Hydrologist Sherry Chen, a Chinese immigrant, said she once saw herself as a “soldier without a uniform,” pointing to her hard work to keep American cities safe and informed with her water and flooding analysis.
But after the Justice Department accused her of spying for China in a seven-year-old case that’s since collapsed but has prevented her from working, Chen says she feels it’s evident that her sacrifices meant little, obscured by her race.
“I still struggle to sleep through the night because of the trauma inflicted by the government,” Chen said through tears. “My decades of service and contribution to the nation were entirely ignored and disappeared.”
The “nightmare,” as Chen, 66, describes it, is not over. She said she’s still on administrative leave from her job at the National Weather Service, and the ordeal has left her with indelible scars on her emotional well-being.
But Chen says she’s still fighting. Now, she’s speaking out alongside more than 1,000 organizations and individuals, including the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund and National Asian Pacific American Bar Association. They've signed a letter — shared first with NBC Asian American and sent to the Department of Commerce, which houses the Nationals Weather Service (NWS) — demanding a formal apology and Chen’s reinstatement.
“I hope that what happened to me will not happen to others. I deeply understand the detrimental impact the government’s wrongful prosecution can have on people’s lives and their family’s lives."
Chen, the only woman of color and only Asian American working at her Ohio-based NWS office at the time, said through it all she still aims to help dismantle the systemic racial profiling of Asian Americans across science and academia.
“I hope that what happened to me will not happen to others. I deeply understand the detrimental impact the government’s wrongful prosecution can have on people’s lives and their family’s lives,” Chen said in an interview.
Chen was arrested in 2014 and accused of economic espionage, prompted by interactions she had on a 2012 trip to China, where she'd visit her parents every year. But a week before her trial was to begin in March of the following year, federal prosecutors abruptly dropped all charges against her without explanation, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which is backing Chen.
Despite charges being dropped, she’s been unable to return to work because her employment case is still pending. While a judge from the Merit Service Protection Board (MSPB) previously sided with Chen, ordering her reinstatement plus back pay in 2018, the Commerce Department appealed the decision. The appeals board had been without quorum for some time and her case has been languishing, the ACLU said.
“Justice for Ms. Chen has already been delayed by DOC for ten years despite the mount of growing irrefutable facts and evidence about the misdeeds and misconduct at the Department of Commerce, spanning over three administrations. It must end now,” the letter reads.
Chen, who was accused of allegedly using a stolen password to download information about U.S. dams and passing it off to a Chinese official, has not been able to go back to work despite findings, which came to light during previous proceedings, that Commerce officials may have disregarded evidence, including the fact it was an office-wide password, that would have exonerated her.
In the letter, spearheaded by the civil rights organization APA Justice and sent to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, groups demanded that the department provide “appropriate compensation for the harms Ms. Chen has suffered over the past 10 years.” They also requested that the department rescind its decision to remove Chen from her position.
"Justice for Ms. Chen has already been delayed by DOC for ten years despite the mount of growing irrefutable facts and evidence about the misdeeds and misconduct at the Department of Commerce, spanning over three administrations. It must end now," the letter reads.
The letter’s authors also demanded the department adopt policy changes that will prevent profiling and “unjustifiable scrutiny” of its Asian American employees, and ordered a full accounting of the misconduct at the now-terminated Investigations and Threat Management Service (ITMS), a Commerce security unit.
The ITMS, the unit behind Chen’s case, had been accused of opening investigations based on race and national origin, among other offenses. Chen, backed in part by the American Civil Liberties Union, filed an administrative complaint against the Justice and Commerce departments in November, stemming from the unit's actions.
A Senate review of the unit, published in July, said it had mutated “into a rogue, unaccountable police force across multiple presidential administrations.” Citing Chen’s case, the report showed that ITMS conducted investigations typically reserved for domestic law enforcement agencies, conducting many in “an overzealous manner whereby agents abused steps in the investigative process.”
The Justice Department declined to comment on Chen’s ordeal. And in a statement provided to NBC Asian America, a Commerce Department spokesperson refused to comment on pending litigation but said the department “is committed to protecting the civil rights and liberties of its employees.”
“The Department conducted a thorough review of ITMS, published a detailed accounting of its findings, disbanded the unit, and is implementing a series of policy changes to ensure greater accountability in its security operations,” the spokesperson said.
Chen says she just wants to move on. She said that prior to her ordeal, she had not considered the ways in which she could have been profiled due to her identity as a Chinese immigrant. Chen, who obtained U.S. citizenship in 1997, was best known for her flood prediction models, which forecasted floods along the Ohio River and its tributaries. She was part of the team that won an award for the development and implementation “a new hydraulic model used to produce lifesaving river forecasts” amid the record flooding that occurred in 2011.
“All I’d think is how important my job is,” Chen, who worked for the weather service for decades, said. “This is my country. I’m protecting my country, the people’s safety.”
But Chen found herself processing the particularly sobering reality, confirmed through a whistleblower letter turned over to the Commerce Department in 2018, that her loyalty to the U.S. had been questioned because of her ethnicity. The letter, which provided the identity of offices, individual names and specific incidents, alleged abuse of authority and the targeting of Chen and other Asian American employees at Commerce, according to the Sherry Chen Legal Defense Fund.
Officials, Chen said, had allegedly repeatedly asked her supervisor about her dedication to the country.
“My lifetime of outstanding scientific work was destroyed. And my entire life was shattered,” Chen recalls. “I was arrested in front of my co-workers, led out of a building in handcuffs, and held in solitary confinement at a courthouse jail.”
She added: “It is still unbelievable that no matter how hard we work, how great the contributions or even sacrifices we make to this country, we have often been viewed as foreigners or not American enough.”
The targeting of Asian Americans under accusations of espionage did not end with Chen. Under Donald Trump’s leadership, the government implemented the “China Initiative,” a security program aimed to address Chinese economic espionage. However, it was accused of encouraging racial profiling. While the Biden administration sunsetted the policy earlier this year, experts say that the forces that led to its formation are deeply baked into American history.
Glenn Katon, litigation director at Advancing Justice — Asian Law Caucus, a legal organization that signed the letter, said the “pernicious rhetoric” that was circulated in the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act contributed to the idea that Asian Americans can never be “real” Americans. And these notions have long been codified through policy.
Research by the Committee of 100, published in October, shows that more than 50 percent of scientists of Chinese descent “feel considerable fear and/or anxiety” that they are under U.S. government surveillance.
“When you’re taking away people’s liberty and destroying their family relationships, and destroying their careers in the name of this totally misguided fearmongering — to me that’s a real issue,” Katon said. “The harm that’s being done to people and families is so much more urgent than undermining America’s competitive edge.”
The past few years have been difficult for Chen. At the mention of her family, she gets emotional, struggling to form the words to describe how the ordeal has affected her loved ones. But in the face of these struggles, she remains firm in her advice to women of color, particularly those in the sciences where they are underrepresented. They “shouldn’t just accept whatever is thrown at you,” Chen said.
“We have made contributions to the advancement of our scientific, academic world. We should be proud of ourselves. We should be proud of our services,” Chen said. “So regardless of how other people view us, we just have to have our own confidence.”