Law student steps from the shadows to advocate for millions of immigrants


By Jordan Poll
U-M Law

Every year, August 28 is both a joyous and trying time for law student Akash Patel and his family. On August 28, 2009, Patel and his parents were granted their long-awaited green cards only to find out that his older sister, Nisha, was denied hers. On that date in 2015, Patel and his parents became official U.S citizens-a reminder that even though they had made it so far, their story was not complete. While the anniversary of August 28 arouses many conflicting emotions in Patel and his family, it is also represents his biggest motivation in life and his primary reason for choosing to study law at the University of Michigan.

In the early 1990s, Patel's parents travelled from India to London and finally to the U.S to give him and his sister a better life. However, protracted wait times meant that Nisha "aged out" of his family's original application for citizenship. She was forced to reapply and start the waiting process over again, which can take an average of 16 years. All the while, she would have no choice but to continue living as an undocumented immigrant. For Nisha, this meant that she was unable to apply for graduate school, receive pay for her research, travel, take internships, or even accept the job offers she received from the University of Oklahoma.

The creation of the government's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) program in 2012, turned all of that around for Nisha and the numerous other undocumented immigrants like her. The very year Nisha received her DACA approval, she was accepted into the University of Oklahoma's graduate program for microbiology, where she published her groundbreaking discovery of a new species of stomach bacteria. Today, Nisha collaborates with scientists around the world to research advances in health and disease using genetics. Despite her many contributions to a country she has lived in since the age of seven, it is unlikely Nisha will be recognized as a legal citizen before her 45th birthday.

Nisha's story of hope and perseverance has inspired Patel in many aspects of his life including the founding of a non-profit organization called Aspiring Americans during his undergraduate study at the University of Oklahoma.

"The whole goal was to find other Nishas and help them," explained Patel. "My whole life, my sister has been my advocate so now it is my turn to advocate for her."

Aspiring Americans has raised more than $300,000 in scholarships, grants, workshops, and clinics with pro bono immigration attorneys to support undocumented immigrant students and their families. The organization has reached more than 500 families, but that number increases daily.

"I know what it is like to live in the shadows as one of those 11 million undocumented immigrants because I was one of those people. My family lived like that for 16 years," said Patel, who remains an advisor to Aspiring Americans even as his studies take him to the halls of Michigan Law.

Patel hopes to honor his heritage and his deeply rooted connection to the undocumented community by pursuing a career in litigation.

"I plan to be in a position where I am not only able to advocate for people who are struggling because of deficiencies in social legal systems but able to contribute to reforms across those systems," he said.

It's a dream he would not otherwise have been able to chase without the support of the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans, which annually supports the graduate educations of 30 "New Americans" who are permanent residents or naturalized citizens. Patel was chosen as one of the recipients during the fellowship's most competitive year to date. He says that while the gift made Michigan Law an option, its biggest impact was the one that reached beyond him to his family.

"My parents made a lot of sacrifices moving from India, then to London, then the U.S caring for my sister and me-investing all of themselves into us," Patel explained. "It is really gratifying that I can give back to my parents with the support of other generous people."

Nearly a month into his first year, Patel is already making the most of his time at MLaw by diving into the community through numerous student organizations and by studying his many interests, including the intersection of immigration and education. "U-M is an incubator of social innovation and justice," said Patel. "It isn't just smart people trying to do good things. It is smart people trying to do things together to be a part of something bigger than themselves. That I could find my place here is a great feeling."

Published: Fri, Sep 23, 2016