Big America

An oral history of immigrants in Illinois law

Published in 2018 Illinois Super Lawyers — February 2018

Moving to another country is never easy. 

When 10-year-old Dhenu Savla and her family arrived from India in 1991, she felt a sense of “disempowerment,” as she calls it. “This place was foreign. There were rules, there were customs, that were not familiar. People looked at me as an outsider.” She faced bullying at school, but as she grew older and more used to American life, she decided to become an immigration lawyer to help others feel stronger and more at home.

Not all first-generation immigrants who've become lawyers had as difficult a start as Savla. But they all can relate to being treated differently—especially these days. Almost from the first day President Trump took office, immigration attorneys have been in the news, counteracting anti-immigrant rhetoric. “Immigrants are all different types of people,” says Tahreem Kalam, who arrived with her family from Pakistan 25 years ago, when she was 4. “I want people to know it's something to be proud of.”

Here are the stories of five Illinois attorneys who relocated to the U.S. from their birth countries. Three are now immigration attorneys.

 

Remembering the homeland

Roshan Shrestha; Taft Stettinius & Hollister; intellectual property litigation: I spent 17 years of my childhood in Nepal, and I came here for college—Grinnell College in Iowa. I grew up with about 100 cousins. Literally.

 

Tahreem Kalam; Minsky, McCormick & Hallagan; immigration law: I was born in Karachi, Pakistan. My dad is the oldest of five kids. His father passed away when he was 17, so he kind of took over that role, of getting all his siblings through school. Education was very, very big for him. He’s an engineer by trade. He went to one of the top schools there—top of his class. My mom is the youngest of seven. They came from very modest backgrounds. My dad said the electricity used to go out all the time, but he’d stay up studying by candlelight.”

 

Beata Leja; Minsky, McCormick & Hallagan; immigration law: I was born in Poland and we moved when I was 8 years old. My mom, my brother and I left Poland in 1986, so it was still under the Iron Curtain. I vividly remember standing in bread lines, but I didn’t think anything of it, because that was the normal thing in Poland. We didn’t have food—you had to stand in long lines to get anything.

 

Jon Biasetti; Locke Lord; mergers & acquisitions: My father was working for CBS News. My mother was a movie actress. I was born in Brazil, so I was a Brazilian citizen, but I was also an American. My family left for Italy in 1968, so then I grew up in Rome.

 

Getting the paperwork to make the move

Shrestha: It was pretty simple. I had no issues: I had good grades, I had an acceptance letter from a good school and there was funding. So it was like, you apply to a U.S. embassy, you go for an interview and they said, “You go to school? That’s great, good luck, here’s your visa.” That’s how simple it was.

 

Kalam: I came when I was very young—4 years old. My dad was accepted to a master’s program here. He had myself and my mom waiting in Pakistan—we weren’t able to come with him at that time. He was able to get a job. He took double the class-load [in college]. He had to get permission from the dean to do that. He had to be away from us for two years before he was able to get a green card.

 

Leja: My father moved to the U.S. four years prior. My father’s entire family was already living in the U.S. It all started with his sister, who’d immigrated in the ’60s, married my uncle—who was a citizen—[then] became a citizen, then sponsored my parents, then sponsored their children one by one. It was a decades-long process. My father sponsored us, so we waited in Poland for four years. 

 

Dhenu Savla; SwagatUSA; immigration law: Coming from India, my grandmother really prized education. You had to study as much as you could. My oldest uncle was the first person to immigrate to the U.S. When he became a U.S. citizen, he had the opportunity to apply for some of his family members, so he applied for his siblings and their families. We were waiting for 10 years before we were able to come. My family was doing OK in India. It wasn’t a matter of escaping extreme poverty or suffering, but more because “We have this one-year window of time where we can try out a new opportunity and see if it works.”

 

The arrival

Shrestha: When you envision America, you envision Hollywood. I did land in Los Angeles. That was my first port of entry, so I did see some big buildings. But I ended up in The Middle of Nowhere, Iowa, pop. 5,000. Believe it or not, they did not even have McDonald’s. 

 

Savla: I remember being excited I was going to get to see snow. I had only seen [it] in pictures. I remember some of my cousins in the U.S. bringing me candy. I remember thinking, “Oh my God, maybe Americans eat a lot of candy.” My parents told me, “If you eat too much candy your teeth will rot,” so I remember thinking maybe all Americans have rotted teeth.

 

Leja: Our first trip to Cub Foods was just aisles and aisles and aisles of food, and I could not believe my eyes. The shelves went up to the ceiling. The highways in Poland at that time were single-lane highways, and here in Chicago, we have six lanes. … I’d never seen an African-American person in real life before; I’d seen them in books and I thought they were fictional characters.

 

Kalam: The only memory I have is when we were actually picked up at the airport, and I just remember being very shy around my dad, because I didn’t see him very much up until that point.

 

Leja: Only at the airport did [our mother] tell us we were coming to be reunited with my father. My brother and I were initially upset. We left our dog behind. That was obviously traumatic. But I remember that moment I saw my dad at the airport, who I hadn’t seen in four years, and running into his arms. 

 

Savla: We moved to Norwalk, Connecticut. I don’t think we were the only Indian people in our school. There were others, but they were more accepted, because they were more “American.” I spoke British English—the words were different, the spellings were different. People would mock my accent, they would mock the terminology I used, they would make fun of my clothes, they would make fun of my food. …  If there was a game, they would purposely not pick me, or everyone would cut in line in front of me, or I was the one person not invited to a birthday party. I remember playing hide-and-seek with people and they devised this cruel plan: Instead of hiding, when it was my turn to be “it,” they went home. I was trying to find people for hours. I remember coming home—for the first year, probably—crying every day.

 

Biasetti: Everything is bigger in America—bigger houses, bigger cars, bigger meals at restaurants, even bigger buildings. It’s also a much more diverse culture. Italy in the 1980s was all Italian. I loved American hot-fudge sundaes. The biggest frickin’ ice cream I’d seen in my life. I loved the cars. 

 

Why law?

Leja: Because of how grateful I was that we had an immigration attorney who helped our family and completely changed the course of my life. I wrote him a letter after I became licensed, thanking him for the inspiration. 

 

Kalam: Junior or senior year of high school, I used to volunteer at a child-abuse center. I thought I maybe would go down the road of social work. There was this female attorney who came in once a week, and she had such a presence and was able to get things done. 

 

Shrestha: I have a background in chemistry. I invented a few things when I was at Los Alamos National Lab. I invented something that contributes towards a hydrogen car of the future. I really didn’t want to go to law school, because law school’s a three-year process. I’d already been in school for nine years: four for undergrad and five for Ph.D. But I really enjoyed the patent-law aspect, and what it means to protect intellectual property and how it plays in innovation.

 

Savla: What I realized, as I grew more familiar with this country and the school system and had friends, was that other people go through this same exact range of feelings. This made me want to seek a way to empower and to feel empowered. And I couldn’t think of a better profession than the law.

 

Biasetti: There are no lawyers in my family. My mother’s family is middle class. My father’s family, they’re poor immigrants coming from Italy. Saying “I want to become a lawyer” was like saying I wanted to become an astronaut, it was so far-fetched. My college roommate was pre-law, and he talked about opportunities for lawyers in this country. I wanted to be a journalist like my father. But I got into Boston College Law, which I loved. 

 

Kalam: My dad invested a lot in us. On weekends, he’d have us doing multiplication when we should have been starting to learn how to add and subtract. It was always [known that] I would go to grad school. I remember my first acceptance letter to law school, my mom called and read it to me—that was probably the most excited I heard her.

 

Hanging on to traditions

Shrestha: I’ve accepted some American culture in our life—my kids get presents for Christmas, we have a tree—but at the same time they’re kids, so we instill some kind of traditional values. I understand it’s a melting pot. I’m not here to keep all my values. I’ve given up some, I’ve accepted a lot more, and I’ve tried to keep a few.

 

Kalam: My parents are very, very traditional. With my mom, we only speak Urdu. She only cooks Pakistani food and only wears Pakistani clothes. My husband was born and raised in Madison, Wisconsin, [to a] Norwegian family. Now we’re starting a family. Our daughter is due in January. I’m really thinking about those traditions and keeping them alive, because it’s part of my identity, and it’s going to be part of hers as a second-generation—half-second-generation?—American. I will definitely have to emphasize talking in Urdu around her. I would love for her to be able to carry that on, having traditional clothes for her and celebrating the holidays.

 

Leja: We still speak Polish to each other. I speak Polish to my children. We celebrate the Polish holidays. My kids go to Polish school on Saturdays. As a child, I did Polish dancing.

 

The Trump effect

Leja: Immigration law has always been a hot topic, not just under this president. There are statutes and regulations and case law, but in addition to that, there are policy memos being issued informally through various immigration offices in the U.S. and around the world, and there are individual officers and agents and judges who have different ways of approaching cases and rules. What’s different now is, on top of all of that, the president is making these proclamations informally. Even if the statutes and regulations largely are still unchanged, they’re being interpreted differently.

 

Savla: Everything is more stressful, everything has more hoops to jump through, forms are longer, forms are more complicated, requirements are more cumbersome. I’m seeing clients [for whom] we were in the process of filing green cards, and immigration officials are removing them for something as innocent as picking up a child at the airport. 

 

Kalam: Our immigration policies currently are very fear-based, and when things are fear-based, they come from ignorance and from the unknown. 

 

Savla: The only silver lining of all of this is: lawyers are finally on the front lines again. People are paying attention to this empowerment the law brings. They’re looking at the law again for safety. 

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