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Volume 33, Issue 8
INSIDE ON CAMPUS
Parisa Fatehi, Law
Parisa Fatehi graduates this month with a joint degree in law and public affairs and hopes her career can contribute to decreasing some of the world's social and economic inequalities
Photo: Christina Murrey
It was law student Parisa Fatehi’s work in the community with immigrants, day laborers and Katrina evacuees that landed her the job of introducing Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama to 20,000 people gathered on the banks of Austin’s Town Lake last February.
“We need a new level of understanding about one another,” said Fatehi, adding this includes accepting a belief in community and that “we are linked to each other.”
In a recent interview, as in her introduction speech, Fatehi recounted her experience as a law student providing legal services to immigrant families detained for lengthy periods in the Hutto Detention Center—a former prison—located northeast of Austin.
She said the sight of hundreds of young kids detained in prison-like conditions just because their parents sought a better life for them inspires her to help those who are often forgotten and misunderstood.
One of her clients was a 24-year-old pregnant woman from Central America who was detained at the center along with her eight-month-old baby. Fatehi and another student attorney in the Immigration Law Clinic successfully argued in court that the woman, who was seeking asylum, be released from the detention center pending a trial.
As a student in the Transnational Workers Rights Clinic, Fatehi helped immigrant workers in Austin obtain unpaid wages for work they completed. “They are entitled to a minimum wage regardless of their immigration status,” she said. During one summer, she worked on policies protecting low-wage and immigrant worker rights at the National Employment Law Project in New York City.
Last summer, she clerked at the Texas Civil Rights Project. This year, she worked part-time at the Center for Public Policy Priorities focusing on issues such as access to healthcare for low-income children.
Fatehi, who graduates this month with a joint degree in law and public affairs, says she is also inspired by her family’s experience. Her parents left Iran with Parisa and her brother in 1978 and settled in Austin, where her father received his doctorate at the university. They became U.S. citizens in 1998.
She says she’s motivated in part to work with immigrant populations because of challenges her parents experienced by not always speaking their first language and beginning anew in a foreign country with two young children. “But they were very dedicated to their communities, new and old,” she said.
“I didn’t become a citizen until I was a sophomore in college, so I really have a clear sense that you are the same person whether you are on this side of the line or the other,” said Fatehi, who speaks fluent Farsi and has visited Iran three times since her birth there.
“You’re important and valuable to your community regardless of your immigration status,” she said.
“There are movements to restrict immigrant access to education and healthcare but I think that’s unfortunate,” Fatehi said. “We are living in the same community. When you start denying some of your neighbors access to basic rights and services, the whole community will be the worse for it.”
Over the past year, Fatehi has also devoted time to two city commissions. She was appointed to the Austin Commission on Immigrant Affairs and the Day Labor Community Advisory Committee. Her service in the latter grew directly out of the work she did in the Transnational Workers’ Rights Clinic. Other community involvement included volunteering at the Austin Convention Center’s shelter for Katrina evacuees in September 2005.
Fatehi received her B.A. in the Plan II Honors Program with a concentration in government from UT in 2001. As an undergraduate, she served as president of the student body and also restarted a campus organization for Iranian students to participate in cultural activities. As a graduate student she co-founded the Middle Eastern Law Students’ Association, served as president of the American Constitution Society and co-chaired law student efforts to establish a loan repayment assistance program.
For her extraordinary commitment to public service and human rights, Fatehi was named a Human Rights Scholar for 2005-06 and selected as a Public Service Scholar for 2006-07. Recently, she also received a University Co-op Public Interest Award. At the end of this summer, Fatehi will begin a clerkship with a federal district judge in Houston.
Fatehi is particularly interested in pursuing a career that builds on her interests of serving low-income populations, immigrant rights, civil rights, access to social services and healthcare, and community-based solutions. “In some small way, I hope that my career can contribute to decreasing the social and economic inequalities that surround us,” she said.