Yasmin Yavar gave up a high-paying litigation job in Houston to become a nonprofit lawyer with a mission: helping undocumented juveniles fleeing violence in their home countries obtain U.S. residency.
"I think I was always interested in immigrants. My father is Iranian, actually Kurdish, who was born and raised in India. And my mom emigrated to the U.S. from Nicaragua," Yavar says.
While her parents did not experience immigration troubles in the United States, that was not the case for many undocumented friends Yavar grew up with in Houston, she says.
"I definitely grew up around a lot of good, hard-working folks, seeing all of the issues they face. I had friends who went to high school who were undocumented and couldn’t go to college," Yavar says.
At the University of Texas School of Law, Yavar participated in the school’s Immigration Clinic. When she graduated in 2004, Yavar took a job as an associate with Mayer Brown in Houston.
But in 2007, she left for Harlingen to join the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project (ProBAR), which offers free legal services to asylum seekers who the federal government detains in South Texas.
To take that year-long job assignment, she also left behind her husband, who traveled from Houston to The Valley every weekend for visits. While she was there, Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, which contained some important changes in how courts handle undocumented juveniles.
Yavar says winning visas for undocumented juveniles can be tricky, but the 2008 act allowed juveniles for the first time to go to state court to help win U.S. legal residency. Detained juveniles can halt deportation proceedings if they prove to a state court judge that reunification with one or both parents is not possible because of abuse, abandonment or neglect and that returning to the home country is not in their best interest, among other things.
With those state court findings, juveniles can apply for a visa and eventually get a green card, Yavar says.
"I’d like to think I was one of the pioneers in trying these cases in state courts. It was really uncharted waters," Yavar says.
Dalia Castillo-Granados, staff attorney for Houston’s Kids in Need of Defense, a nonprofit that assists juvenile immigrants, also calls Yavar a "pioneer" when they both worked together in the Harris County court system to help children win visas.
"It was the first time state court judges and family court judges in Harris County were seeing these cases. We had a lot of pushback from the judges. The judges thought we were trying to go around the federal court," Castillo-Granados says. "And Yasmin and I did a lot of education."
Yavar currently works part-time as a consultant to ProBAR, mentoring lawyers from all over the nation on how to use state courts to win visas for undocumented juveniles. In May, she will return a favor to her husband by moving to Hong Kong for his job.
"We’re going to be there two years, and we’ll be back," Yavar says. "Because Houston is my home."