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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, April 20, 2024

Dream Works: The immigration lawyer

Dream Works Graphic.png
Graphic by Rachel Wong

The tie-wearing, court-going, corporate lawyer career path pictured in TV shows like “Suits” is one that feels familiar, so I wanted to learn more about the journey to becoming a social justice lawyer, or what Monika Batra Kashyap referred to as a “rebellious lawyer.”

So, in continuing with our venture to find a ‘dream’ career, this week I met with Monika Batra Kashyap, immigration lawyer and visiting clinical professor at Seattle University School of Law, to learn more about her career path.

Batra Kashyap didn’t always know that she wanted to be a lawyer, let alone an immigration lawyer, but she wanted a large aspect of her job to be helping people. Her career path in many ways started before she was born as a part of her personal history — her parents are immigrants — and took a more concrete form during Batra Kashyap’s undergrad experiences in New York City.

“It has been so rewarding to do immigrant justice work. It taps into my politics. It taps into my lived experience, my ancestors, my relationship to this country, to history,” Batra Kashyap said.  

In starting her college process, Batra Kashyap explained, “I didn’t know anything about lawyering beyond corporate lawyering, so [social justice law] was not on my radar at all.” After deciding she did not want to pursue a foreign service major at Georgetown, Batra Kashyap moved to New York and majored in Middle Eastern and South Asian languages at Columbia University, where she studied Hindi.

 “So I ended up going to Columbia, because when I visited there I felt the pulse of immigrants everywhere,” she described.

In her journey to immigration law, Batra Kashyap was searching for where she felt like she belonged.

“The way I actually came up into social justice law was through finding my affinity group,” she said.

When Batra Kashyap arrived at Columbia, she tried out various clubs that in some way aligned with her values (a feminist group — which was mostly white women — and a rape crisis counseling group), before finding her fit: a South Asian domestic violence support organization.

She said she remembered thinking, “We’re feminists and we’re South Asian, and some of you speak the same language I speak. We look the same with the same color skin. Wow, this is what affinity feels like.”

While volunteering as a sophomore in college, she was exposed to social justice lawyers and befriended lawyers who worked at The Legal Aid Society in New York. “I remember meeting them and they had sneakers and jeans. I was like, you can look like this and talk like this and act like this and be a lawyer? How does that work?” Batra Kashyap said.

Batra Kashyap worked as an interpreter as a go-between for lawyers and survivors before interning at The Legal Aid Society in Brooklyn.

It was during this time that she realized this was what she wanted to do, and what would make her happy. In addition to her own happiness, Batra Kashyap explained how “it was a path and for my immigrant parents, it signified success.”

Before going to law school, Batra Kashyap worked as a paralegal for two years: first in public benefits and then in immigration law. While her parents were slightly alarmed at her choice to delay law school, Batra Kashyap knew this exploration was something she needed to do.

Reflecting, she said, “I [wanted] to figure out more what kind of lawyer I want to be … So then I did and then I was in the immigration law unit as a paralegal for a year, and I loved it.”

After graduating from the U.C. Berkeley School of Law Batra Kashyap went directly into immigration law work and has been doing it ever since. When she moved back to Seattle, her hometown, Batra Kashyap worked briefly and rigorously for a for-profit removal defense firm. The firm worked to defend people who were “deemed to be deportable by the government.” Unlike in the criminal justice system, there is no system of public attorneys for immigrants facing deportation.

Batra Kashyap explained that “in the criminal justice system there is a right to an attorney when your liberty is at stake, but in the immigration legal system, there isn’t that same parity.”

This work took place through trials but often not in the type of courtroom we immediately picture.

Batra Kashyap said, “If it wasn’t in a court in Seattle, it was in a court that is located inside a detention center. … I would have to meet clients … in rooms with no windows and no air. Even the courtroom, no windows, no air, just locked with guards standing at the doors.” 

For these two years, Batra Kashyap worked tirelessly, commuting back and forth from the detention centers and working nights and weekends.

For her, some of the most challenging aspects of being an immigration lawyer are when cases don’t work out and she feels trapped within a broken system.

“I love it when I am able to give people the good parts of the system, but when I have to give the bad parts of the system, that’s when it feels like I’m part of the system that is saying no, and it does that probably 90% of the time,” she said.  

In the next, but not final, chapter of Batra Kashyap's career, she worked as a clinical professor for 12 years. In this position, instead of having 100 clients at once, she had four clients at a time. Batra Kashyap described being a clinical professor like running a residency program: She was the head surgeon and her group of third year law students, the residents. Under her guidance, they worked together for their clients.

Just like the removal defense firm, working for an academic institution had its values and vices. She said that being a professor “fed other parts of me, like the teaching part and the mentorship part … but I will say that it was definitely not the most exciting of my jobs in terms of the lawyering, and I will also say that it was probably the most oppressive place to work … a huge academic institution and how hierarchical they are and how much systemic racism there is built into [the institution] … versus a nonprofit.”

So what does it mean, and what does it take to be a rebellious lawyer, I wondered. The concept of the rebel lawyer was created by professor Gerald López at the UCLA School of Law. Batra Kashyap thinks about it in the broadest sense of the word. It’s a kind of lawyer that tries to fight against the status quo and thinks of clients as partners in that fight.

“To be a rebellious lawyer, as an immigration lawyer, is to recognize how the system is a failed system, or how it is harmful … but the most important thing is how you treat your clients,” Batra Kashyap said.

Instead of thinking in terms like “I am helping my clients,” Batra Kashyap asks us to think, instead, about how clients help lawyers fix a broken system.

“‘Rebellious lawyering to me is even rebelling against the concept, the traditional model of lawyering, that believes that lawyers are on top,” Batra Kashyap said. “When your client says thank you to you, which they will always do … really you should be saying thank you to them for trusting you while engaging in such an untrustworthy system, in trying to make the system better. And showing you how the system works because without their engagement we wouldn’t be able to see how unjust the system is.”

Batra Kashyap said, “It’s so rare in college for there to be exposure to this type of non-traditional lawyering. …  If I had known about it, I would have saved a lot of time.”

Batra Kashyap described an experience she recently had with a client to me. “The most rewarding part of being an immigration lawyer is when you’re able to help transform someone’s life from a life of no safety to a life of safety,” she said. “And, if you are lucky, you get to see that happen in your lifetime because sometimes these cases take so long.”

A few weeks ago, she had one of these moments. “I got a text from a client I helped in 2016 apply for asylum,” she said. “And now, almost eight years later, she just had a daughter, got married. … I got to see such an evolution because I knew what it took for her to get from the incredibly traumatized place that she was [in] when we applied for asylum, which was just a few months after she came from The Gambia.”

“I got to see the picture of the baby and the minute I saw that, I cried,” she continued. “That makes me really happy because I know that those pieces of paper, and there were a lot of them, all those pieces of paper that we put together, all the advocacy, it really changed her life.”

When I asked Batra Kashyap for this interview, she told me that she is currently in a moment of transition, deciding where she wants to take her immigration law career next. I thought this was all for the better. I’m learning that finding our passions may happen in a moment, in an internship or in a volunteer experience, and that even after it all clicks into place, the journey continues. I am excited to see where and who Batra Kashyap fights for next, and I thank her for sharing her journey with us.

Wishing you luck in all your dream-catching endeavors, especially the rebellious ones.