Nisha Agarwal: “Lawyers help enforce the law, but also change it”

In 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed Nisha Agarwal as the Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. Agarwal has since pushed forward and implemented IDNYC, New York City’s municipal ID card, a program that ensures that all New York City residents have access to City services. More than 900,000 New York City residents have signed up in the two years the program has operated. Agarwal also supervises ActionNYC. ActionNYC connects New Yorkers with free, safe immigration legal services, and supports community-based organizations to increase services at the grassroots level.

Nisha Agarwal was raised in Fayetteville in upstate New York. The daughter of first generation Indian immigrants, she witnessed the immigrant experience in America first-hand. Her father, a nuclear engineer, and her mother, a psychologist, were consistently supportive Agarwal’s activism. Though new to America, her family was no stranger to activism. Her lineage includes many members with a commitment to social justice, including her grandfather who marched with Mahatma Gandhi during the Indian independence movement.

At Harvard as an undergraduate, Agarwal was a vocal advocate for low-income women in Mumbai, and for one summer traveled to India to meet with and advocate for the women. Agarwal initially pursued a career in academia. She attended Oxford University to study economic and social history. During her time in England, however, she discovered that she was at heart an activist, not an academic. This realization led her to Harvard Law School, where she was active in the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau.

Agarwal went directly into public interest advocacy following Harvard Law. In 2006 she received a Skadden public interest fellowship and was placed at NY Lawyers for the Public Interest. Agarwal spent six years in the organization, most of them as the Director of the Health Justice Program advocating for New York City immigrants with serious health care needs.

In 2012, Agarwal co-founded and served for two years as the Deputy Director of the Center for Popular Democracy. The Center, a non-profit, partners with grassroots organizations and unions with the goal of advancing pro-immigrant, pro-worker, economic justice policies. Agarwal briefly co-founded and served as the Executive Director of the Immigrant Justice Corps. The Corps—an initiative of Robert Katzmann, Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit—was a response to inadequate legal representation for immigrants that Judge Katzmann saw every day in federal court. The Corps brings together lawyers and college graduates from around the country to work with New York’s non-profit legal services providers and community-based organizations to aid immigrants.

Agarwal finds all of her work done at Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs tremendously rewarding and is grateful to have helped implement so many pro-immigrant government programs. In light of the challenging climate that has emerged for immigrants after the 2016 presidential election, Agarwal says that it is even more important to ensure that New York City continues to provide services for, and is welcoming and inclusive to immigrants.

The next big initiative for the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs will be working with cities around the country on immigration policy and inclusion. New York City is currently a member of Cities for Action, a coalition of over 100 cities advocating for a progressive immigration policy. The coalition, which Agarwal helps direct, intends to be a prominent participant in the national discourse on immigration during the next four years.

Going forward, Agarwal sees a huge role for lawyers to be allies and partners with the activists, organizers, and groups working on the ground to advocate for policies supportive of immigrants. To facilitate this partnership Agarwal cautions against narrow legal specializations and the traditional casework paradigm. Interdisciplinary collaboration—not only between legal fields such as civil rights, immigrant rights and health justice but also other public policy advocacy areas including social work, health care, and community organization—can provide stronger alliances, litigation strategies and funding sources for advocates and clients alike.

By: Jonathon Sizemore (Jonathon is the CityLaw Fellow and a New York Law School Graduate, Class of 2016).

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