Recently, I talked with one of our 2018 Bank of America Foundation Fellows, Arianna Cook-Thajudeen. Arianna is currently entering her second year as a BOAF Fellow at the National Housing Law Project in San Francisco. Through her project, Arianna is facilitating immigrant communities’ access to affordable housing through litigation, education, and advocacy. I talked to Arianna about her first year at NHLP, her advice for law students, and how she got where she is.
KMB: Lightning round: Introduce yourself, where you are working, and generally what you are doing. What do you do day-to-day? Client work, policy, etc?
ACT: I am a legal fellow at the National Housing Law Project. Although we don’t directly represent clients, we do engage in impact litigation. Our work primarily centers on policy advocacy and providing technical assistance to other attorneys on housing law issues. Most of the work that we do revolves around federally subsidized housing laws and regulations, which are really complicated.
My work centers on immigrant housing rights. There have been a couple of regulations coming out of the current administration that are very anti-immigrant and our position is they are largely motivated by racial animus.
A large part of fighting these rules is getting people to participate in the regulations’ public comment periods. As part of this work I have given presentations explaining what the rules are, how they work, and why they are unfair and harmful to immigrants. As part of this, I also drafted comment letter templates that individuals and organizations used to help draft their own comments.
It’s actually a little hard to describe what I do—policy advocacy is multi-faceted and takes many forms. I have written blog posts about housing rules to spread awareness, created a lot of resources both for advocates and people directly impacted by the rules, and participated in webinars to try and reach as broad of an audience as possible. The anti-immigrant rules I’ve been working against don’t actually impact all immigrants. The rules are quite complicated, and not all immigration statuses are affected. However, there’s a wide misperception that all immigrants are under threat, creating a chilling effect where people who wouldn’t be directly harmed by the rule are forgoing benefits they are legally entitled to have.
KMB: Can you give me a specific example of something you have worked on?
ACT: Two public comment campaigns I have worked on have been really successful in getting people to participate in the public comment process. The first was on the Department of Homeland Security’s Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds rule. The rule makes it harder for low-income immigrants to receive a green card or admission into the U.S. The rule impacted several benefits programs, so NHLP partnered with the Protecting Immigrant Families Campaign which took the lead on organizing hundreds of advocacy organizations nationwide. In total the campaign was incredibly successful—over 260,000 comments were submitted—the vast majority of which opposed the rule.
The more recent regulation I have been working to oppose is from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which is known as the “mixed status” rule. If it is finalized, it will effectively evict 25,000 immigrant families from subsidized housing. NHLP partnered with the National Low Income Housing Coalition to create the Keep Families Together Campaign. Over 30,000 comments were submitted during the public comment period, the vast majority of which opposed the rule. This was a pretty big accomplishment considering that the previous highest number of comments submitted on a HUD rule was about 2,000.
KMB: Why is your job important? What need are you meeting? What would happen if you and your group weren’t there?
ACT: I don’t want to say that NHLP is the only voice fighting out against horrible immigration regulations by any means, but we are playing a significant role in fighting back against a lot of these horrible regulations. The rules I’ve worked on are only a small part of the current administration’s anti-immigrant regulatory agenda. There are two more regulations in the pipeline that we expect to be proposed soon.
In addition to all of the policy work that we do, NHLP is a huge supporter of other legal services attorneys who have questions about various housing programs they don’t have time to become experts on.
KMB: What about private attorneys? Most students here will go into private practice. How do private attorneys pitch in on your work?
ACT: Pro bono counsel plays a huge support role in a lot of the impact litigation that we work on. Recently a private firm helped us draft an amicus brief we submitted in support of several law suits against the DHS’ Public Charge Rule. Additionally, individual attorneys are really great people to submit comments against regulations since they understand the legal processes. Private attorneys can play a role in fighting back against harmful rules and regulations by reaching out to congress members.
KMB: Tell us a story to help us understand the challenge and the rewards of your work. Tell us about one of your clients, about something interesting or surprising that’s happened to you.
ACT: It was a bit of a surprise when we did end up getting over 30,000 comments submitted on the HUD rule. It was the first time NHLP had taken the lead on a public comment campaign like this and we didn’t know what to expect. We set an initial goal of 25,000 comments (one for every mixed status family that stands to be evicted if the rule is finalized) submitted, which we recognized at the time was ambitious, but we ended up surpassing that goal. It’s really hard to measure the effectiveness of these policy outreaches, so having something that is more tangible like the number of comments submitted makes it easier to see the impact our work has.
KMB: Briefly, what is the path that took you to this job? Is this something you imagined doing when you entered law school? How did you get from where the first year students are sitting today to your fellowship?
ACT: This is not the job that I imagined having when I started law school. I didn’t know that this kind of job existed because I had the idea that the only legal jobs that existed were private practice, public defender, or prosecutor’s office. There is a great big world of non-profit legal work that I would encourage all law students to explore. There is a lot of great work you can do and you can always transition over into another legal arena in the future. I don’t think I will—I really love the work I am doing now!
In terms of finding this legal career path, I have to give big thanks to Professor Jones. I participated in the Appalachia externship, which opened my eyes to the possibilities of legal aid work.
KMB: Think back to your first year of law school. What were your impressions when you started law school about public interest law? Were there stereotypes? What was the buzz? Then talk about how the reality may differ from what you thought originally.
ACT: I literally thought public interest law was being a government attorney like a public defender or a prosecutor. That’s definitely not the case. There’s a huge world of legal aid and legal non-profits out there.
KMB: How do you manage your student debt? How can you afford to do this work?
ACT: Thank you Notre Dame! We have a really great LRAP program. Right now Notre Dame is covering all of my loan payments. I am not in the same income bracket as people doing big law by any means, but I’m also not desperately poor. I’m currently living in San Francisco (one of the most expensive cities in the country) and doing just fine.
KMB: Do you have any other advice you want to give to 1Ls?
ACT: If you’re even just a little curious about public interest law, take at least one class at Notre Dame that offers insight into what public interest law is actually like. Extern at Indiana Legal Services, or Notre Dame’s public defender program. If you’re really interested in it, get as many different kinds of public interest exposures as you can. There’s a big difference between the direct client work I did at Indiana Legal Services and what I am doing now with policy work.
Arianna is happy to speak with students interested in public interest, housing law, or San Francisco. If you want her contact info, reach out to me and I am happy to connect you.