Aarti Shahani is a household name with NPR junkies as the Silicon Valley correspondent who reports on how technology affects both the economy and human relationships.
What many are discovering in her newly published, eye opening memoir “Here We Are,” is how Aarti and her family came to the U.S. as undocumented aliens and endured an agonizing 14-year legal nightmare, battling the criminal justice system to secure the family’s path to citizenship.
In the mid 90s, Aarti was a typical American teenager rebelling against the tight leash of her old-world desi parents, while excelling academically on a scholarship to the prestigious, private Brearley School in New York City. That world came crashing down when Namdev Shahani, her father, who had co-founded a successful electronics store with her uncle, was accused of selling electronics to members of the infamous Colombian Cali cartel.
Aarti used her Brearley School connections to find her father legal recourse, but, like most poor immigrants, he was ill advised by his lawyers and pressured to take a plea bargain in order to get a shorter sentence when in fact, he was innocent.
Then, in 1996, President Clinton passed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which made deportation a mandatory minimum for any kind of criminal charge.
Both these bills stripped Aarti’s father and uncle of their legal status despite already having served sentences for nonviolent, low-level offenses. Namdev, who had a green card was under the threat of deportation.
“Had dad been born in another place and time, he’d be interviewing at a hedge fund or the foreign service, …but language, math skills, and life experience did not matter here,” said Aarti, who now was at UChicago on a full scholarship.
Namdev was a Hindu Sindhi refugee who had fled the Indian Partition, first to Beirut and then to Morocco, where he met and fell in love with Aarti’s mother, Nina. In 1981, they moved to Flushing, Queens, with their three children, living in a cockroach-infested apartment as they tried to rebuild their lives. To start again in middle age was a hard struggle for this quiet man and his warm, outgoing wife, who worked hard to provide for their family.
Their youngest daughter, Aarti, blossomed into an ambitious, incredibly smart “Nerd Girl” at her school, even as she straddled a jarring cultural divide between schoolmates who had country homes and siblings fighting over closet space in their tiny apartment.
By the time it became clear that their lawyer and the legal system had made mistakes and failed the Shahanis, Aarti was a junior at UChicago. Her father now faced the threat of deportation and Aarti realized that his legal issues needed full time attention. As their legal battles intensified, Aarti’s uncle was deported, so Aarti decided to take a year off from college to help her parents in their legal battle for justice.
She wrote to Joel Blumenfeld, the judge in this case, taking her first tenacious steps to becoming the “Shahani family lawyer”. Judge Blumenfeld responded to Aarti’s letter by taking a personal interest in the case and called an emergency hearing. Aarti also found a new lawyer who came up with a brilliant plan on a technicality to save her father from deportation.
The Clinton laws are inhumane argues Aarti and refers to constitutional experts who call these laws unconstitutional, illegal and a violation of human rights.
“First of all, there is the issue of double jeopardy, After you’ve served your time, then you have additional punishment on top of that.” Secondly, it does not consider who these immigrants were – “whether they are good people.”
Her family’s story in her book may seem like “you are reading … about a criminal alien family,” says Aarti, because “in headlines, that’s all we would be.” It was an uphill battle to chip away and “combat that incredibly derogatory term”, Aarti points out because, “labels can be incredibly misleading, and labels are often used to make the powerless basically invisible, erased and that’s what happened to my father.”
Along the way, Aarti also discovered that justice works in different ways for different groups of people, with outcomes that are sometimes unfair.
When working with an organization called Families for Freedom to help other working class immigrants in a similar situation as her father, Aarti was shocked to see how poverty and cultural differences got in the way of justice – when “filing an appeal, paying for xerox copies of court records needed to file an appeal, or getting an expert to talk to you.” For some immigrants, “their accent was a barrier to basic conversations” but for an American-educated young woman like her, “it was magic the way my accent would open doors”.
Working-class immigrants get caught up in these systems because of the lack of knowledge, access and money, says Aarti, but she “…had opportunities to walk through doors that others don’t even know exist and step into worlds that are very elite and powerful”, simply because of her education and tenacity.
Working with struggling communities living a hand to mouth existence “…was a constant reminder to me of what the truth is as opposed to the elite construction of it,” comments Aarti. In the legal system, the wealthy face civil penalties but the poor face criminal penalties. This is the heartbreaking price one pays for being poor in America.
Aarti’s fight for her father’s freedom and her account of it also answered questions about why her parents took the risks they did when they moved to America for a better life. From her mother Aarti learned that “…life as an undocumented person crossing the ocean with three little kids would be better” because of the “incredibly abusive joint household” they had fled. “Coming to America was an ultimate act of love and shielding us – her daughters – from the upbringing she experienced,” reveals Aarti.
From her father, a man who prized tradition like most men of his generation, Aarti learned that “…a daughter presents, to a man, an existential crisis. He’s spent his whole life learning there are differences between the sexes. Because that story has often worked in his favor, it’s in his self-interest to reinforce it. But it’s also in his self-interest to see his offspring leap as far as possible, to achieve the dreams he could not.”
Aarti reflects that “I had a great deal of empathy for the way that he wanted an order to the world he never had. When I was younger, I really judged him and looked at him as third world and old world. I stepped into his shoes as a parent, when you are tossed around the world the way he was, you are looking for anything that feels like solid ground.”
She realizes that “I can both look at my father and acknowledge in my opinion, he may have such a long way to go when it came to gender equality. But it’s an interesting challenge to both understand where someone else is coming from whom you don’t agree with and empathize but still push for your values. And not push your values aside. This is true in all relationships. There is such a rush to judgement without empathy.”
“Here We Are,” which Aarti describes as the story of a “working class family on the low end of globalization,” is essential reading for Americans because it defines who we are as a nation of immigrants. But at its root, this is also a story of parents and their profound love of family.
Readers identify with the Shahani saga because it is their’s as well, “Knowing how much this book has echoed with a community that is not represented, it’s powerful.”
“Migration is a bold solution to the challenge of existing in a modern radically reorganized world post colonialism,” says Aarti about the fundamental rationale behind immigration today. But in the end, her gripping memoir of her family’s story is important because it lends itself to starting a more honest conversation about immigration and justice in America.
Changemakers: Individuals making a difference in all walks of life
Anjana Nagarajan-Butaney is a Bay Area resident with experience in educational non-profits, community building, networking and content development and was Community Director for an online platform. She is interested in how to strengthen communities by building connections to politics, science & technology, gender equality and public education.
This article was edited by Contributing Editor Meera Kymal.