Professor Sumangala Bhattacharya leads two lives: one as a professor of British literature at Pitzer College and another as an immigration attorney and owner of the solo law firm ImmPowered Law Office. In spring 2022, Bhattacharya’s lives came together for the first time when she offered a new praxis course, Immigration Advocacy Clinic: Humanitarian Immigration, to invite undergraduate students to a rare opportunity to help with legal cases.
Bhattacharya’s course involved three of her clients: a family of four seeking asylum from government persecution, a 19-year-old pursuing Special Immigration Juvenile Status, and a mother and daughter looking for U nonimmigrant status (known as a U Visa) for victims of certain crimes—in this case, extortion. Bhattacharya and her students offered their time and support to the clients, who would have otherwise had to pay thousands of dollars to hire private attorneys. The students, including many first-years and sophomores, were responsible for communicating with the clients, translating documents, and compiling research for country reports as Bhattacharya prepared the final forms and court documents.
“This is stuff that you would do as law school students,” said Bhattacharya. “It’s amazing for our students to be doing this work and doing it so well—better than the law students!”
The class had to approach the official documentation in a detached, clinical way in order to satisfy the law, but they also had to navigate the cultural barriers, power dynamics, generational differences, and relived trauma of the people they were helping. Whether they were directly or indirectly working with the clients, the students had to find a delicate balance between fulfilling the law’s requirements while accommodating the humanity and the deep emotions involved.
“There’s the law, there’s social and cultural research, and there’s the personal dynamics,” said Bhattacharya.
At Pitzer’s academic festival at the end of spring 2022, many students from the class talked about these experiences. The clients spoke a different dialect of Spanish than the students who were also native Spanish speakers, which added a secondary layer of translation. For the asylum case, students had to research how the clients’ story fit into legal definitions of broader groups of people whose persecution is recognized under asylum law.
First-year student Aru Warrier ’25 said the clinic embodies Pitzer’s core value of social responsibility.
“The history of immigration, current affairs, and law are all brought together to empower students in their education to assist others, which has been a humbling experience,” Warrier said. “This class style has been one of the most effective tools to examine the implications of policies and act collectively to instill change, which has defined my first-year experience at Pitzer.”
Although the course involved a lot of practical work in the legal field, students also saw the broader social implications through an interdisciplinary lens, which is a staple of Pitzer academics.
“I’m not trying to go into law, but I did see a lot of intersectionality between different issues as I was talking to the client,” said first-year student Eliana Meza-Ehlert ’25. “I thought about the way the education system can better support young children who don’t speak English. The client talked about throwing her child into a school where he doesn’t speak the language and how hard that transition was.”
Bhattacharya also saw the clinic as an opportunity for the class to recognize their privilege as college students who speak English and have access to computers, which can make an enormous difference in people’s lives.
Bhattacharya, who is an immigrant from Kolkata, India, described her own challenging experience with the US immigration system.
“I remember as someone with a PhD, I was terrified I’d fill something in wrong when I was doing this process,” said Bhattacharya. “We’re talking about people who are fighting deportation. Our clients just want to be safe and be able to work and feed their families.”
Bhattacharya has been working for many years to help people navigate and understand the immigration system. Her law office specializes in asylum and other humanitarian visas, naturalizations, green cards, family and employment-based immigration, DACA renewals, and student immigration issues. She is the board president of the Refugee Children Center and a volunteer attorney for Riverside Legal Aid and the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project. Bhattacharya, who was recently appointed special assistant to the president for conduct infrastructure review at Pitzer, also served as an immigration consultant and script advisor on an indie short film, Bienvenidos a Los Angeles, which was accepted for the 2022 LA Shorts International Film Festival.
For the summer of 2022, Bhattacharya hired three students from the class—Warrier, Kassandra Soriano Martinez ’25, and Cristian Rosales-Cardenas ’25—as Immigration Advocacy Clinic Fellows paid by Pitzer’s summer research assistant fund to continue supporting her cases. Depending on how the timing lines up with future clients, Bhattacharya hopes to offer the clinic as a course again. “We at Pitzer believe that if there is something we can do to help that will make the world a better place, not because it’s going on our resume but because it will make a difference, I think we do that,” said Bhattacharya.