In their corner: Dual law student fights for the rights of refugees

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By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

A student in the Dual J.D. program at the Univeristy of Detroit Mercy School of Law and the University of Windsor Faculty of Law, Nadia Bakhtiari regularly crosses the Ambassador Bridge from Windsor to Detroit.

It’s a trip that reminds her of crossings that many people, on many borders, make or try to make – a subject that as chair of the Windsor branch of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers (CARL), is close to her heart.

“When it came to my classmates and I worrying about crossing the border recently, the community was so supportive and empathetic,” she says. “I hope we can transfer this to others who are being torn apart from their families, detained in airports, discriminated against because of race or religion, and sometimes, both.”

On February 4, CARL took part in the Canada-wide Research-A-Thon, that involved over 800 law students at every law school in Canada spending 12 hours researching legal amendments to the “Third Safe Country Agreement,” where the United States should no longer be declared a “safe” place for refugees.

“We also saw support from professors at both Windsor Law and Detroit Mercy Law who let me know they were available to be contacted throughout the day, if we needed help,” Bakhtiari says.
CARL recently held a comparative discussion on Canadian and American immigration and refugee policies with participation by Detroit Mercy Law professors Andrew Moore and Alex Vernon and Windsor Law professors Anneke Smit and Vasanthi Venkatesh.

“We wanted it to serve as an outlet for students who were overwhelmed by the Executive Order, had questions about the future of it or wanted to know what we can do as students,” Bakhtiari says. “Our main role at CARL is to engage and mobilize students to the best of our ability, and we hope to continue and be a chapter that can do just that, in times of discrimination and hatred.”

A graduate of the University of Toronto with a degree in Near and Middle Eastern Studies, Bakhtiari previously worked at non-governmental organizations in Toronto, but always found herself drawn to working with immigrants and refugees.    

“I chaired the University of Toronto Refugee Alliance, which surrounded me with student activists who inspired me and worked as a team to raise awareness around the university, through seminars and fundraisers,” she says.

Working at the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture in Toronto was the most influential experience to drawing her to studying the law.

“I realized there were many ways to act as a microphone for marginalized peoples and communities – academia, medicine, social work are some. I thought I could do the best for them, if I took the legal route,” she says.

She selected the Dual J.D. program as best suited to her interest in international human rights movements.

“I get to learn from academics with narratives unique to the United States – an experience you can’t get at most Canadian law schools,” she says. “Some of the professors have already shaped my views on the legal system, social movements, and future career goals.

“Especially with the Executive Orders at the moment, there is an urgency to get comprehensible information from the right place. That’s something the professors at Detroit Mercy Law have been doing for the public, and for their students.”

The ability to parallel and contrast various legal systems and structures for newcomers is extremely beneficial, she says.

“I believe being well versed on the rights immigrants and refugees have must be understood within a legal context of their narratives within that country—the Dual J.D. program allows that for me. Politically, the stronger comprehension of their rights in U.S. allows us in Canada to put more pressure on their laws, such as the Third Safe Country Agreement or Islamaphobic policies
that make exceptions for non-Muslim refugees.

“Needless to say, we have issues on both sides of the border in regards to refugee and immigration policies. The program, and the professors, allow us, as student activists, to mobilize our thoughts and efforts on American discriminatory policies and how they may fit in a Canadian context.”

Bakhtiari notes that refugees have been a part of shaping countries, cultures and economies throughout history – but when fear-mongering rhetoric gets attached to them, the crises are dismissed.

“The value of human life does not differ. Let’s humanize, and continue this urgency for the most vulnerable groups in our community,” she says. “It’s easy to dismiss immigration experiences for some in the United States because of the way they travelled into the country, and claim they’re negatively impacting ‘their America.’ But, this is a racist and xenophobic rhetoric and when doing so, we remove the narrative of why immigrants, migrants, refugees, asylum seekers are desperate to find safety in the first place. In the words of Warsan Shire, ‘no one puts their child in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.’”

She adds that in Windsor, the law school and the community has pushed to fight these prejudices, and to help wherever possible. The Windsor Refugee Sponsorship Program brings together sponsorship experts, pro-bono lawyers, law students, and community organizations to offer direct support to Canadians seeking to sponsor refugees; and individuals, groups and lawyers across Canada are mobilizing to help.

“There is an amazing amount of energy, and people are reaching out in a way that has not been seen in decades,” Bakhtiari says. “There are a large number of individuals who are prepared and able to sponsor Syrian refugees, but these groups require assistance in navigating the process.”

Bakhtiari and a few other law students have been a part of this so far, and in many cases, had successful applications. Since the Canadian government implemented a 1,000 cap on G5 private sponsorship, which was met in January, Bakhtiari and others are trying to put pressure on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and the Minister of Immigration/Refugee/Citizenship, to “Lift That Cap,” through a letter with more than 500 signatures.

Bakhtiari’s career goal is to work with newcomers, on either side of the border. This summer, she will work in the immigration and refugee division of an all-women’s legal clinic in Toronto.
“I’ll probably love it, so I’m not sure where I’ll go after that,” she says.

She previously enjoyed an externship at Michigan United in Detroit, working in immigration with Diego Bonesatti, head of legal services. The work, her first exposure to the American immigration system, involved conducting legal research for immigrant family’s cases before U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services, advocating for immigration reform, against detention centers and removals, and preparing applications for Deferred Actions for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). 

Originally from Thornhill, Ontario, a neighborhood in North York, north of Toronto, Bakhtiari enjoys spending time in the Motor City.

“I love that Detroiters are so proud to be from here and have such unconditional love for the city, even when their sports teams consistently let them down. It’s just like Toronto,” she says. “And I also love Dearborn – growing up in North York means I get cravings for Middle Eastern food on the daily. Dearborn is the closest fix for that.”

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