not do something about the major Achilles flaw; that was, reliance upon the Social Security card for identification because I testified both before the House and Senate subcommittees and to the Texas delegation that that Social Security card was so easy to . . . it was printed on the same cheap paper they did back in the 1930s when Social Security first came in under the Roosevelt Administration, and it would be so easy to duplicate, that the forgeries which were so rarely available, were better quality than the originals. And that became the huge loophole that was very predictable. And here we are, 22 years later and people are saying it is a failure. Well, it was highly predictable as a failure. And I worked very closely with its primary architect, Senator Al Simpson of Wyoming, where he told me he was going to eliminate all those low skilled immigration because we would never need anyone after these reforms to do these low skilled jobs. And most people don't realize that that meant we had essentially zero immigration, low skilled immigration, and today, people get confused. Why do we have these 12 million people, why don't they get in line? They don't realize that Simpson eliminated any legal possibility for people to qualify to do low skilled jobs. So, that was the number one big thing that I did. And the second one was in 2000, I was asked by several people - Charles Miller, Chase Suntemower (sp?) and Neal Bush if I would advise Governor Bush. He was thinking about running for president and wanted a policy advisor on this immigration issue. And I was delighted to do so because Governor Bush - I was a real political junkie, particularly combining that with immigration, and he was the only governor in the United States that was saying anything mildly pro immigrant at that time. So, here we are in 2008 and President Bush has an almost all-time low disapproval rate, but he was always very good and very empathetic on this immigration issue, and his great failure . . . he had a great policy - I am a little biased because I helped develop it - but his great failure was he waited too long to implement that and about the time that he did, he had lost all of his political leverage and his own party abandoned him on that. So, he could not get immigration reform through Congress.
DG: I wanted to just follow up a little bit on the issue of immigration, particularly as it relates to the city of Houston. Dr. Steven Kleinberg says that Houston is what the nation will become and that we are about 20 years ahead of that curve. He said a lot of people are looking to Houston to see how it solves certain problems related to the demographic shift and certainly immigration is at the top of that list. What is your sense of the appetite for change, the appetite for meeting this issue head-on? Who are the people in our city that are advocating for -- and I don't want to make a distinction between the right side of the issue and the wrong side of the issue -- but people sort of willing to take it on and find the solution?
CF:Well, I think that is a good question. Houston has been, as Dr. Kleinberg's studies have shown, a very tolerant, open city and I think everyone sort of knows someone from somewhere else. He has the figures but whether it is approaching 10% or so of foreign born individuals - it may be higher than that - that make up Houston and still most Houstonians do not fully appreciate the size and the importance of the immigrant community. I think it is probably true to say that we only grow significantly or we may not be growing at all but for inbound people coming from abroad that are growing us, that is both legal immigration and undocumented immigration. His studies have also shown that the support for immigration and the views about immigrants has gone down. Now, to answer your question, how does the city of Houston line up? Houston is going through this period of change. The politicians have become very cautious and what has happened is talk radio right here in Houston, Texas, KTRH, certainly on a national level - the Rush Limbaughs; local levels - my friend, Michael Berry; the CNN and other, they have discovered on these 24 hour news cycles that bashing immigrants, bashing immigration, throwing out the red meat and stuff is very good so unfortunately, Houstonians are not immune to that, so they drive around listening to talk radio all day and they are getting a completely false information, it is inflamed, as evidenced recently by the tragic case of the murder of Police Officer Randy Johnson, by taking it in a way that is almost un-American. There are large numbers and estimated in the Houston range of 400,000+ of aliens, undocumented aliens, working in this Houston region. And you have that many and some of them are going to do some stupid things. And so what you have is you have the media making this inflammatory. You would never have the media today if the person committing a crime happened to be Jewish or African American saying an African American committed a crime or a person of the Jewish faith is committing a crime, but they do that . . . illegal aliens committing this terrible crime. That is true. Some commit . . . because they are people, they've got some good people and bad people, but that whole story has been blown out of proportion. Statistically speaking, undocumented male Hispanic workers make up the smallest percentage wise of those that are incarcerated but you don't hear that. So, our local media has joined in this and they are beginning to demagogue this. We had good state legislators, senators, that avoided passing negative immigration legislation but that may be changing now. Who is stepping up to the plate big-time is Greater Houston Partnership - the successor to the Houston Chamber of Commerce - and under the leadership, I give him credit, Jeff Moseley. I am on that board of the executive committee and I chair the task force. We are trying to build political support for bringing back a vote on comprehensive immigration reform maybe as early as the Lame Duck session or next year.
DG: Are you optimistic about Houston's ability to deal with the challenges?
CF:I am both optimistic and I am saying this - I think it says a lot about Houston that we have the audacity in a way to say that Washington has sort of given up, they sort of on trying to deal with this issue, it looks like it is a perfect stalemate, a perfect catch 22 - we can't pass any individual piece of legislation because it should be done comprehensively, because any individual piece will remove support from the bigger bill, but the given wisdom in Washington is you cannot pass that. So, what we are starting here in Houston, this task force of the Greater Houston Partnership that I happen to be chair of, we have established a separate 501(c)(3), Americans for Immigration Reform. We are going to raise $20 million. We are going to go into every Congressional district starting in Texas and nationwide and run not political ads but ______ to tell people the truth because there is just so much false information being spewed out that has nothing to do with the truth on radio and television so that we can give members of Congress in key states, key districts, the courage to do the right thing, to vote for a balanced policy on immigration.
DG: You made your professional career here, you have been involved in high profile cases, you have been the go-to guy on an issue that has become the hot button in political debate -- how would you describe this city that you have adopted as your own to others? If this city has a unique spirit or a unique character, how would you describe it to others?
CF:The word that comes to me is openness, and I say that because every day, I am meeting with people literally from all over the world that want to come here. And years ago . . . I have told this story. I was talking to this wonderful, elegant couple of Iranian origin, in about 1980, early 1980s, that were educated at la Sorbonne, the greatest university in Paris. Right in the heart of Paris, they had a million dollar what they called an apartment. They spoke impeccable French. I said, "I am delighted to represent you," and we worked out all the strategies. Then, I paused and said, "Well, why come to Houston?" And they said, "You know, we can speak perfect French, have lived there for years and we can never be a Parisian but we can be here in Houston for a week or two and feel a part of this city." So, America in general, Texas more so but Houston in particular is a very open city. We don't care where you come from but you can become a Houstonian, and I was never prouder of Houston than in the aftermath of 911 - we were able to elect a City Council member, M.J. Khan, who comes from Pakistan, a Muslim nation, and that wasn't even an issue. If we look at all of our mayors, most of them moved here as adults. All of them have in recent history. Bob Lanier, Bill White, Lee Brown - in a relatively short period of time, Lee Brown. And the interesting thing was when they ran for mayor, no one in Houston ever said, 'They are outsiders, they are not one of us, they come from somewhere else, they are carpetbaggers.' That wasn't even ever thought of as an issue because we are an open, accepting city, in part because you look around Houston - almost everyone comes from somewhere. I think we all have sort of encountered - what is novel is when you meet a native born Houstonian.
DG: As an internationalist, you know better than anybody the extent to which Houston is and has become an international city.
DG: We have an international festival that sort of celebrates it and few people are aware of the size of the consular core. How would you describe Houston's international flavor, Houston's capacity to embrace different nations as well as culture?
CF:Well, as you say, speaking of the international festival, I was chairman last year of the Houston International Festival, and I have touched, by intent, just about every international-related organization - one way or the other, I have been involved with. Houston, through immigration, is an extraordinary international city. It has become much more so, much, much more so in the last several decades. Literally, I think at one point in time, I could count all the Chinese restaurants on one hand and today, not only could you go to a Chinese restaurant every day and never go to all the Chinese restaurants, that is nothing. I mean, there must be thousands of Chinese restaurants. You could go to a new Thai restaurant every day and not go to all the Thai restaurants. So, if you look at just the options available to us in international cuisine, from every part of the world, that is extraordinary. If you go to a meeting of, whether it is the Greater Houston Partnership, or just about any group, I look around that room and everyone sees a group of Houstonians but I look around that room and I see someone that originally was from this country or the other country and now, they are part of the social fabric of our city. And you are right - I will speak about the International Festival - it is the largest international festival of its kind in the United States. We are the third largest consular core after New York and Los Angeles. We have surpassed Chicago and we are going to catch up I think with Los Angeles at some point relatively soon. And I think, in part, that is driven by both the openness of the city and the fact, being the energy capital, a lot of our businesses are very international-oriented and it has brought people here to Houston that have an international mindset.
DG: A final question. What you have described is, in a way, sort of a neutral description - these things exist beyond my own affinity for Chinese food which is certain a benefit - but how do you think our city benefits from the fact that these cultures are here, that the consulates are here, that the International Festival has found a home here? How does the average citizen of Houston benefit from the fact that people view the city the way that they do?
CF:Well, I think it has been a great benefit for Houston not only because we have all these extra choices but this gets back to my interest - I think it makes the world far more interesting. That is what attracted me as a young person -- the very attraction I had for Mexico, crossing over from my first experience into Mexico, discovering this new world - I have always found meeting people from different cultures, background, that makes the spice of life. I practice what I preach. I did not marry the girl next door. My wife, as you know, is from Shanghai and came here as an immigrant herself. And I think also it is good because it has tried to say that we do live in a global economy today and our children can go to schools and literally rub shoulder-to-shoulder with people from all over the world. I was growing up in a society at one point where the only people I met looked like me, particularly in the segregated south, and I think that, again, by moving to the Valley, the fact that I was in that unique circumstance where I was all of a sudden sharing my life with the Latin American culture was very important. So now, kids in every single school in Houston now grow up with people not just from Latin America but from every continent in the world and these kids are going to grow up truly in a global economy. They are not going to be competing with the kids from Dallas but they are going to be competing with kids from New Delhi and Shanghai as well. So, it is important. And hopefully, it will motivate them to not be bilingual but trilingual.
DG: Something else that you practice as well as preach.
DG: Mr. Foster, thank you very much for your time.
CF:It is my pleasure. It has been fun.