As executive director of the Georgia Asylum and Immigration Network, New England Law | Boston alumna Monica Modi Khant ’98 uses her immigration law background to fight for social justice for some of the most vulnerable populations. Specifically, she trains and mentors pro bono attorneys who represent asylum seekers and immigrant victims of violence. Keep reading to learn how law school led her down this challenging and rewarding path.
Related: Everything You Need to Know About Becoming an Immigration Lawyer
When you started law school, were you planning to work in immigration law?
I went to law school for social justice reasons—I wanted to fight for a cause that I believed in. But I didn’t plan to practice immigration law. In fact, I tried to avoid it because of my own immigrant background. I was born and raised in the United States, but my parents are from India, and they were kind of pushing me to do immigration work, and I resisted it. But at New England Law, I found my voice.
My first job out of law school was with a nonprofit that worked with immigrants who were seeking asylum, who were held in detention centers. That first job really showed me that this is what I am meant to do. Since then I’ve always practiced immigration law, working for vulnerable immigrant populations, and I’ve become even more passionate about it, twenty years later.
Tell me about the work you do at GAIN.
Our mission is to provide free legal services to immigrant victims of crime and persecution. We help those who are seeking asylum, fleeing persecution in their home countries, and also those who have had crimes committed against them, such as domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking.
We screen cases, and we train and mentor volunteer attorneys from the big firms in Atlanta to represent cases pro bono. We have 200 volunteers, and every year we represent about 500 clients.
At GAIN, we are also trying to change the narrative of immigration here in Atlanta. The more attorneys we have working with our clients, the better they understand what our clients go through in order to seek safety, justice, and freedom.
Is there a case that was especially satisfying or important to you?
One of our cases involved a transgender woman from Mexico who was trafficked to the United States, and then later held in a detention center in a remote part of Georgia. She tried to fight for asylum, saying that if she returned to Mexico, being transgender was going to put her at risk of persecution—and no one had protected her in Mexico when she asked for protection.
She represented her case pro se for two years, without appropriate translation, without an attorney, in immigration court, in a legal system that she did not understand, and she lost. We then requested a big law firm in Atlanta—Kilpatrick Townsend and Stockton—to be involved. After three appeals the firm finally did win her case, and she was granted asylum. Now she’s an advocate for transgender immigrants, trying to change the system that caused her so much grief and turmoil.
How has your work changed in recent years?
Policies keep changing without much notice. Immigration is already a complex area of law, and when you have these frequent shifts, it’s very difficult to advise clients about what the outcome could be. We have to be constantly on our toes. What really hurts me too is that some clients who are victims of crimes do not feel comfortable coming forward, because of fear of deportation.
But there has been one positive change: more people who might not have felt compelled to say anything a couple years ago are now speaking up for immigrants and in support of what we do. And that has been very energizing for us and has shone a light on our clients.
Learn more about what it takes to fight for social justice by becoming an immigration lawyer. You can also learn more about Monica Modi Khant's work in her recent TIME magazine profile.