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Benjamin Gim: A Great Life Remembered

Cite as "AILA InfoNet Doc. No. 10012662 (posted Jan. 26, 2010)"

The accomplished and remarkable life of noted immigration lawyer and human rights advocate, Benjamin Gim, ended serenely on January 16, 2010. He was 87. Ben passed in his home with his loving wife, Cindy, at his bedside. Ben was a generous friend, a passionate advocate, a world traveler, and a sophisticated, yet understated gentleman.

Born to Chinese immigrant parents, Y. Henry and Louise Gim, on September 22,1922. Ben spent his early childhood in Mackay, Idaho. The family moved to Salt Lake City at the onset of the Depression in 1929. Both of Ben's parents died before Ben reached teen age. Ben's older sister, Helen, kept the family of four siblings together through the Depression years.

Ben graduated from West High School in Salt Lake City in 1940 and attended the University of Utah, where he was a star debater. He left college to serve for three years in the United States Army in the European theater during World War II.

After the War, Ben enrolled in the University of Utah Law School. Whether apocryphal or not, Ben loved to tell the story of Dean of the University of Utah Law School advising Ben, after he had completed his first year with high marks, that Ben "did not have a Chinaman's chance" of practicing law successfully in Utah. Heeding this advice, Ben transferred to Columbia Law School in New York, graduating in 1949, with support of the GI Bill. Ben was always grateful to Eleanor Roosevelt.

During his studies at Columbia, he was one of only two Asian students. When Ben graduated from law school, there were virtually no job opportunities for Asians in New York law firms. He only knew of two other Asian lawyers practicing in New York City at that time.

After several interviews, a partner in a "white shoe" Wall Street firm told Ben that no firm would hire a Chinese lawyer. Thus, Ben took a job with the Treasury Department in the Bureau of Narcotics. He began his legal career as the first Assistant Attorney General for the State of New York of Asian ancestry. He then set up his own firm, Gim & Wong and practiced immigration law on Park Row in Chinatown, New York, for nearly 50 years. He did not set out to be an immigration lawyer, but that was the kind of lawyer the residents of Chinatown needed.

In 1957, Ben was the first Asian American to argue a case before the United States Supreme Court. In 1990, the New York Law Journal published a profile of Ben and that case, which involved three Chinese kids claiming to be the children of a Chinese American man, who were kept on Ellis Island and threatened with deportation on the basis of discriminatory and technically flawed blood tests. During his career Ben argued a number of important immigration cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

He was an immigration law lecturer at Columbia University Law School, the Practicing Law Institute, the Federal Bar Association and the State Bar Association of New York. He served as president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association in the mid-1970s, the first Asian American to do so. Throughout his career, Ben gave generously of his time as pro bono advocate for struggling immigrants and as a mentor for other immigration lawyers.

Ben was frequently quoted on immigration law issues in major news and legal publications, including the New York Times and Time Magazine.

Aside from his law practice, Ben made many contributions to the Asian American community, serving as a founding board member of the Asian American Legal Defense & Education Fund and Chair of the American Council for Nationalities Services.

Appointed by Mayor David Dinkins, Ben served for on the Conflicts of Interest Board of New York City between 1990 and 1994.

In recognition of his many legal achievements, Ben was identified by the National Law Journal as one of the 20 best immigration lawyers in the United States. He was honored by numerous organizations, including the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the Asian American Legal Defense & Education Fund, the National Law Association, the Organization of Chinese Americans, the American College of Trial Lawyers and the Asian Pacific American Bar Association. The State of Texas made Ben and Honorary Texas Citizen.

In honoring Ben, the American Immigration Law Foundation, said he was "a pioneer in his field, … a true role model. Ben's devotion to the cause has brought honor and respect to the immigrant experience in American. He will forever be an inspiration to us all." In awarding him the Wiley A. Branton Civil Rights Award, the National Bar Association, said that Ben was "on the cutting edge" of social and civil justice.

Ben married Alberta Quan in 1952. They had one daughter, Karen Gim. Ben and Alberta divorced. In 1986, Ben married Cindy Fukui Gim.

Although Ben left Utah for New York in late 1940s, he frequently returned to Utah to visit and ski. He was avid and elegant skier.

Ben is survived by his wife Cindy, his daughter Karen, his daughter Jennifer Fukui, his brother Wever, his sister Betty, his brother-in-law Jun Kurumada, and numerous nephews and nieces. His parents, his sister Helen, and his first wife Alberta, preceded Ben in death.

Ben will be interned in Utah this spring. A memorial service to celebrate Ben's accomplished life will be held at 2:00 pm on Monday, February 1st at MOCA, the Museum of Chinese in America at 215 Centre Street, New York NY 10013. In lieu of flowers, contributions should be made to the museum.