One Door Opened All the Rest — Eternally Grateful

by Susham Modi

It would be an illuminating experience if everyone looked back at their law school admission essays and thought: Have we been true to ourselves? Maybe this is an elusive question as we were all less experienced about how the real world accurately operated. I, for one, now know just how little I knew before entering law school. On the other hand, if we do not reach for ideals to make the world better, then what’s the point of reaching? Before attending law school, I knew I wanted to attend in order to assist the underserved.

The single greatest event that created this deep desire was the last time I visited my family in India, during my undergraduate studies. On the road to visiting one of my uncles in India, we saw extreme poverty through our car window. The main theme of my law school admission essay was seeing this poverty and wanting to attend law school to right the injustices in this world. In my law school admissions essay, I mentioned the vivid memory I had of seeing children who were starved to the point of being able to see every bone in their body, had no shoes as they labored on unpaved roads, lived homeless with just a piece of cloth propped up by wooden sticks as their shelter and bathed in sewers due to lack of access to clean water. No one deserved this type of lifestyle. My immediate reaction to these types of scenes was that these kids had fundamental human rights, and not one of those children could be expected to climb out of such extreme poverty by themselves.

It was this idea and reaction that triggered my specific interest in international human rights and an extreme desire to apply to law school. Unfortunately, at age 21, I had little understanding of what the meaning of international human rights law was, or the degree to which it was enforced in the international community. I wanted to pursue something related to international human rights that went beyond mission statements made by the United Nations (UN) or international bodies which often had great gestures but little enforcement authority. It was a natural evolution that I discovered asylum and refugee law—which in the United States was codified by Congress through the Refugee Act of 1980.[i] Asylum law recognizes that no matter who you are, a person who has been or will be severely harmed, tortured or killed if returned to their home country should be protected.[ii] The principle value of American society is that everyone deserves the right to pursue freedom, which can only be done when someone is free from persecution.

As a law student, I was naturally drawn to the Penn State Law’s Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic (“Clinic”) and, more particularly, asylum law. In 2009, I was fortunate to meet the Director of that Clinic, Professor Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, who at the time had just begun her tenure at Penn State Law. Due to my intense desire to work on an asylum case, Professor Wadhia specifically assigned me a project that was candidly amazing. There is a general requirement that if someone wants to apply for asylum, he or she must do so within one year of arriving in the U.S.[iii] Our clinic partnered with a local non-profit organization directly representing an asylum seeker in deportation (removal) proceedings, who was applying for protection more than one year of arriving in the U.S. My task was to find a psychologist, arrange for him or her to visit the prison at which the asylum seeker was held, conduct a psychological evaluation, and provide a diagnosis. Once the asylum seeker was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), I used this diagnosis and the evaluation to argue that his PTSD was an exceptional circumstance to the one-year bar for her asylum case and that the asylum application was filed within a reasonable period of time in light of this circumstance. The case involved learning meticulous legal research, strategic legal writing, portions of which were included in the final brief to the judge, and communication skills involving working with an expert psychologist. We were successful. The judge in that case ruled that the individual in removal proceedings met the one-year bar’s exception of extraordinary circumstances given her PTSD due to all the harm she experienced back home. It was a privilege to work on a case that not only impacted an individual life but also resulted in a work product that was cutting edge at that time — previously, it was not as universally accepted as it is now that PTSD can be an exception to the one-year filing deadline in asylum law.

I was honored to work in the Clinic with Professor Wadhia. Due to my experiences in India, I had the underlying compassion and thus drive to work as many hours as it took to change lives for the better (even once in a while spending the entire night in the Clinic working on client’s cases or projects), but I definitely had no legal knowledge or tools without her constant guidance. To be frank, Professor Wadhia was at first very intimidating not only because of her brilliance, but also because of a work ethic that surpassed my own. It seemed she was incredibly efficient and very aware of time management. The other Clinic students had joked at first that she may not be human given how much she did on any given day. Eventually, Professor Wadhia and I became much closer and we connected. I felt comfortable with her as my mentor and told her about my desire to assist others. After the Clinic was completed, she then opened the biggest door of all for me. As most law students are aware, summer jobs are incredibly important to future careers and she gave me the opportunity of a lifetime. 

Professor Wadhia recommended me for an internship with a well-known immigration attorney who frankly was probably one of the best I have ever had the honor to meet. He worked at the large law firm in Washington, D.C. He was so extraordinary that he was paid a large firm salary to work solely on pro bono high profile humanitarian-based immigration cases including appeals (many of which were precedent setting), asylum claims, deportation defense, Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), representing children in removal proceedings, and almost anything else you can imagine. He had a photographic memory, and was always incredibly busy as we had over 200 active cases managed between him, myself and another intern. Needless to say, I put in more hours than I had ever done at any place in such a short amount of time and learned more than I could have ever imagined for a summer internship. We worked on several cases successfully there including preventing the deportation of a homosexual man who applied successfully for protection of VAWA due to severe physical abuse from his ex-wife; worked with the FBI on expediting Iraqi security clearance delays—delays which had put our clients who assisted the U.S. in harm’s way; and several other high-profile cases.

It was not just the work that I learned so much from, but I also learned something I believe Professor Wadhia knew I needed to experience, which was the need to have a healthy work-life balance. I saw the long hours that this esteemed attorney in Washington D.C. worked and it was incredibly unhealthy for him, but he did it because he was an angel wanting to help as many people as he could as he knew that the position he held was often the last place potential clients go for pro bono assistance. But seeing his health so severely deteriorate over the years really impacted me because I cared for him as a brother. I needed to experience that in my early legal career. Had I not seen it then it may have really been me that had those health consequences too. I believe one of the reasons Professor Wadhia recommended me for this prestigious position to work with him was because she knew this as well, as she again was always great at getting her work done, time management, and work-life balance.

One thing I had not known in those law school days is that reputation is everything. All the best private immigration attorneys, professors and non-profit attorneys know each other. Little did I know just how well working with this attorney in D.C. would help me in the future. As a long story short, that attorney eventually recommended me to Harvard Law School’s Immigration and Refugee Clinic where I worked immediately after graduating from Penn State Law. At Harvard, I was again with extraordinary professors and attorneys including Deborah Anker and Sabi Ardalan. Debbie and Sabi, knowing I wanted to be back in Texas eventually with family, had recommended me to eventually work at the University of Houston (UH) Law Center’s Immigration Clinic. The clinical director at UH, Professor Geoffrey Hoffman, is another extraordinary mentor, great friend and attorney. I worked several years at UH as a clinical professor where I tried to mentor and provide opportunities to students as Professor Wadhia had provided me. I even currently teach as an Adjunct Professor of Law, the same course I first took from Professor Wadhia and the first field of interest I had in the law—Asylum/Refugee Law.

I currently own and operate a boutique immigration law firm named The Modi Law Firm.[iv] At our firm, we handle all types of immigration law from investor visas to deportation defense and many complicated motions to reopen or appeal. We have won cases ranging from Syrian asylum seekers whose home had been bombed to E2 treaty investor nonimmigrant visas,[v] which are intended for individuals who create a new business or invest in an ongoing one by investing a substantial amount of capital, are the national of a country that maintains a treaty with the U.S., and direct the business with at least 50% ownership of the company. But none of this would be possible without Professor Wadhia teaching me the first parts of immigration law I experienced, constantly mentoring me, and most importantly having the trust to open up the very first door with the extraordinary attorney in Washington, D.C., which led to more doors that opened thereafter for me to reach the position I am in today. It was due to Professor Wadhia’s mentorship, trust, and my training in the Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Penn State Law that I was able to help so many pro bono humanitarian immigration cases over the last seven years, to mentor future law students in both a clinical and classroom position, and how I now have the ability to operate my own immigration law firm, which is continuing to change people’s lives for the better. At my firm, we are able to reunite people with their family members, give them the ability to work, to live here, and prevent their deportation. The training I received regarding detail-oriented writing (from brief writing, to legal memos and even detailed email correspondence), legal research sources/databases within asylum/refugee law, and honing communication skills with mock preparations truly prepared me to do very well at my future jobs and has given me so many opportunities. I am eternally grateful.

[i] 8 U.S.C. § 1525.

[ii] Immigration and Nationality (McCarran) Act, 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a) (42) (2014).

[iii] 8 C.F.R. § 208.4(a).

[iv] Susham M. Modi, Immigration Attorney, (last visited October 31, 2017).

[v] E-2 Treaty Investors, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (Jan. 1, 2014),


Citation: Susham Modi, One Door Opened All the Rest — Eternally Grateful, in Back Into the Future of Immigration: Personal Stories by the Penn State Law Center for Immigrants' Rights Clinic (Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia ed., 2018).

Susham Modi

Susham M. Modi is the Founder and Principle Attorney at The Modi Law Firm, a firm located in Houston, Texas that is focused solely on practicing immigration law. He is also an Adjunct Professor of Law at the University of Houston Law Center, previously a Clinical Supervising Attorney at UH Law School’s Immigration Clinic and before moving to Houston worked as an Advocate Attorney at Harvard Law School’s Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program.

Class of 2010
Susham Modi