The following post is brought to you by J&K Law, founded by both women of color and immigrants, who understand the intricacies of and challenges inherent to the United States immigration system and are committed to helping you overcome whatever obstacles you face. Schedule a consultation by dialing 212-390-1024.
It’s 1991 and five-year-old Hera Javed stepped foot onto new soil, a new country and a new life. She would later become a partner at J&K Lawfirm with Madhuri Kumar, who also immigrated from India at 12 years old. Madhuri and Hera founded their law firm to help immigrants through difficult legal processes. They’ve helped an extensive list of clients build their businesses and battle through ever-changing immigration laws. Growing up, we often heard our parents say, “I came to this country with a dollar in my pocket.” We hear of the trauma they’ve carried for generations through systems built to shut them out.
As a woman of color, I’ve always felt a sense of exclusion within politics and the legal sector. Those surrounding me and voicing their opinions never looked like me. To have a law firm made up of women, such as J&K, alludes to a sense of promise for the legal world.
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Sitting down with Madhuri and Hera, I got a chance to understand their journey as immigration lawyers.
What inspired your decision to become a lawyer?
Hera: “I came to this country when I was 5 years old. After entering the U.S, I was put into removal proceedings, which are deportation proceedings through immigration court. I was ordered deportation when I was around 12 years old. So, I lived undocumented for a long time, and to experience that, first hand, what it feels like to be American, but not have the immigration status to tie into that, having lived and breathed it, I just knew right away that I wanted to be an immigration lawyer. I went into law school with that intention, did an immigration clinic in law school, and immediately started practicing immigration law.
Madhuri: I always knew I wanted to help people in some way, most of my work was internationally focused, and then at some point, I started thinking about what it meant to be an immigrant. I moved from India when I was 12 and I felt in the beginning less American because I grew up in India, so what does it mean to feel american? I still had documents but still didn’t have this sense of belonging, the documents alone helped so much through that journey. For me, it was helping people achieve their dream of coming here and creating those opportunities. Having documents is so important, and fulfilling those dreams and opportunities.
Despite New York City is a melting pot for immigrant communities, the feeling of not belonging often arises amongst many immigrants. These experiences of not being American enough or ‘South Asian enough,’ are commonly felt throughout the diaspora.
What lessons growing up as an immigrant helps influence your work at the law firm?
Hera: Both of us being immigrants has so much to do with it. When you think of an attorney, you think of somebody that is not necessarily your friend, but someone you hire to do work for you. Both Madhuri and I really wanted to distance ourselves from a relationship that only looked like that. We see our clients as our friends, as our auntie, uncle, sister or brother. People that we can relate to and know exactly how it’s like in their shoes. It really is about helping them accomplish their dreams, whether it’s starting a new company, or coming to the U.S. to reunite with family members. It just has a really deep meaning to us on an emotional level and really shapes how our law firm is run.
Madhuri: We can really sympathize with our clients even if the experiences aren’t exactly the same. Helping them achieve an American dream, or bringing families together while succeeding financially. Having that personalized experience and treating our firm like family, we try to personalize every experience with our clients.
What is your experience of being a woman of color in one of the least diverse career fields?
Hera: You start experiencing this in law school. As a young woman of color, I think you learn very quickly that in a field filled with predominantly white middle-aged men, you will be spoken to and treated in a way, where you feel like you have to prove yourself first. You have to earn the right to be given any form of respect. You have to realize that you too have experience and expertise in a field. You learn to not let this impact you and check yourself and your confidence. No matter how someone is speaking to me, it does not change my level of knowledge and expertise in this field. It forces me to be more confident in myself and have tough skin towards anybody’s opinion of me.
Madhuri: You have to believe in yourself and not let anyone undermine what you’re saying. It’s hard when you’re just out of law school, there’s a tendency to second guess yourself, but through the years you realize the strategies you build come from an informed place.
How did Trump’s administration impact immigration policies for South Asians and minorities across the board? What are three ways we can retract the damage he’s done?
Madhuri: The Trump admin: The language they used and the way they depicted immigrants and the history, it started from something very basic and fundamental values of immigrants, all of that was being questioned. They played into those fears. Undocumented folks were really afraid to file applications things and seek a lawyer and we have seen that change as soon as January happened. We saw people who were undocumented, breathe a sign of relief, they could come out of those shadows and ask for help. On the business immigration end, it was really difficult, everything took longer. It was made to be harder, it was all across the board that immigrants were made to take your jobs. Our experience over the last 6 months, was a sign of relief.
Hera: Some ways to retract the things he’s done is advocacy work. We’ve noticed that every time there is a new administration, there is a new immigration policy. This sort of instability in law is not fair, it should not change every time there’s a new president. Why can’t we finally advocate and push congress to pass laws that are permanent and permanently fix our immigration system? Instead of orders and policy changes dependent on the politics at the time. All of this takes advocacy, awareness and protesting to change. Putting yourself out there to talk about what matters.
Overall, the impact was the creation of fear. We have an immigration system, we have paths for immigrants to come to the US, but the Trump administration was making it seem that none of those paths were allowed or that no immigrants were allowed in this country. It was creating a lot of fear among people who were already here and those who wanted to enter but then changed their minds. When we think of immigrants, we think of people who are fleeing poor country conditions, violence, and poverty. But a lot of the people coming into the US are not only coming for those reasons but also to invest money into the US economy and to create businesses here. Those people were now turned away as well because nobody wanted to be in a country that did not value them, their knowledge or success.
Does this country’s immigration policy make it easier for South Asians to obtain visas or citizenship status?
Hera: We’ve all accepted that this immigration system needs an overhaul. It has always been difficult for immigrants to come to the US and obtain legal status here. Our immigration system is about fitting into a box and we have very limited boxes that you can fit into. Those limitations increased after 9/11. At this point, it only seems to get harder until there is a complete overhaul and change.
Madhuri: The problem with the immigration system is that it is so politically motivated, 9/11 conversations started again with the Muslim ban and all these policies that trump put into place. So it was so easy to go back to 9/11 and start that discussion again. The system does not recognize immigrants as contributors to society, its images of these people crossing the border and its not discussed in successful ways. The contributions of immigrants are not talked about, we need to reward the impact immigrants have made on America.
Were there any stories from your clients that you most related to?
Hera: Our practice focuses on employment-based immigration. So individuals who are coming here for employment purposes and those investing in new enterprises. To see our clients start their journeys in their career or company is so inspiring and relatable. When you start a new venture you’re nervous and scared and to have those fears on top of your immigration status, is always something we relate to our clients about as we are both immigrants and business owners.
Can you tell us more about your clients Behno and Birthdate? How does their immigration journey impact the way we see and motivate more immigrants to start their own businesses?
Hera: Behno and Birthdate were both companies that were started by South Asians. They are immigrant-owned and wanted to employ other immigrants. It’s honestly amazing that they valued immigrants so much that they were going through this immigration process. One of their employees had their visa denied and we got the immigration agency to overturn their decision. Experiences from these companies show how immigrants shape businesses in the United States.
Is it common to see two South Asian partners running a law firm? What kind of impact does your partnership have on your community?
Madhuri: It actually is not very common. Something like this, with two female partners, is also not common. When clients come in and see South Asian women who are immigrants leading a firm, when they work for us, they come to us for this reason. There is a new generation where women are sharing things, where before, it was a narrative of women being competitive and catty. That makes me proud that we are part of this story and get along seamlessly to see success together. run a business.
Hera: Our practice and the work we do speaks for itself. We hope that when our community looks at us, that they’re inspired, especially young South Asian women. We hope they can see that this is possible within this predominantly white, male-led industry.
What advice would you give to South Asian youth feeling pressured by their families to become a lawyer? (And if you have any words of wisdom about the LSAT, please share!)
Hera: Becoming a lawyer is the same as going into any profession—you have to love what you do. Being pressured into a career, especially one that requires tremendous time and dedication is a recipe for disaster. You will feel burnout before you know it. As parents ourselves we hope that all South Asian parents start to change this narrative for careers. We hope that parents begin to inspire their children to live the fullest life they can in any career they choose. For those that do want to become a lawyer, our advice is that you never give up and know that your journey to law school is one that will either lead you there or lead you to better things.
As I venture into my senior year of college, with the legal route in mind, I value the experience of being a first-generation college student. A lifetime of firsts is prominent in every immigrant family. Madhuri and Hera reminded me of these firsts as they help immigrants achieve their first paycheck, their first documentations and even their first jobs.
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Despite narratives built to marginalized immigrant populations, immigration-based law firms are integral to spark change. I reflect on the reign of an administration that brought fear into the eyes of my community, feeling thankful for lawyers like Madhuri and Hera, who legally specialize in easing those fears.