Jul. 17, 2020
An Interview with: Deepak Ahluwalia by Mallika Kaur & Marie Crochard
Next in the Negotiating Trauma & the Law Series, interview with Fresno-based immigration lawyer on the importance of giving clients more control; on the imperative of habits to stay healthy in difficult trauma-inducing work.
Marie Crochard & Mallika Kaur: When many of us think about immigration law today, we think about high emotions, high stakes and lots of trauma. Has immigration practice for you been what you expected?
Deepak Ahluwalia: It's what I expected in terms of being able to help the families and contributing in a small or big way. Back in law school, one of the first cases I worked on was for an undocumented Mexican worker who had been living and working in the United States for over 20 years. Unfortunately, he was robbed and shot multiple times, resulting in him being paralyzed waist-down. Luckily, we were successful in obtaining him a green card... I gravitated towards becoming an immigration lawyer.
Now, I knew that immigration law was a challenging endeavor. But I don't think even someone as seasoned as the of counsel to my firm, with over 40 years of experience, would have foreseen the ongoing slaughter of immigration law, which we are all witnessing during the current administration. These last few years have been a high of emotions, stakes and trauma. Mostly bad to be honest. Still, we try to continue marching forward and providing a voice to the voiceless.
MC & MK: Were cases earlier in your career much harder, emotionally? there any case that has always stayed with you, maybe cautioned you, or guided you?
DA: I think the first two cases I worked on will always stay with me. They were both detained cases, which basically means that the merits of their asylum case had to be heard without them being released out on bond. For the first trial, I miraculously won the hearing before a judge in South Texas. I thought I was a natural and my ego was obviously boosted since the firm I was working for at that time had never obtained a victory in that court. During my next merits hearing, at the same court, I employed the same strategy and was beaten down. The immigration judge was anything but an unbiased arbiter. I learned that I won the first case because I had an amazing immigration judge visiting from Maryland and the second time I had a visiting judge from New York who was recently appointed and had no previous immigration law experience. These two hearings taught me a valuable lesson: to research the heck out of who your immigration judge is. Unfortunately, merits hearings for asylum cases have become more of a lottery system, where the outcome of your case is decided well before, just based on who your immigration judge is, which we have no control over.
Now I have a simple philosophy when it comes to my clients. I share all the information I have. This disrupts the old-school traditional lawyering approach of controlling all information; keeping clients in the dark in fact, even as they are billed! So, in the context of litigation, I tell my clients whether the assigned judges is one that is likely to grant them their requested relief. For all other sorts of immigration cases, be it employment-based or family, I give them realistic expectations based on current policy trends. This is also a way for me to protect myself mentally. No matter how the case ends up being decided, I know that I have been honest with them while doing my very best.
MC & MK: Could you speak to your own journey coming from an immigrant family, and how that informs your work?
DA: My family immigrated to Canada in the mid 90s. Due to various reasons, my father had to restart his life from scratch in Canada. He drove a cab in Brampton, Ontario, while my mom worked at a local factory which made auto parts. We faced all the typical immigrant struggles: racism, job discrimination, lack of resources, trouble acclimating to a new country. But my mother and father persevered. Sadly, my father passed away three to four years after buying our family home, and when I was only 16. From that point on, I worked two jobs during high school and college, in my pursuit to afford law school. All these experiences form the basis of how I speak, treat and deal with my clients. I understand their frustrations, their impatience, their struggle.
MC & MK: Some may say personal experiences with the same kinds of trauma put you too close to your work, your clients. What's your take on that, and on boundaries for self-care?
DA: Honestly, I would say, I know attorneys do not have a good reputation when it comes to being emotionally or mentally stable, but I have a great support system... The only cases that can sometimes get to me are the families with the young children. I think it triggers me because I come from those same circumstances. But overall, I do not do anything extra to emotionally prepare myself for those cases... what I do on a regular basis in terms of detaching myself has always worked for me, even when it comes to those cases.
I think my wife plays a good part in keeping me mentally strong. I am someone who has always worked 60 hours a week and more, but she is really good at helping me disconnect. With the birth of our daughter, I am also better at putting on the "do not disturb" mode when I get home and I work from home on Fridays now. I feel that I am better at realizing there are things that can wait.
I make sure to keep things constant in my life: the twice a day walks with Ollie, my German Shepherd; my weekly wing-chun training... and I have the same set of friends since I was a teenager, who do a great job of keeping me in check! And my complete release has always been playing soccer. No matter how tired I am, if I have time, I still go play some pickup soccer.
MC & MK: You continue to have several community service and volunteer board and advisor positions -- with the Sikh Coalition, Sikh Family Center, ChangeLawyers, California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice. Does that additional work eat into your self-care, or then contribute toward it?
DA: Volunteering, or serving others, is a central tenant of the Sikh faith. The Punjabi Sikh community raised me. I am fortunate that I am able to serve. This facet of my life helps with my self-care because it allows me to stay grounded and humbled when I see what others have to deal with. We can at times live in a selfish world, where the only things that matter are our own problems!
MC & MK: After a few years of practice, you set up your own firm. Was this for philosophical reasons, were there things you hoped to do better?
DA: The firms I worked at often treated our immigrant clients like numbers... used to sign many clients every day, knowing that we were not equipped for all this work. That is exactly the type of emotional trauma that was very tough for me to handle: knowing that I had taken all of these cases and that I could not deliver.
When I felt quite burnt out, I realized it was a blessing in disguise: I needed to open my own office. I am very good at not operating my firm as a factory mill! I think that is also why I am not mentally and physically exhausted. I take recommendations from my staff. For example, with the current corona virus pandemic, we decided all together to close the office even before the shutdown. I take feedback from my team, to the point that they even sometimes say "Deepak we are not doing this anymore." Never could they do this in Big Law!
I consider myself very fortunate that I love what I do, I am good at what I do and I am never in a space where I feel that this is not for me.