A Journey Forward

by Shushan Sadjadi

I am currently a law school student at Penn State Law. Many of my classmates tell me they knew since childhood that they would attend law school. My experience has been different. I did not start out knowing what I wanted to do with my life, not even during college and thereafter. In fact, it was only as a 31-year old, second year, law student in the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic that I realized what I wanted to do.

When I graduated high school, I only knew one thing for sure: I wanted to get out of Las Vegas, Nevada. I was born in Southern California, but when I was five, my parents moved our family to Las Vegas, because, at the time, the public education system was better. It was at the young age of five that I vowed to get back to California, so when I graduated high school, I went to the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB).

UCSB is a beautiful campus located directly on the ocean, so my first year of college was spent tanning, surfing, and figuring out what my major would be. I flip-flopped between biology and anthropology before finally settling on a math major. I genuinely did not know what I wanted to do for my career, but I figured that I had always been good at math and that math would be a useful major for a variety of professions. I made my way through my undergraduate years and, during my fourth year, I realized I would be done with my major a semester early.[i] Since I did not want to graduate early, I consulted the course catalog to see if there was any minor I could opt for, and, as it turned out, I was able to take a few classes and pick up a minor in education and applied psychology during my last semester before graduation.

After I graduated, the only thing I was sure of was my desire to travel. I still had no grand ideas for what was ahead, but the education minor had made me consider teaching. Almost half of my extended family members are teachers, as is my mother, and as was my father, and I had always been convinced that I did not want to be a teacher. But with college behind me, and my entire adult life and student loan bills in front of me, I decided to consider teaching as a possible career path.

I knew that teaching was not for everyone, so I decided that I would test myself by becoming a substitute teacher in Las Vegas. I figured I would be able to live with my parents while working in the Las Vegas public schools as a sub while I decided whether or not teaching was the right career path for me. As it turned out, I was great at teaching, and despite looking like I was a high school student myself, I had effective classroom management skills that led to my being regularly requested as a sub for specific teachers and schools. So, it was settled! I was going to teach, and I started to look into graduate degrees in math education, hoping that the need for good math teachers would allow me to travel the country teaching.

With my career goal determined and my applications in, I set off to backpack the South Pacific. I spent a few weeks in Fiji with a friend who had joined me from home, but once I got to New Zealand, I was all by myself. I made new friends who I would travel with for a few days or more, then I would move on, in search of my own story. Having had months to be completely independent and autonomous from everything in “adult life” allowed me to reflect on who I was as a person, and I learned to embrace the inner me and feel confident in who I was, while also realizing that, my entire life I had been forcing myself to act straight, but really, I had been gay all along — but that is another story, for another time.

During my travels, I committed to spontaneity and experiencing things I knew I would never have an opportunity to experience again — like bungee jumping, hang gliding, and scuba diving, knowing full well that I would be too scared to do those things when I got older. My entire life, I had been such a planner, ensuring every hour of my calendar was filled with what I needed to get done. I learned that, by letting go of plans, and letting the day guide itself, I would almost always end up much better off than had I planned the day in advance. Sure, this led to uncomfortable moments, like the day I flew into Sidney all alone and realized the entire city was booked for gay pride; but those scary moments always opened the way to amazing discoveries, like when I discovered a beautiful island called Manly Beach where, after I could not find a place in Sidney, I ended up staying for a week. It was on a beach farther north in Australia that I learned I had gotten into Columbia’s math education Master’s degree program. When I got back home, I packed my bags and headed to Manhattan, where I had some of the most incredible experiences of my life.

After I got my degree, I taught for five years, starting at a public school in Harlem that took high achieving, low-income students zoned for poorer schools, and gave them the opportunity to attend Columbia by high school, for high school and university credits. I then moved to Miami and taught at a private school for young athletes, before moving to a private school in Silicon Valley, California, for my last three years in education. In my last year teaching, I also worked at the administrative level in technology. It was then that I realized the limits of growth in education without major policy reform, nationwide, and left teaching to pursue work where I could have a greater impact in the world.

I started a tutoring business in Las Vegas while looking into avenues for education policy reform. I quickly realized law school was a necessity for many of the positions I was seeking. I signed up for the LSAT and began working for a criminal defense attorney as a technology consultant and office assistant. I fell in love with the courtroom and the adversarial proceedings, and I was ecstatic when I did well on the LSAT and received offers to nearly all of the law schools I applied to. I was lucky because of my timing. Law school applications were at an all-time low and schools had a high need for qualified applicants. Penn State offered me a full-ride scholarship, and their standing, combined with their highly qualified professors, made my choice easy, and I began working on my JD in the fall of 2015.

I have been at Penn State Law for nearly two years, and it has easily been my most rewarding educational experience. One particularly impactful experience has been my mentor pairing from the law school’s Minority Mentor Program. I was paired with Professor Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, who is a leading expert in immigration law. She sparked my interest in learning more about immigration law, and she accepted me into her Clinic for my first semester of my 2L year.

My Immigration Story

I have never understood people’s aversion to immigrants because it seemed so hypocritical based on the way the country was founded. My parents have different backgrounds, in terms of immigration stories, both of which have led me to my personal philosophy on immigration.

I have the blessing of a maternal aunt who is very into research on Ancestry.com, and I have learned that my mother’s side came over on the Mayflower, and that my ancestors were very much involved with the building of our nation as we know it, today. We are related to John Adams, as well as a number of other historical figures. Since emigrating from Europe in the early days of our nation, my family has continued to exist for many generations. On my father’s side, I am a first-generation American. But I will let him tell his story.

In 1973, I arrived in the United States as a 23-year old kid on a tourist visa secured in what was then West Germany, where I grew up. Following some inquiries, I was granted admission to a college. The admission was not by chance. The Iranian student community was the largest international student body then, and, overall, they had established a respectable record.

Having secured a letter of financial support from a relative in Germany, I was granted a student visa, but it was temporary, and the ritual of visa renewal was an annual one; it was contingent on (1) continued financial support from abroad, (2) full-time student status, and (3) an overall GPA of B. The full-time status was no problem; in fact, I had to petition almost every fall and spring to take a course load in excess of 18 semester units. The GPA was not an issue either as it hovered between the two top grades, flirting more with the one held in high esteem, rather than the B you had to work so incredibly hard for.

The financial end was tough. Often, and for days, I had just an emergency dime in my pocket. The dime was to buy me a phone call at the nearest booth; that’s when calls were connected for a dime. Of course, you didn’t think about the scenarios that would require subsequent calls and additional dimes.

Things progressed until the game-changer year. 1979! The Shah was driven out in February; and in November, Americans were taken hostage at the US Embassy in Tehran. The cognitive dissonance of the moment captured the collective breath and for many with memories still intact, the time to exhale has yet to arrive. Sandwiched between those months was the completion of my Ph.D. qualifying examination that would allow me to begin work on my dissertation.

But the dynamics had changed. The revolution in Iran was no longer just about regime change; it had become a change in direction and orientation.

The struggle was on to adjust to the new realities and to figure out where to go from here and what to do. I had to come up with a different destination that would be my professional life. I had no Plan B. There never was the need for a Plan B. To exaggerate, you went to school to become a physician. That was the plan. Why think of becoming an astronomer or fortune teller!

As I began to construct a new direction, there was a sudden jolt. With the sweltering hostage crisis in 1980, I was summoned to report to Immigration (INS) for interrogation. I had to face uncertainties many times before, but this was different. The circumstances were different. The histories were different. All I could think of was deportation. But where would I be deported to…Iran…West Germany…some Arab country that had agreed to taking in x-number of deportees? Before leaving to report to the INS, I asked my future spouse to contact an immigration lawyer should I be detained for deportation.

Deportation! Nothing changes your entire being like the fright of such an overpowering force. You are thinking cages, detention centers, being shipped out, being sent back like unwanted cargo.

The floor of the INS building was packed with Iranian nationals, not all were students. There were no smiles, not much interaction. We all seemed busy with our self-imposed interrogatives awaiting our own answers, and all we did with each answer was to add weight to the probing side of the scale.

I was called into the interrogation room. It was a big assembly area, a sort of cattle-call arena with government people at government desks asking government questions. There, in that vast phantom setting, I was fingerprinted and my mug shots were taken while I was positioned against a column with a height marker. What it felt like was being positioned against a pole for the firing squad.

The long interrogation followed. It stopped at some point. I walked out of the building. But the memory of that day has yet to end as does the unceasing memory of captivity for and of those 52 Americans and their affected families.

We had to postpone our wedding again and again because my mother and sister were routinely denied visa requests to be at our ceremony. Repeat attempts to secure a visa between 1979 and 1984 were unsuccessful. The revolution dictated uncertainties; and the ensuing hostage crisis, the saber-rattling and the volleying of accusations were not confidence inducers for the visa issuing folks. The assumption was that my mother and sister, citizens of a country that had lost its favored nation status, would be seeking asylum, becoming a public charge and never leave the United States.

Aided by my future in-laws, we approached elected officials for help. Nothing worked. Time had to run its course, allowing for pulse rates to drop down to the cadence of logic. We tied the proverbial knot, and through captured photographs we shared the joys of the moment in the glare of the time’s sorrows.

Still a student working on my dissertation, following our wedding, I was able to apply for and, with the help of an immigration attorney, secure permanent residency. An attorney was not necessary, but the climactic context dictated for steps to be taken prescriptively rather than daringly.

We had to supply marriage certificates, photographs, birth certificates, copies of wedding invitations and whatnot to show that this was not just a wedding of convenience, or, surreptitiously, some sort of a financial arrangement. The INS was more in tune with the few scams than the legitimate masses.

About four months after the application for residency, I received my “Green Card” (the Alien Registration card going well into the Seventies was green in color, hence the term “Green Card” — the ones that followed, including the one I received, were beige, but the green card label is enshrined).

The years went by and mother was finally granted a temporary visa to be in the United States for the birth of her granddaughter. My sister, too, was eventually able to secure a visa to be present for the birth of her nephew.

Ten years after our wedding, I applied for U.S. citizenship and went through the naturalization process. Again, all documents supplied for my permanent residency had to be furnished, plus income tax returns and everything about my background in Germany and Iran. I took the required test and was sworn in. I was no longer a registered alien, a legitimate living thing from outer space. I was dipped in some invisible solution that caused naturalization. And — voila! — the unborn was born.

People opting for the United States, or any country of their choice, do so because they seek a better life, an opportunity, freedom, the liberating sense of unchained thoughts; and by doing so, they point to and underscore our similarities.

My two differing family backgrounds have led me to have the opinion that immigration, and the desire to migrate, is a basic human instinct. The “travel-bug,” as well as the need to flee locations that are threatening, have led to humans populating nearly every part of the world. No other animal has populated the Earth in such a diverse way like humans have. In my opinion, this is because something in us drives us to move to places where we can feel safe and create a home. Given this tendency, I feel the US immigration policy of preventing entry of those seeking safety or a new home is both barbaric and hypocritical. In order to be the country, we claim to be, founded on claims of a land, free from oppression, we should be a welcoming country with nearly open borders.

The Clinic

The Clinic was an incredible experience in nearly every way. I gained a plethora of knowledge about the things I did not know that I did not know. The experience was overwhelming, but truly, one of the most valuable experiences that I have had in law school.

I was assigned to a project reporting the conditions of two, privately owned, immigration detention centers. I read of the painful experiences of people in the detention centers and understood their cries for help in a way that will stay with me forever. As I began researching the centers, and learning of the inhumane treatment in the facilities, I became more and more fascinated by the private prison system and the perverse incentives corporate prison entities encourage. I was motivated to soak up as much information as possible to continue understanding the problems of these detention centers and consider the options for working toward solutions. The more I learned about the private prison companies, generally, and their involvement with the government, the more I understood why many of our social disparities exist.

When I started my research on the detention centers, I did not realize what I was getting into. Among other things, I was tasked with creating vignettes from detainee interviews and interviews with their attorneys. I began with the attorneys who told me of their experiences. The attorneys were consistently treated poorly by the staff of the private prisons, sometimes they were prevented from meeting with clients based on arbitrary rules, after traveling hours or days to get there. The attorneys made it clear that there was a systematic issue with the staff and their need to be in the position of power.

The detainee stories were much worse. Stories of rapes ignored, highly unsanitary living conditions, basic needs not met, and little to no access to the world outside of the walls of the private prisons. I read pages and pages of tragedy: a young boy picked up on his way to school because he had turned 18; mothers separated from children after calling police on abusive partners; refugees trying to escape horrible conditions in other countries only to be held in conditions comparable; and the list goes on. One story that is memorable is of one ex-felon who was detained after serving a prison sentence in a maximum-security prison. He explained that the maximum-security prison offered considerably better living conditions and amenities than the detention center, which was dirty, nearly windowless, and offer no education opportunities.

A few things stood out for me from these experiences. The conditions of these private prisons did not meet basic human rights standards. People consistently reported being given clothing that was torn or unclean, including undergarments, with which they are only provided a few. The water was consistently reported to smell and look bad; in fact, one lawyer had a telling story of a time she went to drink out of a drinking fountain and was alerted by a guard that she should not drink from it. Nearly every interview stated the food was terrible: both rancid and lacking any quality ingredients. I learned that private prisons are not accountable for these violations, and that they are simply supposed to follow them with no accountability or civil liability for violations.

As I learned about these common experiences of detainees, a few problems became abundantly clear about these for-profit private prisons. First, the private prison companies overpopulate the prison facilities, filling every bed to the extent possible, as it is most profitable for them. At the same time, they do not properly train their guards nor do they have sufficient staff members, including medical staff. The second problem is that these private prisons do not provide new or clean or enough clothing to the prisoners upon intake, nor do they provide them with a sufficient amount of hygiene products. The result is that detainees are forced to purchase basic sanitary items from commissary, items that are generally sold at inflated prices (as are the phone rates). The third problem is the voluntary work problem, which is the only way for detainees to get money, aside from having it be sent by family members. The problem with the voluntary work problem is that it pays little to nothing; sometimes $1 per day, and sometimes payment in extra meals.

It is important to note that these are detainees and not prisoners, which means that these private companies are employing detainees to complete necessary jobs at virtually no cost. Thus, detainees must work weeks to make enough money to buy basic necessities and make phone calls, while the private prison company profits off of their indentured servitude, as the private prisons have basically free employees, who give all of their money back to the prisons through commissary and phone calls.

My Professional Future

I started law school thinking that I may pursue policy work, but changed my mind once I started learning more about law. I have a substantial amount of debt from student loans from the combination of my three degrees, so I know I will need to work at a firm in order to quickly pay off that debt, which is what I will be doing when I graduate school. It was the Clinic that renewed a fire in me to create change, and it is the detention center report project I was assigned that opened my eyes to the changes that must be made to eliminate the socio-economic disparities and racial injustices of our nation. I have, thus, made the decision to work at a firm until I have paid off my debts, and then begin my assent into the world of government, to make the meaningful change that needs to occur to better our country.

My goal is to become the Governor of Nevada and create major changes on a state level, in order to demonstrate the positive changes that can be made on the national level. My realizations of the roots of many of our nation’s problems led me to understand the necessity of having state and federal leadership with the capacity to understand what needs to be done to both remedy past injustices and prevent further injustices from happening in our nation. My plan for change involves two projects, to start, that would ideally improve the state’s economy, provide jobs to state citizens, and provide opportunities and freedom from discrimination for noncitizens and felons, while simultaneously benefiting the environment.


I will forever be indebted to Professor Wadhia and the Penn State Law Center for Immigrants’ Rights for opening my eyes to the roots of our nation’s issues, and for sparking a desire to research topics that I may never have considered before joining the Clinic. My life’s goals have changed because of my experience with the Clinic, and I hope to be able to significantly contribute to the changes this nation needs to make in order to eliminate the disparities that the country and its people have endured for far too long.

[i] UCSB works on a trimester or quarter system, but for simplicity I will refer to it as a semester.


Citation: Shushan Sadjadi, A Journey Forward, in Back Into the Future of Immigration: Personal Stories by the Penn State Law Center for Immigrants' Rights Clinic (Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia ed., 2018). https://doi.org/10.18113/P8immigration11

Shushan Sadjadi

Shushan Sadjadi is a 2018 graduate of Penn State Law. She will begin as an associate at The Law Offices of Greg Knapp, Esq. in fall 2018.

Class of 2018
Shushan Sadjadi