For many New Jersey immigrants — like the Chinese girl who escaped an abusive family, the orphaned refugees from Sudan or the Colombian couple forced to flee violent guerrillas — the enduring female symbol of freedom in America isn’t the Statue of Liberty. It’s Shereen Chen.
“The realization on someone’s face that they have received permanent residency in the United States, forever, is an amazing thing to witness,” she says. “I love what I do.”
As of counsel at Ballard Spahr in Voorhees, Chen, 34, is primarily responsible for the immigration cases handled by the firm’s offices across the eastern United States. She has celebrated several happy outcomes since joining the firm in April 2003.
One involved the Chinese girl. Her mother had paid more than $65,000 to have her smuggled into the United States. But when she arrived, the smugglers held her captive. She managed to escape and found her way to the safety of distant relatives. Chen and two other Ballard Spahr attorneys obtained special immigrant juvenile status for her, and now she can remain in this country for the rest of her life.
Another was in 2004 when the firm sought permanent residency status for six orphans who were among the refugees from Sudan’s civil war, a group whose exodus was the subject of the documentary film The Lost Boys of Sudan. The United States had permitted 3,000 of the boys to enter this country. Some have settled in the Philadelphia area, and Chen helped train volunteers to get the boys permanent residency status.
“When a client hugs you and thanks you for your assistance, you realize that living and working in the United States, something we take for granted, is invaluable to others,” she says.
She certainly got a hug from the Colombian couple. The husband was kidnapped by guerrillas and forced to walk through the jungle for six months, where he was seriously injured. His wife eventually gathered the ransom for his release. When the man attempted to report his captors to the authorities, a family member was killed and he and his wife were forced to flee to the United States. “To this day he has an arm that is disfigured,” Chen says.
Born in Taipei, Taiwan, Chen was only two-and-a-half when her family came to this country in 1973 and settled in New Jersey. Her Chinese Nationalist family had been driven from the mainland by the communists under Mao Zedong and settled in Taiwan with other followers of Chiang Kai-shek.
She grew up in the Mount Laurel area and graduated from Lenape High School, which is known for its outstanding sports program. She excelled at lacrosse and continued to play the sport as an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins. She led the team in assists, which is only fitting considering her nature. Lacrosse taught her about the value of teamwork.
“I always liked to be a part of a team,” says a smiling Chen. “It’s part of my personality.”
While Chen excelled in sports, she was never a straight-A student. “I didn’t have stellar grades in law school,” she admits, “but I blame that on the fact that I worked a 40-hour-a-week job at Ann Taylor all the way through.”
She points out, “I’m on the hiring committee now at Ballard Spahr. I say, ‘Don’t go just for the grades. Look at the whole person. Look for balance, experience,” when interviewing candidates.
After graduating with a degree in international law from Rutgers School of Law, she took a job as a legal secretary for Wolf Professional Association in Mount Laurel. “When Walter Wolf discovered I had just passed the bar, he took me away from that and the next day I defended a deposition,” she says. “In 23 days I defended 15 depositions — and I got a $5,000 raise — from $30,000 to $35,000.”
The young attorney not only survived her baptism by fire, she discovered she loved her work. The firm represented the Roman Catholic Diocese of Camden, and Chen worked with the Rev. David Brooks, then director of the Camden Center for Law and Social Justice, a privately funded nonprofit public-interest law firm founded by the Jesuits in the 1980s. When Brooks was transferred, Chen left Wolf to become director of the Center’s immigration department, a position funded by both the diocese and an American Bar Association grant targeted at cities with large numbers of working-poor immigrants. In that job she processed all the immigration paperwork for Catholic priests. Today, as part of her practice at Ballard Spahr, she does similar work for Hindu priests. She represents the Hindu Temple of South Jersey in Galloway Township. “The priests are wonderful,” she says. The admiration is mutual.
“She is an excellent immigration lawyer,” says Pravin Khatiwala, president of the Temple. “She works very hard helping minority people — she is very cooperative and a very charming lady. With some lawyers, it’s ‘put your money on the table and we’ll talk.’ With her, it’s different.”
Chen loves what she does, but it can be frustrating. She has three to five consultations a day and can’t help everyone she sees. Or even most of them. “Eighty percent of the people I can’t help because of the way the law is structured …,” she says, adding hopefully, “but once the law changes … ”
The firm’s managing partner, Ben Levin, marvels at her dedication. “Shereen is just so bright, and personable, and so good,” he says. “I believed that Ballard Spahr would offer her a national platform for her work. She’s developing a practice group and in the future we hope to bring on another attorney or two.”
She goes out of her way to help people outside of work as well. This year she captured the New Jersey State Bar Association’s Pro Bono Award for her commitment to helping battered women and children gain their residency. And she still finds time to tend to her two sons, Gavin, 6, and Tyler, 3, and spend time with her husband, Ross H. Gray.
But as busy as she is, she always makes time for one thing: speaking at naturalization ceremonies. “I hand out little American flags — it’s exciting,” she says.
She feels a kinship with these new citizens as she’s never forgotten what it’s like to be a minority in America. “That’s one reason I’ve kept my own name,” she says. “It’s good for them to see that I am Chinese.”
Typical Chen. Always thinking about the team.