When Congresswoman Judy Chu’s grandfather immigrated to the United States from China, he was banned from becoming a citizen because of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The Act also banned Chinese laborers from entering the country and forced those already here to register and carry a certificate of residence with them. For almost forty years, Chu’s grandfather never left home without his certificate—if caught without it, he could have been reported.
In 2012, Chu—a Unitarian Universalist, and the first Chinese American woman elected to Congress—sponsored a House resolution that apologized for the Chinese Exclusion Act. “It is for my grandfather and for all Chinese Americans that we must pass this resolution, for those who were told for six decades by the U.S. government that the land of the free wasn't open to them,” Chu said on the House floor, where the resolution passed unanimously. “We must finally and formally acknowledge these ugly laws that were incompatible with America's founding principles.”
Since her election to Congress in 2009 from California’s 27th District, Chu, a former college professor, has passionately devoted herself to issues of social justice, including immigrant rights, reproductive rights, voting rights, and climate justice. Her work on behalf of people who are often left behind by society is, she says, a reflection of her UU values.
“I am a Unitarian because I have seen so clearly that [Unitarian Universalists] believe in doing something about social justice,” says Chu, speaking to UU World. “When I first encountered the Unitarian philosophy, I was just utterly amazed at how Unitarians not only talk about this in the church services, but also put this into action,” adds Chu, who became a UU in the mid-1980s. “There is such incredible commitment to social justice. And to me, that’s what religious activity should be about. It’s about making this world a better place.”
Fighting climate change is, “of course,” about “making the world a better place,” says Chu, one of three Congresspeople who identify as UU [with Ami Bera (D-CA 7th) and Deborah K. Ross (D-NC 2nd)]. “There are dire consequences” if serious action isn’t taken soon, Chu adds, “so this has to be everybody’s top priority.” And while climate change “is an existential threat facing our planet, that doesn't mean that it’s impossible to solve,” says Chu, who, as a member of the Congressional Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition, supports measures to phase out fossil fuels, increase investments in clean energy technology, and place a price on greenhouse gas emissions.
“We know that we have the tools to decarbonize our economy and get rising temperatures under control,” she says, “but we need the political will to make it happen.” Chu, a member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC), believes the public is “increasingly embracing this as a high priority,” and she sees progress, including the passage of President Biden’s Infrastructure Investment Jobs Act, which included support for electric vehicles and other clean-energy technologies.
Chu says she is “extremely proud” of her environmental legislation, and she has good reason. Two-thirds of the climate investments in the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which President Biden signed into law on August 16, rest on the foundation of the Green Act of 2021, on which Chu and other Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee were leaders. She also introduced the National Climate Service Corps and Careers Network Act of 2021, which would create a National Climate Service Corps to provide climate-related jobs with a wage of no less than $15 an hour. It would give thousands of young people an opportunity to “complete climate resilience projects in their communities while also learning the skills necessary for careers in the clean economy,” says Chu. The bill is currently in committee.
Chu, 69, was born in Los Angeles. Her father was a World War II veteran born in California; her mother was a war bride who emigrated from China. When Chu was a teenager, the family moved to the Bay Area, but Chu returned to L.A. to attend college at UCLA. After graduating with a degree in mathematics, she earned a PhD in psychology, which she taught for twenty years in the Los Angeles Community College District. In 1985, she was elected to her first political position, as a member of the school board in Rosemead, California. After serving three terms as mayor of Monterey Park, where she still lives with her husband, Mike Eng, she was elected to the state legislature. In 2009, she was elected to Congress in a special election to replace Hilda Solis when she was appointed Secretary of Labor in the Obama administration.
The monumental San Gabriel Mountains, east of Los Angeles, are a rare place in that area to enjoy nature. The two million urbanized residents of the San Gabriel Valley owe that partly to Chu, who urged President Obama to declare the mountains a national monument. Her fight to protect this small paradise from urban development didn't stop there. She has now introduced the San Gabriel Mountains, Foothills, and Rivers Protection Act, which has passed the House. As for the Senate, “We’re so close I can taste it,” she says, noting that President Biden is eager to expand federally protected lands.
Chu is also a co-sponsor of the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (EICDA), which imposes a fee on the producers and importers of fossil fuels and then returns those funds in dividends to Americans (see related article, “Two Approaches to Fighting Climate Change”). “The UN’s most recent report shows that our timeframe is even shorter than we think, and that the situation is much more dire for the world than we think. So, we have to be serious about this. We have to really work on all solutions that are possible,” she says.
“We need to keep on fighting,” Chu says. “We need to keep the pressure up. And I believe that if our voices are united, then we can make a difference. I also think that we need to translate this into action in the November elections, because it is more important than ever to make sure that we elect leaders who want to make sure we combat climate change and who want to uphold reproductive rights.”