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Manzar, Ali

Sahreen Manzar, '13 and Sameera Ali, '12 (photo by Sean Varasteh)

Ali, Manzar, and Crimmigration, Inc.

July 23, 2015

Tags: Immigration, Alumni, 2015, News

At the Crimmigration Inc. law firm, gleaming floors, plush couches and wall-to-ceiling law reference books greet clients like any other attorney's office. But in the waiting room, clients can read copies of The Crescent Newspaper, a monthly publication catering to the Sacramento region's Muslim community.

In the office of Sahreen Manzar, '13, who joined the firm after it was founded by classmate Sameera Ali, '12, a quotation from the Quran graces the wall. "That verse is the best articulation of a fair justice system," Manzar says. "It's saying speak the truth, be it against anyone."

Crimmigration Inc. launched in June 2013 and recently celebrated its two-year anniversary. "Crimmigration" is an academic term describing the intersection of criminal defense and immigration, a growing area of law.

The pair started the firm with the goal of catering to the Sacramento region's South Asian and Muslim communities. They will serve anyone who needs their legal services, but they wanted to reach out specifically to Pakistani and Indian immigrants and their second-generation families, populations they say are hesitant to seek out legal services, in part for cultural reasons.

In law school, they both realized there were very few female Muslim attorneys of Indian or Pakistani descent with their own practice in Sacramento. It was another reason to start their own firm.

Manzar immigrated to Canada from her native Pakistan with her parents and siblings when she was in high school so she could become an attorney. There are few successful female attorneys in Pakistan, she says, and her parents wanted to encourage her.

Ali was born and raised in Southern California to Indian-born parents who immigrated to the U.S. Both are practicing Muslims.

Manzar and Ali focus their practice on the intersection of criminal and immigration law. They also practice family law, including divorce, custody and domestic violence cases, and corporate law when it overlaps with immigration law. Many of their clients are immigrants and many are Muslim. About half their workload is investor visas, which are given to foreigners who invest large sums of money in American businesses.

They established the firm wanting to emphasize what they call cultural competency. That means in part, that Manzar can share her knowledge of Sharia law to her Muslim clients, allowing her to affirm her clients' cultural and religious beliefs while explaining American law.

It also means speaking to clients in their native language. Between the two founding partners, their staff and legal consultants, they offer services in English, Urdu, Punjabi, Hindi, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Pashto and Tagalog.

And it helps in court. It's an issue that comes up in family law. A dowry is common among some South Asian immigrants. After marriage, some of Manzar's male clients have demanded that their wife's parents furnish their house knowing that the in-laws will agree to save face. Knowing this, Manzar has been able to prove in divorce court that some gifts were financial abuse and not community property and should be given to the wife.

Manzar and Ali also emphasize their ability to provide clients emotional support, especially in family law cases. Having an attorney who is Muslim and South Asian, "We're able to say ... I understand there may be hesitations due to community or societal norms within South Asian or Muslim communities," Ali says. "I do think it provides the clients a sense of comfort."

Manzar developed the firm's blueprint during Prof. Raquel Aldana's immigration law class. Aldana talked about the large number of nonimmigrants who move to the United States each year to study or for temporary work, with plans to return to their home country.

Mostly lawyers abroad serve their legal needs, Manzar says. But those attorneys are not familiar with U.S. laws and immigration policies. Manzar wanted to cater to that niche.

Aldana also talked about a developing area of law called "crimmigration." Ali and Manzar have a client, for example, who had been a permanent U.S. resident for 20 years but feared applying for citizenship because he had a minor conviction. Now they are helping him through the naturalization process.

Manzar and Ali wanted to serve immigrants who have a criminal record and face deportation, which could break up their families. "The idea was not to make sure that criminals can stay in the U.S.," Manzar says. "The idea is to make sure families aren't torn apart."

Manzar found her niche at McGeorge during an externship at My Sister's House, a Sacramento-based safe house for South Asian and Pacific Islander women and children who are domestic abuse victims. Fluent in Urdu, Punjabi and two Punjabi dialects, Manzar could talk to her clients in their own language. She felt she could better serve them in private practice.

"When I talk to a person who has suffered domestic violence and I've helped them, I find there is purpose for me," says Manzar, who has a master's degree in political theory and a bachelor's degree in political science both from York University in Canada.

Already the firm is expanding. Many of their immigration clients were driving from the Bay Area, so Manzar and Ali opened a satellite office in June in Fremont. The Silicon Valley location is home to large numbers of high-tech immigrant workers. It's also near San Francisco immigration court, where some of their cases are heard. They are planning to make the Fremont office a fully staffed operation.

In September 2013, Crimmigration welcomed McGeorge alumnus Naresh Birdi, '13. Birdi worked as a consultant, bringing in his own clients and collaborating with Manzar and Ali on business immigration cases.

But his interests and expertise differ from those of Manzar's and Ali's. In May 2014 he opened his own firm, Aspire Law Inc., in the same office space on Fulton Avenue in Sacramento. He still collaborates with Manzar and Ali on business immigration cases, giving them guidance when they need it. They also cross-refer cases to each other.   

While Ali was awaiting her bar results, Manzar approached her about opening a firm together. Ali was unsure she wanted to go into business with her good friend. "But then we realized we had the same values, the same ethics and the same goals," says Ali, who has double bachelor's degrees in biology and global cultures from UC Irvine.

They also complement each other well. Ali was a finalist in the second-year oral argument competition at McGeorge and was drawn to litigation. She earned a concentration in criminal justice and completed externships at public defender's offices around the state.

With Ali's background in the public defender's office and love of litigation and Manzar's immigration law experience and passion for transactional law, they could serve clients as partners, sharing their areas of expertise. "It's cost efficient," Manzar says. "They get a package deal."

Manzar honed her immigration law expertise in Prof. Blake Nordahl's immigration clinic, where she got hands-on experience with law clients for the first time. Nordahl taught her about cultural competency, being able to relate to clients in as many ways as possible to tease out more information. Getting clients to open up in a custody, divorce or domestic violence case can be hard. When Manzar meets her clients, she wants to know what they share in common.

"When I do my fact gathering, I don't start from what is the legal issue," Manzar says. "I start from what's your background. ... Once you have that rapport with them where they can relate to you as a person, I feel like they're more open. You never know what fact they'll give you that will actually be relevant." 

Starting out on their own was a risk, but Manzar and Ali say the proximity to McGeorge means access to their mentors when they need it most. "We never felt that vacuum or that need to have an experienced attorney supervising us all the time because I feel like McGeorge is looking after us," Manzar says.