How Soulmaz Taghavi’s connections with immigrants shaped her pathway to the law
Published in 2022 Virginia Super Lawyers magazine on May 5, 2022
As a young teen in the early 2000s, Richmond native Soulmaz Taghavi visited a theme park in Iran with her cousins who lived there. Guests had to thread their way through orderly lines to get to each ride, even if there wasn’t much of a crowd. At one such ride, seeing an opening in the queue, Taghavi ducked under the rope to save time. “What are you doing?” her Iranian cousins demanded. “A girl doesn’t do that.”
Having spent many summers in Iran, Taghavi was no stranger to the country’s customs and laws, but they perplexed her. Why, for instance, couldn’t her cousins come to visit her? “I had 30, 40 cousins my age, and they wanted to travel,” she says. “They wanted to study abroad. They wanted freedom.”
Now an immigration attorney, Taghavi, 33, helps others who want to leave their native countries. Her Iranian parents came to the U.S. on student visas. Her father, Abbas, immigrated in 1978, and her mother, Shamsi, in 1979, a week before the Islamic Revolution broke out. Her home in Abadan, an oil city, was later destroyed by Iraqi bombs.
While Taghavi’s parents came to the U.S. legally, her father’s career as a social worker exposed her to others who were not as fortunate. From the time she was in elementary school, she was her father’s “right-hand man” in his charitable efforts. “He came across a lot of Afghan refugees, and I would help him help them with their immigration documents and translate for them—teaching them how to take the bus, how to shop, how to make pasta,” she says.
Shaped by these early experiences, Taghavi majored in international relations and economics at Virginia Commonwealth University, then earned a master’s in Middle Eastern studies at the University of Virginia. She pursued a law degree at North Carolina Central University in Durham, drawn to its diverse student body and social justice program. This interdisciplinary education gave her an essential skill set. “With asylum law, you really have to know the history of all of the countries,” she says. “When something breaks out in Ethiopia, you have to already have had that background.”
After clerking on the criminal docket at the D.C. Superior Court, Taghavi joined Fayad Law in Richmond, where she eventually opened the firm’s criminal and family law practice areas. Later, with criminal defense attorney Raul Novo, she specialized in “crimmigration,” a crossover between criminal defense work and immigration. “It’s a Catch-22 situation,” says Taghavi of the limbo for a client needing to resolve a criminal charge, like a DUI, while also having immigration issues. “Without an attorney who’s aware of both areas, a lot of people will get deported on not very serious crimes. And it got worse during President Trump’s administration.”
In June 2020, she hung a shingle, shifting her focus to traditional immigration and opening offices in Phoenix as well as Richmond. Frustrated by the “analog” systems she worked with as an associate, Taghavi implemented a digitized system. “With immigration law firms with multiple offices, it can get very chaotic. Attorneys wrote everything down, and there were big rooms with files. I wanted to change the system,” says Taghavi. She also maintains a robust social media presence for existing and prospective clients.
These days, Taghavi spends much of her time handling Afghan humanitarian parole cases pro bono. As one of the few—if not the only—Farsi-speaking immigration attorneys in Virginia, she receives calls from all over the country. Her cases can take years to resolve, and the stress never really goes away.
But Taghavi is driven to help others, and she enjoys mentoring the young women who work in her office, some of whom are Dreamers. “I think everyone who comes here, for one reason or another, they’re making a huge sacrifice. We don’t want it to be in vain,” says Taghavi. “We want them to have a healthy, successful future. Every human is deserving of that, no matter where they were born.”
Taghavi’s Three E’s of Social Media:
Encourage: Taghavi posts photos and videos of successful clients to combat fears immigrants may have about approaching an attorney.
Educate: She posts about new laws that affect immigrants. “You want your clients to be successful. We have a duty to educate them to make sure they have the best shot at winning their case.”
Empower: She encourages clients to check out links to more information, like The Facility, a documentary about detainees. “Know your rights, know what process you’re going through, know the political atmosphere and how that could affect how the judge may rule on your case.”