The Atlanta chapter of Asian Americans Advancing Justice is lawyering up.

The group has hired two lawyers—including a new litigation director from a local defense firm—and expanded an existing part-time lawyer position to full-time in its effort to help immigrants gain citizenship and protect their civil rights.

“Now we have a legal department,” said the group’s executive director Stephanie Cho. The three lawyers, plus a paralegal, make up half of AAAJ-Atlanta’s full-time staff, which includes two part-time positions

There is no other group in Georgia providing legal advocacy and services specifically for the Asian-American Pacific Islander community, Cho said. Of the roughly 420,000 Asian-American immigrants in Georgia, most are in Atlanta.

“We want to be an organization of hope, particularly at a time when it’s kind of dark in our country,” Cho said. “I get so many calls from people who are crying and desperate,” she added, because they are facing deportation or other problems. “Before we couldn’t do anything. Now we can.”

The two new lawyers, Phi Nguyen and Amy Willis, expand the group’s legal capabilities beyond immigration services.

Nguyen left a career defending doctors at defense firm Bendin Sumrall & Ladner to become AAAJ-Atlanta’s first-ever litigation director for broader-based impact litigation, and Willis joined from the Georgia Law Center for the Homeless to start a “know your rights” program educating people on how to interact with law enforcement, and a deportation defense unit.

Javeria Jamil, now a full-time staff attorney, and paralegal Nathalie Levine provide immigration services to the local Asian-American community on a sliding fee scale, helping people get green cards and apply for citizenship. They can work with people in English, Korean, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Urdu and Hindi.

Levine is accredited by the Justice Department to assist noncitizens in immigration proceedings before the Department of Homeland Security.

Defense Firm to Public Interest

Public interest law is a big career change for Nguyen, who has defended doctors in medical malpractice litigation at Bendin Sumrall, and before that Hall Booth Smith, since earning her J.D. from Georgia State University in 2009. She acknowledged that she’s taking a big pay cut to do public interest law.

“I took a traditional path after law school,” Nguyen said, in part motivated by the struggles and hard work of her own immigrant parents.

Her parents came to the United States as Vietnam War refugees in 1979 and raised Nguyen and her four sisters to become successful Americans.

“Our parents pushed us to excel in traditional careers,” she said, adding that they would have preferred that she become a doctor than a lawyer. They were not too happy about the pay cut for her new public interest job, she said.

Nguyen said using her legal training to help Asian-American immigrants is a way of coming full circle.

She grew up in Augusta, which has a very small Asian-American community, and said she spoke Vietnamese at home but didn’t know any other Vietnamese families. All of her friends were white, and she didn’t experience any particular discrimination herself growing up.

Phi Nguyen. Litigation Director, Asian Americans Advancing Justice Atlanta.

John Disney/ ALM

 Nguyen said her work on the board of Athena’s Warehouse, an Atlanta nonprofit that her sister Bee Nguyen launched to empower high school girls, exposed her to lots of undocumented students—but primarily Latinas.

Then the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, three years ago and subsequent police shootings started “a shift inward,” for her, Nguyen said. “It got me more into questioning my relationship to these race issues.”

“That led to me thinking about my own community—and my identity in the Asian-American community,” Nguyen said. “The political climate is also a part of it—a straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Nguyen said she started paying attention to the laws affecting immigrants that were passed in Georgia. “If you have a political landscape that’s hostile and laws that are hostile, then you can only get so far in affecting people’s lives,” she said.

She started volunteering with AAAJ-Atlanta a few years ago, doing voter outreach in the Vietnamese community. “While doing that work, I realized the power of having a law degree,” she said. “I’ve gone to court. I’m not afraid to do that.”

“There are always going to be good lawyers at firms representing doctors. I wanted to take the skills I’ve learned in medical malpractice cases to the immigrant community. That’s where I can have more impact.”

As far as broad-based litigation, AAAJ-Atlanta has been a party to two Georgia voting rights suits, one last year before the general election and another filed in April over registration deadlines before the contested sixth district runoff between Democrat John Ossoff and now-Rep. Karen Handel, R-Georgia.

Nguyen said she’s looking at immigrant rights litigation, adding that the state Legislature “proposes a lot of laws we see as anti-immigrant.”

She addressed the notion that Asian-American immigrants are often perceived as less in need of aid than those from Latin America. “Because of what I consider the ‘model minority’ myth, our community is often overlooked. People think these things plaguing the immigrant community in general are not plaguing ours,” Nguyn said.

“There are actually a lot of low-income Asian-Americans—and fewer Asian-Americans who speak out against these issues,” she said. “Under the current political climate, no one feels safe. There is a more and more hostile attitude toward immigrants across the board, including ‘model minorities,’”

Nguyn added that language access is a particular issue for the Asian-American community. AAAJ-Atlanta has printed “know your rights” cards in 23 languages, for example, to inform people of their rights when stopped by the police.

Funding

Two grants allowed AAAJ-Atlanta to hire Nguyen and Willis. A national foundation provided the one for Nguyen, and the Trinh Huynh Fellowship from the Georgia Asian Pacific American Bar Association is funding Willis.

GAPABA raised donations to honor Huynh, a Vietnamese refugee who went on to become a lawyer and advocate for Asian-American immigrants in Atlanta. Huynh was shot and killed April 3 in Midtown on her way to her job in the law department at UPS. Raylon Browning, who had no apparent connection to Huynh, has been indicted for the murder. UPS, Alston & Bird and The Coca-Cola Co. also contributed to the public interest law fellowship.

Meredith Hobbs writes about the Atlanta legal community and the business of law. Contact her at mhobbs@alm.com. On Twitter: @MeredithHobbs