March 8 marks International Women’s Day, which is both a celebration of women’s social, economic, cultural, and personal achievements, and a global call to promote and protect gender equity. On this day of reflection, I am immensely proud of the role that women lawyers have played – and continue to play – in both the advancement of immigration law generally, and of AILA as an association.
Twenty-one of AILA’s seventy-five presidents have been women, with the first elected in 1954, a full 40 years before the American Bar Association chose its first female president. Two of AILA’s four Executive Directors, Jeanne Butterfield and Crystal Williams, have been women. Many key staff positions at AILA, including that of Chief Operating Officer, and the Directors of Professional Development, Publications, Technology Strategy and Services, Meeting Operations, Government Relations, Human Resources, and Governance and Leadership Strategy are today held by women. Female AILA volunteer leaders chair many of the key committees of the association including the Department of State Liaison Committee, USCIS Headquarters Committee, USCIS Case Assistance Committee, the Verification & Documentation Liaison Committee, the EOIR/ICE Liaison Committee, and the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee. Each of these talented and driven attorneys have contributed to AILA’s strength and diversity. Their efforts have made us better as an organization and better lawyers.
But it’s not just women in elected and volunteer AILA leadership who elevate our bar. AILA’s membership is comprised of so many fearless, strong women lawyers who are doing outstanding work every day in the trenches to zealously advocate for their clients and promote justice. These women provide life-altering (in many cases life-saving) representation of their clients. They are my heroes. It would be impossible to name them all here. But I think of women like Mahsa Khanbabai and Parastoo Zahedi, who co-chair AILA’s Afghan Response Taskforce; Ava Benach, who has successfully represented so many transgender asylum seekers; Sophia Genovese, who recently got her client released from ICE detention at the notorious Rensselaer County Jail after enduring maltreatment and inhumane conditions; Mariko Hirose who worked on the recent AsylumWorks v. Mayorkas decision that successfully challenged the Trump administration’s EAD rule for asylum seekers. I look to my dear friends and colleagues Eleanor Pelta and Marketa Lindt who have been stalwart litigators against anti-immigrant policies put in place by the Trump administration in the business and employment sphere.
I think of women like Juliana Madaki who is originally from Nigeria herself and made a career change from aircraft engineering to immigration law. She first joined the Immigration Justice Campaign as a volunteer in 2019, providing pro bono support to asylum seekers and other immigrants. She describes volunteering as a way in which she helps create the world she wants to live in, something all of these inspiring women have in common: they are all making this world better.
As a country – as a planet – we are still very far from having equaled the playing field, and we have much work remaining to ensure that all human beings, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation or any other factor of identification, can pursue whatever goals or ambition they seek free from the incumbrances of societal bias and inequity. But each of the women leaders of AILA, and each and every attorney who gets up every morning and fights for her clients ‘while female’ is blazing a trail for all of us to follow. As we celebrate this International Women’s Day, I am grateful for the women of AILA and for the role they play in our lives and our community.