State College Magazine

Protecting Human Rights

The United States’ immigration statute has been compared second in complication to the tax code — and that appealed to Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia when she was attending law school at Georgetown.

“It’s a dense law that is full of references and cross references and sometimes contradictions so it was really a puzzle for me intellectually,” says Wadhia, Samuel Weiss Faculty Scholar and clinical professor of law at Penn State. “I also wanted to marry whatever I did in the field of law with my passion for civil rights, social justice (and) human rights.”

Wadhia, an immigration lawyer with more than 20 years of experience, joined the faculty at Penn State Law in 2008 to establish the Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, of which she is the director. The center is “the heart” of immigration work that is done in the community through the law school and the place where law students learn about a variety of immigration issues by doing.

The center formed a collaboration with the State College borough and the police department in 2014, after an Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid of several local Asian restaurants resulted in deportations.

Wadhia says positives have come out of the partnership, including a written policy that State College police won’t ask about immigration status. State College has “policies in place that are lawful, that are welcoming and that send a message to everyone including immigrants that they’re welcome here.”

Immigration law is hard work, Wadhia says. But winning protection for an individual or family that has been through unbelievable circumstances — torture, abuse, persecution — is a reminder that “this work is bigger than yourself.”

And it’s not always hardship that prompts immigrants’ journeys to America. “There’s equal gratification in helping people excel or achieve or realize their dreams.”

On July 1, she started another position as associate dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the law school. She’s looking not only at immigration issues, but also broader issues of equity and inclusion, including race relations, as well as issues that affect the LGBTQ community and first-generation students. The work involves cooperation with students, faculty and staff “so that we can move forward with tangible results that are more than just equity on a piece of paper.”

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