Susan J. Cohen remembers the first immigration case for which she was the lead lawyer. She was practicing corporate law at Mintz in Boston and assigned to help a Japanese potter. The man was a scholar-in-residence at Harvard University and wanted to stay permanently in Boston. Cohen recalls the man’s tradition of pottery had been handed down through seven generations of his family. At the time, Cohen was a newly minted lawyer. After amassing a notable amount of evidence, which included museum catalogues from all over the world that had displayed his work, she won the case for her client. The case was filed in 1986 and she keeps a bound copy of it in her office in honor of all her clients.
Soon after, Cohen founded the immigration law department at Mintz and has since been involved in thousands of cases. With Steven T. Taylor, she has collected the narratives of select cases in which she has had a direct hand in a new anthology called “Journeys from There to Here: Stories of Immigrant Trials, Triumphs, and Contributions.” She recently told JewishBoston that her goal for the book was to go beyond the headlines, “to understand what’s involved from start to finish in an immigrant’s journey.” She added: “We have five asylum cases in the book, and most of the cases in general were pro bono that I did without a fee. Almost all, except for a couple, were outliers. It was a challenge to pick 12 for the book.”
Additionally, Cohen is donating the proceeds of the book to the PAIR Project in Boston, which provides free immigration services to indigent asylum seekers and detained immigrants, assuring fairness and access to justice. Cohen has been involved with PAIR since its founding in 1989, taking on the first case that came to the organization. She has been a board member and, for the last decade, its president. “It’s an incredibly impactful organization,” she said. “A lot of the clients’ stories featured in the book were PAIR cases.”
Those clients come from all over the world. In 2013, a writer who thought he was safe from persecution in his native Albania for the two decades he lived in Greece received a fellowship from Harvard. When he realized Greece was no longer a viable place to live, he applied for asylumortly after he arrived in the United States. In 1989, an immigrant who received asylum after his family fled Somalia went on to become a Harvard MBA. An innovative educator in Boston, originally from Honduras, won his green card in 2020, 30 years after arriving in the United States. In her introduction, Cohen writes about one case that did not have a happy ending. A beloved math teacher from the Ivory Coast was eventually deported back to his home country in 2008.
Cohen first encountered immigration law when she worked as a paralegal before law school. She speaks fluent Spanish and was eager to use the language in her work. She answered an advertisement seeking a bilingual paralegal to assist with immigration cases. However, when she graduated from law school, she was sure she would be a litigator. But after the case of the Japanese potter, she saw there was a void in what Mintz offered their biotech and pharmaceutical company clients regarding immigration. “These companies employ foreign nationals on visas,” she said. “Mintz as their law firm did everything for them but immigration.”
Cohen put together a proposal to develop her expertise in immigration. She asked for a budget that included a dedicated immigration law library and additional expenses to attend relevant conferences. Cohen was just 27 at the time, but under her direction, Mintz’s immigration department grew to become one of the largest in the country. In addition to working for institutional clients, Cohen was intentional about embracing pro bono work, which, she noted, “has always been important to me. It’s part of the tikkun olam that I want to do in the world.”
To that end, Cohen still supervises pro bono work throughout the country. Her colleagues have worked on asylum cases and other types of humanitarian immigration-related cases for victims of domestic violence, unaccompanied minors and, most recently, Afghan refugees. “I took the first asylum case at Mintz, and today there are hundreds of them,” she said. “It has become a movement that is bigger than I am. So many of my colleagues have said their asylum cases have been some of the most meaningful work of their careers. You create a bond with a family that lasts forever. Not all of these cases end well, but we have a pretty good track record at our firm.”
Cohen’s work became even more urgent during the Trump era. The night the 2017 travel ban went into effect for people arriving in the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries, Cohen was on her way to Logan Airport until she turned around to go to the U.S. Federal Court in Boston to assist in securing a temporary restraining order on the travel ban. “My phone was ringing off the hook after Trump took office,” she said. “It was a miserable four years and we’re still trying to dig out from that. The Biden administration is doing its best but it’s going to take a long time to undo everything. There are over 400,000 asylum cases in the queue and over a million cases in the courts.”
During the Trump presidency, Cohen visited Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, on the other side of the southern border with El Paso, Texas. She visited a shelter run by a Catholic relief organization, and when she announced in fluent Spanish that she was an immigration lawyer, over 100 people quickly surrounded her. “It was heartbreaking,” she said. “People were begging me to take their case. I couldn’t represent them even though all of them had asylum claims that sounded compelling. The Biden administration is trying to facilitate placing nonprofit legal aid organizations down there. It’s critical to get lawyers to those people. If they don’t have a lawyer, the chances for success are abysmally low.”
As for what the average citizen can do in this immigration crisis, Cohen recommends becoming educated about the issue. The PAIR Project, Rian Immigrant Center and International Institute of New England list concrete steps to take in assisting immigrants and refugees. However, Cohen advises to start simple. “Ask an immigrant what they did in their home country,” she said. “Tell an immigrant you’re glad they’re here. Immigrants can feel unwanted and they’re always looking over their shoulder. They need more outreach, and expressions of empathy go a very long way.”
Susan Cohen will be in conversation with Rabbi Aliza Berger at Temple Emanuel in Newton on Thursday, March 3 (register here). She will also be appearing at the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires on Monday, March 28 (register here).