Nisha Agarwal, ’06, is the Commissioner of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA), an office charged with promoting the well-being of immigrant communities – no small task in a city with an immigrant population larger than the total population of Chicago. One of the office’s most recent priorities has been the launch of the new municipal ID card, an ambitious initiative of Mayor de Blasio that will allow all NYC residents to access essential services and programs, regardless of their immigration status. Agarwal is at the helm of MOIA, managing hiring and firing, directing program and policy directions, and serving as a media and public spokesperson for the office and for the mayor. This prestigious post, though, was not always on her radar. In law school, “I actually often said I probably never would work in government,” Agarwal explained. “You can’t always plan what will happen in your career.”
In fact, this job was not the first unexpected turn for Agarwal. Before arriving at HLS, she was pursuing a PhD and expected to eventually end up as a professor. However, as she became increasingly involved in action-oriented grassroots organizing, she realized she wanted more practical skills training than a PhD program could offer and decided to leave for law school. At HLS, she found many opportunities for the practical experience she sought, including at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. Throughout her three years, she also refined her interests in working alongside community organizing campaigns on immigrants’ rights issues in the broader context of racial justice and civil rights. This focus, along with a desire to live in New York City, led her to a post-graduate fellowship with the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI).
Agarwal stayed with NYLPI for six years, working with community-based organizations and coalitions to protect and improve health access in immigrant communities. She was eventually appointed as the Director of the Health Justice Program at NYLPI and found this work deeply satisfying, in part because she was able to observe and participate in the local lawmaking process. At the same time, though, she was growing concerned about the increasingly toxic nature of anti-immigration bills across the country and wanted to work on a national scale. Contemplating making a change, she scheduled informal conversations with colleagues in her field who she admired and whose jobs she thought were interesting. When one of those colleagues, Andrew Friedman, asked her to join him in building a new national-level organization, she quickly agreed.
Together, Agarwal and Friedman helped found the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD), which works from a pro-worker, pro-immigrant position to build the power of community-based organizing groups across the country. Handling not only initial campaign-planning, but also the detailed logistics of fundraising and setting up an office was eye-opening. “I had never worked that hard, I had never been stretched that hard,” Agarwal noted. “I was learning new skills left and right.” In addition to advocating for comprehensive immigration reform, while at CPD Agarwal was engaged in national conversations about implementing potential reforms in a manner that would also build organizing capacity on a local level. A couple of years into her work at CPD, she heard that the Robin Hood Foundation was looking for a consultant to help design a new program that took up just that question.
The program, called the Immigrant Justice Corps (IJC), aimed to influence the field of legal service delivery in immigrant communities. Though Agarwal was deeply committed to the work at CPD, “it was just too tempting of an opportunity to take everything that I had learned and then actually be able to put it into existence through this organization.” Shortly after IJC launched, only a few months after she had joined the team, she received a call from Mayor de Blasio and was named the Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs.
Her experience helping build CPD and IJC proved invaluable as she headed the rapidly expanding Office of Immigrant Affairs. The office grew from seven to roughly fifty staff members in her first eighteen months and widened its portfolio to include leading the launch of the municipal ID card and planning for implementation of executive action on immigration. Describing the office, Agarwal noted, “We work really hard, and there’s a lot going on and the pace is really intense, but when you actually see the outcomes of that work, and it’s actually changing the way the city works and for the better – that’s by far the most satisfying part of the job.”
For those still in law school, Agarwal suggested taking advantage of every opportunity to get a broad range of practical experiences in order to figure out what types of work fit your interests. She also urged the importance of keeping an open mind, an ethos that is clear from her multiple unexpected career transitions. “See where things lead you,” she said. “Don’t be too planned about it.”
Written by 2015 OPIA Summer Fellow Erin Kelley