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Iranian Diaspora Spotlight: Elica Vafaie, An Iranian-American Attorney Committed to Social Justice

By Persis Karim

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Attorney Elica Vafaie, President of the IABA NorCal

Attorney Elica Vafaie, President of the Northern California Chapter of the Iranian American Bar Association (IABA NorCal) is on the front lines of fighting for social justice. Witnessing members of the Iranian and other Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian (AMEMSA) immigrants being forced to register with the federal government in the early 2000s propelled her passion for social justice. “When I saw thousands of men being put in the pipeline for deportation through a federal program called the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS or Special Registration) I knew I needed to make my focus civil, immigrant, and human rights.”

“Many of us were deeply affected by seeing members of our Iranian community, along with thousands of individuals from Egypt, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia and other nations, targeted simply because of ethnicity, race and religion.” It was a profound realization for Vafaie, that all of us are affected—“no one is immune.” Vafaie’s work is at the nexus of civil rights, immigrants’ rights, and human rights. “Our communities are intersectional and our struggles are inextricably tied to broader fights for justice,” says Vafaie.

While in law school, Vafaie was fortunate to be a student advocate at the UC Davis Immigration Law Clinic with Professors Holly Cooper and Raha Jorjani. There, she became involved with immigration law and advocacy and worked on detention and removal cases. Following law school, she worked as an Ella Baker Fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) on class action lawsuit cases involving violations of human rights of detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Her experience and training at CCR also taught her about movement lawyering and building coalitions. “These experiences cemented my commitment to social justice and have defined my career since,” says Vafaie.

Up until very recently, Vafaie worked at Advancing Justice- Asian Law Caucus (ALC) where she experienced the legal crisis sparked by the Trump Administration’s Executive Order known as the “Muslim Travel Ban.” Vafaie, like hundreds of other Bay Area attorneys, spent countless hours at the SFO airport helping families that needed emergency legal services. At ALC, she worked with coalition partners to provide direct legal services and Know Your Rights education, as well as trained other immigration lawyers on how to represent individuals impacted by the Ban. She also worked on domestic and international polices to fight against the Ban. Vafaie identifies the Ban as just one of many “executive orders and egregious assaults on immigrants, refugees, and communities of color” along with the gutting of asylum laws and the crisis of family separation at the border.

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SFO Protest in the aftermath of the Executive Order known as the “Muslim Travel Ban.” Jan. 2017. Photo courtesy of Elica Vafaie.

Vafaie’s work challenging the Muslim Travel Ban continues as part of her leadership with IABA, which filed a class action suit challenging the unlawful implementation of the Ban. “Many Iranian community members don’t realize that the Ban applies to them and is a permanent policy that is blocking the majority of Iranians from receiving a visa, even to be with their U.S. citizen family members in the U.S.”

Vafaie says she is thrilled to be a part of IABA NorCal, which is one of the Chapters of IABA, an all-volunteer national association of Iranian-American judges, attorneys, scholars, and law students in the U.S. IABA focuses on (1) educating the community on legal issues of interest to the Iranian-American community and that the public and officials are informed of these issues; (2) protecting and advancing the legal rights of Iranian-Americans; and, (3) fostering and supporting the achievements of Iranian-American lawyers and other legal professionals. In addition to many other activities, IABA’s work on the Ban is particularly meaningful to Vafaie. “IABA national has filed four class action lawsuits and filed an amicus brief with coalition partners to the U.S. Supreme Court, which was the only brief cited by Justice Breyer during oral arguments in April 2018.”

Vafaie recently started a new position as the Pro-Bono & Strategic Partnerships Director at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area (LCCR), a nonprofit legal organization that advances, protects and promotes the legal rights of communities of color, low-income people, immigrants and refugees in California. LCCR fulfills its mission by partnering with over a thousand pro bono attorneys each year to provide free civil legal assistance and representation in three priority areas: (1) Immigrant Justice; (2) Racial Justice; and (3) Economic Justice.

Despite the enormous challenges and the difficulties we are facing under the current administration, Vafaie is driven by the opportunities to step up and get engaged. “There is so much opportunity to advance social justice, we all have a critical role to play,” says Vafaie. “I’m inspired by how many people are engaged and how much the work of Iranian Americans are making us more visible, telling our longer story of our struggle for human rights and social justice.” These are indeed times of opportunity and there is so much work to be done.

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