Justice was ingrained in immigration lawyer Susan Cohen’s thinking since she was a child in New Jersey.
“My grandfather was the lawyer for the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City,” said Cohen, who now lives in Boston. “He instilled the love of law in many of us. ‘Justice, justice, thou shall pursue,’ runs deep in my family. Growing up, we had some pretty horrible antisemitic incidents in our family, and I’ve always identified with people who are marginalized. If something was unfair, I had this strong gut desire to rectify it.”
The founding chair of the immigration practice at the Mintz law firm — which has seven offices in the United States and one in London — Cohen graduated from Brandeis University with a degree in Latin American and Spanish literature. That background enabled her to find a job with an immigration lawyer before obtaining her law degree. She joined Mintz in 1985.
Initially hired as a corporate lawyer, Cohen thought she would work as a commercial litigator, but that practice ultimately didn’t resonate with her. Instead, during her first year with the firm, the young attorney worked on an immigration case — despite the firm not practicing immigration law — helping a Japanese citizen who was living in the U.S. as an artist-in-residence obtain his green card, although he had overstayed his visa.
That success buoyed Cohen’s confidence, allowing the 27-year-old to find the chutzpah to persuade the senior management at Mintz that it was in the firm’s interest to launch an immigration practice.
“I convinced them that clients of ours were using other firms for their immigration business,” Cohen said. “They took a chance on me to prove myself. Slowly but surely, I was able to build an immigration practice that, over decades, became a go-to practice.”
Cohen said that in addition to the corporate clients she has helped, the firm has taken an important role in pro bono work, defending the rights of immigrants. She called the corporate and pro bono work the “yin and yang” of the firm. The slow and steady practice begun by Cohen has grown to include a team that works on immigration and asylum.
Cohen has compiled the stories behind several of her cases in her book “Journeys from There to Here: Stories of Immigrant Trials, Triumphs and Contributions” (River Grove Books, October 2021).
Each chapter recounts the case of one individual or family and highlights some of the shortcomings and obstacles in the United States immigration policy while showing possibilities for reform.
Along the way, readers are given firsthand accounts of the trials and tribulations of asylum seekers and others hoping to escape oppression and abuse, while making contributions to the world.
Cohen recounts the struggles of Peng Xu, who escaped to America after running afoul of China’s one child policy; Armenian poet and intellectual Gazmend Kapplani; Somali Jamal Ali Hussein; and numerous other men and women who braved smugglers, harsh government edicts and armed conflicts to make it to the U.S.
The immigration expert said she wanted to show how people can be taken advantage of not just by the system, but by mistakes and errors made by the government.
“A lot of people say, ‘Why don’t people get in line? They should be doing it right.’ I think a lot of people who aren’t close to the process would have no idea, without reading the book, the kind of ways people can be swept into this radically protracted stressful process for reasons that are not of their own,” she said.
Peng Xu’s story highlights the errors inherent in the system. After being detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Xu was released onto the streets of Boston unable to speak or read English, with no information about the city or help reaching his uncle in New York. The Chinese citizen was completely unprepared for the trials of an American city, having never even seen a revolving door.
Luckily, Cohen was able to locate the frightened immigrant before he came to harm.
Cohen said that everyone needs a good support system and that immigrants and asylum seekers, like those she wrote about, have no guarantee of legal counsel.
“There’s no right to an immigration lawyer like you have if you’re accused of a crime,” she said. “You have to be able to find a lawyer, pay for a lawyer or find a nonprofit that provides opportunities for pro bono legal service. It’s really important to support organizations so they can continue to be a resource for people that can’t afford it because that’s the difference in success rates.”
The author, who is donating the proceeds of her book to political asylum organizations, said she’s gained as much as the people she’s helped.
“I feel blessed and honored to have gotten to know so many of my clients,” she said. “I’ve had the good fortune to have been able to work with thousands of people, and I’m truly in awe of just about all of them, even the ones with plain vanilla cases. I’ve had the chance to see a huge spectrum of immigrants, and they’re, for the most part, incredibly decent, good, hardworking people who obey the law, value the principles of democracy and are just good neighbors,” she said.
Cohen will speak at City of Asylum on Jan. 31. at 7 p.m. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.