When Rekha Nair L’12 first came to the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, she thought she would work in criminal justice. Then, during the Spring of her 1L year, the Supreme Court decided Padilla v. Kentucky, which held that defense attorneys had an obligation to inform their clients about the potential immigration consequences of a decision to plead guilty. This case opened Rekha’s eyes to the overlaps between criminal and immigration law and marked the beginning of her passion for fighting against the multitude of injustices that arise when these two systems cross.
“To this day, what I’m most passionate about is this intersection and fighting back against people’s deportations based on just getting a criminal conviction,” Rekha said.
The Law School’s influence
While at the Law School, Rekha immersed herself in public service. Not only was Rekha a Toll Scholar, but she was also an active pro bono student leader. She credits her experiences in the Transnational Legal Clinic and the Criminal Defense Clinic with helping her to hone her skills in pragmatic, hands-on environments. Moreover, having recognized that many of her clients would likely be Spanish-speaking, Rekha took advantage of the Law School’s commitment to cross-disciplinary education by enrolling in several Spanish classes at the University. For Rekha, the institutional support she received while she was a student was invaluable to her as she launched her career.
“The Toll Scholarship really supported me in being able to pursue public interest vigorously without having to worry about the financial impact,” Rekha said.
Toll fellowship and beyond
Following two years of clerking, Rekha’s postgraduate Toll fellowship allowed her to return to her home state of Arizona and work with the Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project (the Florence Project), a non-profit legal services organization dedicated to providing legal and social services to people in immigration detention in Arizona.
“A Toll Postgraduate Fellowship is really what allowed me to come to the Florence Project full time, because when I was looking, they weren’t hiring. Those types of fellowships are really critical to helping public interest students get their foot in the door.”
After her fellowship, Rekha worked as a federal public defender in Arizona, where she continued to gain insight and experience in cases that involved an overlap between immigration and criminal systems. Rekha returned to the Florence Project as the Phoenix Legal Action Network (PLAN) attorney – an attorney funded by PLAN and housed at the Florence Project to provide free legal services to non-detained immigrants in the Phoenix area.
Dedication to immigrant rights
Rekha noted that a major reason she returned to immigrant rights work is the feeling that this was the place she could make the most difference.
“In immigration, if I take a case, I’m fighting it tooth and nail to the end, and I realized that I so appreciated the fight. In immigration, the only risk is not fighting, so you always choose to fight; whereas in public defense, the risk is time in prison, and often that is much higher if you don’t take a plea,” Rekha said. “Had I gone straight into public defense after law school, I probably would have been happy there because I wouldn’t have known anything different, but having gone to immigration first, I realized that I’m a fighter, and I want to stand and fight with other people, and I can best do that here.”
Rekha acknowledges that working in immigration, especially in Arizona, can be difficult. Nonetheless, she finds pride in being able to connect with her clients and her community and let them know that they are not going through the complicated — and often intimidating — immigration system on their own.
“I think my greatest accomplishment is actually being able to stand with another human being and say, ‘I’m with you. No matter what happens, I’m with you, and you’re not alone,’” Rekha said.
Commitment to immigration reform
In describing her work and the importance of large-scale immigration reform, Rekha often returns to the theme of togetherness versus isolation. She noted that one of the most heartbreaking scenes she sees in her work is when her clients are chatting with their families and “trying to be as normal as possible” while at a court hearing that exists within a system that is threatening to separate them from one another.
“We talked a lot about family separation, and we were horrified about mothers and children or fathers and children being separated at the border. We never talk about how our entire removal/deportation system is family separation,” Rekha said. “Parents are picked up while dropping their kids off at school or at a traffic stop etc. and then they’re often detained, put in the process of being deported, and later deported. We’ve never had any sort of reckoning or pivot to talk about how our whole system is that, yet there was such outrage over family separation.”
For Rekha, one of the most challenging parts of her job is the consistent witnessing of a system that dehumanizes people and promotes injustice. Rekha acknowledged that even her role as an immigration attorney is one that is embedded in the system, and that can be hard for her; nonetheless, she is intent upon using the tools she has to work toward making the system more just for those whose lives hang in the balance.
Paving the way to the future of immigration services
Rekha believes the best way forward is through a movement lawyering approach in which clients receive legal representation in collaboration with local social movements and immigrants’ rights advocates. To pursue this path, Rekha recently decided to leave the Florence Project and become Executive Director of PLAN, a fledging, one-person (her) 501(c)(3) that she hopes to grow to provide free, holistic, community-based legal and social services to low-income immigrant families in Phoenix.
“I’m deeply grateful to the Florence Project where I’ve grown so much as a lawyer, but I want to do more in this space with my community. I know an individual case is important, that obtaining legal status is important, but winning is not guaranteed and even gaining legal status is not the end of struggle for an immigrant family. Involvement in local organizations gives immigrants protection and power when the system fails and a voice and role in making cohesive, systemic change in the longer term,” Rekha said.
Being a daughter of immigrants and Phoenician herself, Rekha has deep roots in the community and has built relationships with local, immigrant-led organizations. She started working as Executive Director of PLAN in July, bringing a small caseload with her. She will partner with the community she loves to reimagine and expand legal services for immigrant families. Next spring, she will share what she learns as an Adjunct Professor of Movement Lawyering at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor School of Law.
You can follow and support her journey at planphx.org.
This feature is part of a series Penn Law Journal has collected about alums who work hard to fight for Civil Rights in our communities.