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Lending His Voice – In Their Language

Jayesh Rathod counsels workers with immigration problems—breaking the occasional stereotype along the way

By Timothy Pratt

Jayesh Rathod founded the Immigrant Justice Clinic at the American University Washington College of Law.

STORY TOOLS

At least once a week, Jayesh Rathod would find himself surrounded by dozens of immigrant workers milling in and around the trailer that served as a makeshift office in Takoma Park, Md. Wearing jeans, a sweatshirt and sneakers, he would tell jokes in spotless Spanish to one man, then turn and listen closely to another man’s tangled legal case.

Sometimes the very next day, wearing a gray suit, Rathod would stand in court, arguing, with surprising success, in favor of the same immigrants.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth Keyes, like Rathod a recent law school graduate at the time, would look on in awe—at Rathod’s ability to get work done in the “barely managed chaos” of the trailer, his seamless transition from the street to the courtroom, and his complete command of a second language.

The two were colleagues for several years nearly a decade ago at CASA of Maryland, a nonprofit organization that helps immigrants. The trailer served as an informal site for laborers, about a mile from the group’s central office. 

And though Rathod went to court dozens of times during his tenure, Keyes recalls that it was at the doublewide trailer where he “really thrived.”
This jibes with Rathod’s description of himself, now 15 years into a career that has taken him from researching the rights of workers in Peru to teaching as well as running an immigrant law clinic at the American University Washington College of Law—with stops along the way that include interning for Hon. Sonia Sotomayor, then at the U.S. Court of Appeals, Second Circuit. 

‘Keeping it Real’
“I always like to come back to the phrase, ‘Keeping it real,’” he says, adding, “I have a deep appreciation for the experience of my clients.” 
That appreciation comes from his own experience, which includes being the child of immigrants. His parents came from India in 1970; Rathod was born five years later in Chicago, where he remembers growing up in immigrant-packed neighborhoods among many languages and backgrounds.  Rathod was bright, but when he got to Harvard, he remembers experiencing “culture shock … in the East Coast prep school environment.”

A summer job at the end of Rathod’s freshman year changed his life. A tour guide company needed someone to write copy for its Mexico edition; Rathod, who had studied Spanish in high school, got the job. A plane took him from Boston to Brownsville, Tex. From there he took a bus to Matamoros, Mexico. He wound up traveling throughout Mexico. In Mexico City, he recalls, “riding the subway, I was just another brown face in the crowd.” In small towns, however, “people would look me up and down, and ask, ‘What is that?’” His Spanish, with its neutral accent and perfect grammar, only brought more confused looks.

In 1994, he also ran across the Zapatista guerrilla movement. Within a year, he would find himself returning to Chiapas, where the movement was based, to research what would become his undergraduate thesis. He sat in on public meetings in the jungle and saw firsthand the material conditions of people with next to nothing. “For me, that was transformative,” Rathod says. “Although they were poor, they lived with dignity. That got me squarely focused on the social justice track.”

Riding a Vehicle of Change
By the time Rathod graduated from Harvard, “I was thinking about law as a transformational vehicle of change,” he says.
The next few years of law school at Columbia University included an internship with Sotomayor, where he learned “how you can operate as a person of color in the legal profession while truly being yourself. [Sotomayor] was the consummate professional, while not losing who she was.”

Rathod never turned back or forgot who he was, either. Within two years of graduating, he was at CASA. Executive Director Gustavo Torres, who has led the organization for 15 years, says the “beauty of (Rathod) was that he was bilingual and bicultural. He communicated with workers very well.”
Torres recalls meeting Rathod and assuming he couldn’t speak Spanish. “We are full of stereotypes,” Torres allows. “But when he started to talk, it was another thing,.”

Rathod’s former boss also values the young attorney’s contributions to CASA’s strategic plan. “He was right there with us, and not only was interested in providing services, but also in building power for the community,” Torres says, crediting Rathod with helping build membership into the organization, which has grown to 36,000 in less than a decade.

Rathod also became a go-to expert for the media, Torres says: “In CNN en Español, they treat him like another Latino.”

Still Working With the People
In 2006, Rathod returned to academia as an associate professor of law at the American University Washington College of Law. But he didn’t leave behind his work with everyday people, founding the school’s Immigrant Justice Clinic. Keyes, who also joined the college in 2009, says she would see Rathod helping the same sort of clients there as he did in the doublewide trailer years earlier.

“It was the same guys, the same connection,” she says. “That’s the thing about him—he’s completely genuine, no matter where he is.”
She flashes back on her time at CASA, where “it took me two years working side-by-side to know he went to Harvard,” she says. “Not just in my field, but in general, Harvard is one of those biographical details that usually comes out pretty quickly.”

But not with the demure Rathod, who admits, “In some ways, I’m embarrassed by my academic credentials. People make assumptions about who you are.” As a professor, he says, “I want to bring the experience of real life back to academia.”

Along the way, he has not only challenged stereotypes—about who speaks Spanish, who understands the culture and who should stick up for whom. He has also helped thousands of immigrants. “I hear, ‘thank you so much for helping our people.’ On the one hand, it’s really nice. But on the other, why is there even a question? It would be nice to get to the point where we’re all one.”

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