A Q&A with Sonia Lin ’08 on making a difference for immigrants’ rights through local government

Sonia Lin ’08 began working in the field of immigrants’ rights shortly after the 9/11 attacks of 2001 as a paralegal case handler in the Immigration Law Unit of the Legal Aid Society in New York. “I saw…the effects of the backlash against immigrant communities, particularly Muslim and South Asian communities,” Lin says. “And I became committed to do what I could to advance the rights of our immigrant community members.”

Sonia Lin portrait
Sonia Lin ’08

At NYU Law, Lin was a Root-Tilden-Kern (RTK) Scholar and a student within the Immigrant Rights Clinic. After law school, she clerked for Judge Denny Chin, then of the US District Court for the Southern District of New York, served as a public interest fellow at employment law firm Outten & Golden, and taught in Cardozo School of Law’s Immigration Justice Clinic. In 2014, Lin joined the New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA), where she now serves as deputy commissioner and general counsel.

In a Q&A, Lin discusses her work at MOIA and how she has drawn on her experience at NYU Law as she has built her public interest career.

Since you began working at the Mayor’s Office for Immigrant Affairs in 2014, the national landscape on immigration policy has changed significantly. How has your work changed over that time?

From a big picture sense, our priorities and our approach have really not changed that much—ensuring an inclusive and welcoming environment for immigrants in New York City, supporting immigrant access to justice, and advocating for the rights of our immigrant residents—but of course the national climate has changed tremendously, and that has impacted New Yorkers and our work at MOIA.

A big difference is the level of intensity and urgency as immigrant communities grapple with the tremendous fear and confusion caused by federal immigration developments, and the impact of families being separated.

Some things we’re putting more emphasis on: working with partners in local government to keep city services safe and accessible, and emphasizing know-your-rights work and community education and engagement. We also work in coalition with sister cities across the country, and that work has grown tremendously as we all recognize the importance of the local government perspective on national immigration issues and our shared interest in advocacy for our residents.

How has your own role evolved? Are there particular projects that you’re especially proud of?

I’ve been very fortunate to work on some significant, impactful programs and policies at MOIA, from the launch of IDNYC, New York City’s municipal identification card, to the development of ActionNYC, our community-based immigration legal services program, to local legislation restricting cooperation with federal immigration enforcement except in circumstances related to public safety.

Recently, I was so proud that we announced a new investment to support “rapid response” legal services for immigrants facing potentially imminent detention and deportation. And I’m so excited about the work the city is doing, with many partners and collaborators, to push back against regulatory changes that would profoundly alter legal immigration to favor the wealthy and create additional fear in communities. Earlier this month, we won an injunction against the “public charge” rule that will prevent it from going into effect for now!

Are there particular experiences from your time at the Law School that were especially meaningful to you, or that you continue to draw upon in your work today?

Both the Immigrant Rights Clinic and the RTK program were incredible experiences. Through the clinic I gained really solid lawyering skills, and the intellectual and social justice framework for the work that I wanted to do. And through the RTK program, and through NYU Law’s large and diverse public interest community generally, I found community. Some of my closest friends are from my time in law school, working in different public interest capacities. I continue to learn so much from them.

I’m also fortunate to work with several NYU Law alums at MOIA. Colleen Duffy ’11 is our assistant general counsel here at MOIA, and an incredible leader for our team. And we also have Martin Kim ’15, a policy advisor who has great expertise on a range of issues, from educational equity to health access for immigrants. We also had Maribel Hernández Rivera ’10 on the team who lead our immigrant access to justice portfolio—she is now the district director for [US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez]. We were actually all in the Immigrant Rights Clinic. Earlier this year, there was a celebration of the Clinic at the Law School, and we all went back. It was great to see so many old friends. And it was awesome to have a contingent from MOIA at that gathering.

What advice do you have for current or prospective students who are interested in getting involved in immigrants’ rights work?

Students who are interested in immigrants’ rights might not necessarily think of local government. But I’ve found that, especially in this climate, being in local government is a really great place to make an impact and support our communities.  You can share ideas and develop them, put them into practice, and see them implemented.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Posted October 24, 2019