Immigrants whose lives are upended by unfair rules and arbitrary law enforcers should thank the day electrical engineer Jayashri Srikantiah decided to leave Intel to become a lawyer.
The young San Franciscan is the enthusiastic director of Stanford University Law School’s Immigrant Rights Clinic, where students learn public interest law by doing actual asylum, domestic violence and deportation cases on behalf of immigrants.
Students in Srikantiah’s clinic—more than a dozen sign up each term—learn not only the preparation and handling of immigration cases, which may involve representing individuals as well as impact litigation, but they also learn that community outreach, education and collaboration are critical parts of defending immigrant rights.
Most recently, Srikantiah and her students had a hand in an important U.S. Supreme Court victory that can bring relief to immigrants facing unjust deportation.
On Dec. 5, the high court ruled 8-1 that immigration authorities cannot use a felony under state law that is a misdemeanor under federal law to summarily deport Jose Antonio Lopez, a permanent U.S. resident for 16 years.
Lopez, a grocery store owner in Sioux Falls, S.D., pleaded guilty to telling someone where to get cocaine. As a result, he was imprisoned for 15 months and then deported to Mexico in early 2006. Although Lopez’s crime is a felony in South Dakota, it is, as a first-time offense, a misdemeanor under the federal Controlled Substances Act.
The Supreme Court ruled that immigration authorities should not have denied him the opportunity to ask for relief from deportation. Lopez now can return to his family here, which includes his 6-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son, where an immigration judge will decide whether he can remain.
Top lawyers from the firm Covington & Burling successfully argued the case for Lopez. “They did a wonderful pro bono job representing Mr. Lopez, says Srikantiah.”
What Srikantiah and her law clinic did, through an amicus brief, was widen the impact of the ruling so that it may benefit the thousands of law-abiding immigrants whose otherwise blameless legal histories are marred by first-time drug convictions.
The brief explained to the court the unfairly harsh and disruptive impact a ruling against Lopez would inflict on immigrant communities.
As a result of the favorable ruling, legal immigrants with one drug-related conviction can now apply for relief from removal from the country instead of being automatically deported.
Srikantiah explains that a large coalition of advocacy groups and community organizations came together as soon as the Lopez case appeared headed for the Supreme Court. The coalition knew the case could have an effect on entire communities.
“The Immigrant Defense Project of the New York State Defenders Association led in coordinating the briefing in the case and developing the key legal issues facing the courts,” Srikantiah explains. The National Council of La Raza, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, its Asian American counterpart AALDEF and ethnic bar associations joined the brief.
The perfect storm of drugs, wayward immigrants and crime doesn’t seem to be the best condition for fighting a pro-immigrant battle. Potential supporters could have easily been confused, “thinking that people deported for drug offenses, like Mr. Lopez, were dangerous individuals,” says Srikantiah.
Immigration authorities, she notes, can reach back into an immigrant’s legal past and deport the person based on a single blot. She recalls that an Iraq war veteran married to a U.S. citizen was deported and separated from her family as a result of one drug conviction.
“But people quickly learned that the Lopez case is one of many instances of people with a drug conviction turning their lives around and becoming law-abiding, but their lives are reduced to that one single conviction and they’re deported,” Srikantiyah explains. “At least now there’s a chance for protection against that automatic punishment.”
Srikantiah warns that there are many hurdles ahead for immigrants as a result of the use of immigration law to “target, question and detain people based simply on their ethnicity.”
The fusing of immigration control and national security, she says, brings in the new factor of secrecy, making unfair regulations and practices harder to challenge. “There’s a lot the press and the public can’t know because government won’t release information based on national security grounds,” Srikantiah says.
Compounding the secrecy, she adds, is that government targets are very vulnerable, “usually they’re on unstable or temporary visas, and are more prone not to challenge the authorities.”
The UC Berkeley engineering and New York University Law School graduate isn’t someone to shy away from a court battle, especially in defense of immigrants. Her choice of public interest law as an arena was particularly inspired by Prof. Burt Neuborn’s voting rights clinic at NYU.
Her switch from engineering to law didn’t delight her parents at first. “But they’re now very happy and quite proud ever since I began working for the ACLU,” Srikantiah confides. Before joining Stanford Law faculty she was ACLU Northern California’s associate legal director.
As an ACLU attorney Srikantiah successfully challenged the government’s denial of the existence of a no-fly list that barred certain passengers from boarding airplanes. The government was forced to turn over information about the list and pay attorney’s fees, and other ACLU lawyers are now trying to stop the government’s use of the no-fly list itself.
As staff attorney for the ACLU’s National Immigrant Rights Project, Srikantiah represented the teenage victims of Berkeley entrepreneur Lakireddi Bali Reddy, who was eventually sentenced to eight years in prison for human trafficking and sexual abuse. Two Reddy sons received lesser sentences for conspiracy to defraud the INS as part of plea agreements.
Srikantiah’s immigrant rights clinic is currently challenging before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights mandatory deportation as a violation of international law. The group also has a case before the U.S. District in Los Angeles challenging the indefinite detention of immigrants and asylum-seekers.
Rene Ciria-Cruz is an editor at New America Media.