Azadeh Shahshahani (Zachary D. Porter)
Correction appended below
Human rights lawyer Azadeh Shahshahani has joined Project South as its first-ever legal and advocacy director. She said she will continue the work she did at ACLU Georgia advocating for immigrants’ rights and fighting discrimination against the Muslim and immigrant communities.
“The general atmosphere right now for Muslims is one of intimidation,” she said. “All the comments from [Donald] Trump and other politicians … about Syrian refugees creates an atmosphere that lends itself to abuse.”
She is the first lawyer for the nonprofit, which organizes communities of color around social and political justice issues. Project South also coordinates the Southern Movement Assembly, a regional coalition of grass-roots organizations.
Shahshahani was ACLU Georgia’s director of the National Security and Immigrants’ Rights project, which she started, until last March, after joining the group in 2007. She is the past president of the National Lawyers Guild, reviving the minority bar association’s dormant Georgia chapter after moving to Atlanta in 2007 with her husband.
As Project South’s new legal and advocacy director, Shahshahani will continue the civil rights advocacy and outreach to Muslim-American communities that she did at ACLU Georgia. That includes organizing “know your rights” forums, which she’s done in partnership with grass-roots immigrants’ rights groups. She may bring suits on behalf of individuals and initiate impact litigation with other groups.
“Right now I am plugging in with the grass-roots groups and seeing what the need is legally,” said Shahshahani, who started at Project South on Jan. 4.
One civil rights issue of concern is incidents of Muslims being approached by the FBI for “so-called voluntary interviews” about terrorism, she said, calling the interviews fishing expeditions.
“The person approached is not suspected of anything, but the FBI thinks they might have some information about something.” Often the person does not understand that the interview is voluntary and he or she has the right to have an attorney present, she added.
“Knowing that they are under constant surveillance and at risk of being approached by the FBI for questioning,” she said, creates a “chilling environment” for Muslims in regard to advocacy on their own behalf and the exercise of their First Amendment rights.
Other concerns are about people wearing Muslim headgear and not feeling safe, she said, or Muslims being profiled at airports and barred from their flights.
Coalition-building has always been an important part of Shahshahani’s work. She said community outreach is essential to legal advocacy efforts—otherwise, she might not learn about abuses because of the level of fear in Muslim communities. “The outreach needs to be pretty intensive and consistent to build trust with communities so they will approach us,” she said.
On the policy front, Shahshahani worked on two major reports at ACLU Georgia. A 2012 report on conditions at immigrant detention prisons, called “Prisoners of Profit: Immigrants and Detention in Georgia,” supported an ongoing campaign to close Stewart Detention Center. The other was a 2014 report on collaborations of local law enforcement with ICE called “Prejudice, Policing and Public Safety: The Impact of Immigration Hyper-Enforcement in the State of Georgia.”
One suit that Shahshahani brought at ACLU Georgia with lawyers from the national ACLU and pro bono counsel from Carlton Fields Jorden Burt was for Lisa Valentine, who was arrested and held in contempt of court after she refused to remove her headscarf to enter the Douglasville Municipal Court. The city of Douglasville settled with Valentine, and the Judicial Council of Georgia adopted a policy with input by the ACLU to allow the wearing of religious headgear in Georgia courthouses.
This article has been changed to reflect a correction: The ACLU’s report, “Prisoners of Profit: Immigrants and Detention in Georgia,” did not launch the campaign to close Stewart Detention Center. It supported that effort. Also, the original, online version of this story ended with a line of gibberish that was used as a place holder; that line has been removed.