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California immigrant emerges as congressional Trump critic

Ted Lieu, D-Calif., asks questions to former special counsel Robert Mueller, as he testifies before the House Judiciary Committee hearing on his report on Russian election interference, on Capitol Hill, in Washington. 

WASHINGTON — Last month, one of the most confrontational congressional voices against President Donald Trump and his immigration policies directly questioned a top Border Patrol officer about why a 3-year-old girl was detained and separated from her grandmother when they tried to cross the border into Texas.

"Do you know any 3-year-olds that are criminal or national security threats to the United States?" Rep. Ted Lieu, a California Democrat, asked Border Patrol Chief Brian Hastings.

Hastings quietly responded: "No, I don't."

Lieu's highlighting of the case of the young girl, who was reunited with her family after about six weeks, was personal. He and his parents, George and Kerry Lieu, immigrated from Taiwan to the U.S. when Lieu was 3. And following Trump's election in 2016, Lieu has emerged as a frequent and high-profile critic of the president and many of his followers.

He said in an interview he hopes to use his enhanced profile and aggressive stances to help defeat Trump next year. Lieu represents the liberal 33rd Congressional District in California that includes Beverly Hills, Malibu and Santa Monica — but believes he can sway people outside Democratic Party strongholds to vote against the president.

"I'm not going to be able to convince a die-hard Trump supporter to not support the president, I'm just trying convince everyone else," he said. "I think if you look at the xenophobic policies of the Trump administration, it sows division among Americans. It has inflicted cruelty on children and it has lowered America's standing in the world."

Lieu, 50, goes after the president and his policies on Twitter, graphically criticizing Trump and his supporters on issues ranging from border policy to Trump's behavior.

Earlier this month, a Trump tweet about the mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, prompted Lieu to respond: "Can you please stop being a jerk for a few hours & pay respects to victim, families and law enforcement, without simultaneously attacking others? You are the President of the United States. Act like it."

Despite his constant railing against Trump, Lieu's mother said he never showed such aggressiveness earlier in life, describing her son as a quiet man who never talked back to his parents and never mistreated his younger brother.

"His personality in real life and his personality on Twitter are completely different," Lieu's mother Kerry said in Chinese. "You look at Ted, he's quiet. He would never physically fight anyone. But, he will fight back against injustice."

Lieu's criticism of Trump stands out even in overwhelmingly Democratic California.

"If you were to ask me to list the California members of Congress who are the most virulent on social media in regularly condemning the president at every possible moment, I think Ted Lieu would have to be the top of that list," said Harmeet Dhillon, the national committeewoman of the Republican National Committee for California.

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Lieu's mother and father after arriving in the U.S. sold gifts and jewelry, then opened a gift store, and eventually grew the business to 10 establishments. Lieu worked for free for them during breaks from studying computer science and political science at Stanford University.

His ROTC service paid for his degree and he was supposed to serve in the military after graduating, but an eye exam revealed worsening vision, meaning he could have avoided military service even after the military paid for his higher eduction. But Lieu decided to serve four years in the Air Force as a military lawyer and is still in the reserves.

"He wanted to give back to his country," Kerry Lieu said. "This country has given us so much."

Lieu entered politics as a councilman in the Los Angeles suburb of Torrance and was elected to the state Legislature in 2005, where he pushed bills to help renters and expand environmental protections.

Lieu said it's wrong to suggest that all Democrats in the U.S. House are as far to the left as GOP critics suggest they are.

"The incoming freshman class is overwhelmingly much more moderate than prior classes," he said. "And if you look at the legislation that has passed the House of Representatives, it's been moderate legislation."

He calls himself a progressive and was the first member of Congress to endorse Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif. for president, citing her experience as California's former attorney general.

"We've worked together on a number of issues including criminal justice reform and bail reform," Lieu said. "When I authored the first law in a nation to ban gay conversion therapy, she defended that in court before the federal district court as well as the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals."

Lieu once had journalism aspirations and hoped to become an op-ed columnist, saying "one of the coolest days of my life was in 1999 when I got an op-ed published in The Washington Post."

His tweets read like condensed editorials "in six sentences or less," he said.

His mother sees it as natural that her son's writing helped turned him into an online presence.

She said he is "like his father. They don't talk much, but they're great with the pen."

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