Jaya Ramji-Nogales is a tinkerer, a program-builder, a problem-solver. No matter which of her many hats is in place at the time, Ramji-Nogales is always thinking about how to make systems work better for those most affected by them.
One of the systems within which she works is Temple University Beasley School of Law, where Ramji-Nogales is the I. Herman Stern Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Institute for International Law and Public Policy. “Much of what I do at Temple involves building programs for students to help them become advocates in all kinds of different ways,” she explains. She cites her work with the Rubin-Presser Social Justice Fellows and the Sheller Center for Social Justice, which she describes as, “standing behind people and making sure they have what they need to get where they want to go, and listening and being responsive to student needs. We’re building a program, a community. And then, at the Sheller Center, I help students with an interest in a career in social justice get the experience they need to figure out what they want to do and to get there.”
Much of what I do at Temple involves building programs for students to help them become advocates in all kinds of different ways.
It’s clear from the rise in Ramji-Nogales’ voice that her work at the Sheller Center is more than just professional service. She is personally invested in the students, the program, and the brand of legal education on which it rests. “It’s just an amazing way to train advocates,” she begins. “For the students, to have the luxury of being able to try a case or draft policy at a very slow pace, under the supervision of a trained professional whose only focus is teaching you how to be a better lawyer, is a life-changing experience. For me, it’s an opportunity to build a better system for the students. My role has really been about program-building. It’s been about hiring great people, helping them to create what they want to create, and making sure they have everything they need to make that happen.”
Leadership and program-building seem to be intrinsic to who Ramji-Nogales is. Take, for example, her refugee work, which traces back to her law school days at Yale, where she enrolled in an asylum clinic. “I started working with refugees and seeing the ways in which the system served them and didn’t serve them. After graduation, I spent a year in Africa, trying to set up asylum systems and to make those systems better…to set up legal aid offices for asylum seekers, for example. While I was there, I also worked with judges and U.S. government officials, advocating within South Africa for systemic reform,” she explains.
Ramji-Nogales brought that experience back to the United States, where she joined the firm of Debevoise and Plimpton, running the asylum pro bono program in their NY office on top of her litigation work for paying clients. But her experiences in the asylum clinic at Yale stayed with her, and she eventually joined the Georgetown University Law Center as an Advocacy Fellow at the Center for Applied Legal Studies. There, she supervised students in an asylum clinic for two years before joining the Temple Law faculty. Here, in addition to shaping advocates, she has continued to serve as an advocate through her scholarship and community work.
For the students, to have the luxury of being able to try a case or draft policy at a very slow pace, under the supervision of a trained professional whose only focus is teaching you how to be a better lawyer, is a life-changing experience. For me, it’s an opportunity to build a better system for the students.
Of course, considering the nature of her work, it’s no surprise that Ramji-Nogales’ “community work” spans continents. There’s her work with the Documentation Center of Cambodia, whose mission has been to research and record the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime, for example. Locally, she serves on the Board of Directors for Esperanza Immigration Legal Services, which is led by Mary Clark (LAW ‘09). She’s also been slowly building the Temple Immigration Network, which serves to connect Temple Law graduates working in a variety of immigration settings. “We have alumni everywhere,” she remarks. “We have Temple grads providing direct services at NSC and HIAS in Philadelphia, working at immigration firms in Philadelphia, D.C., and New York … someone at UNHCR, and people in USCIS. The former head of training at Asylum Headquarters was a Temple grad. When my co-authors and I presented our asylum system research to his office, he said, ‘Hey, I went to Temple Law School.’ I said, well, you should be part of this immigration network.” Ramji-Nogales pauses again for a moment. “Part of my advocacy is building this Temple Immigration Network to help support Temple grads who are doing great things in the world.”
“Should we talk about my scholarship as advocacy?” Ramji-Nogales laughs as she answers her own question. She offers an executive summary of the empirical work she’s done with her Georgetown University co-authors. “Advocacy is working toward a better system, right? In our first book, we took an in-depth look at all four levels of the asylum adjudication process. In our second book, we focused in-depth on the asylum office and we are now working on a third study of the expedited removal process. We’re trying to show the government and policy makers what’s actually happening in the system, because no one really knows, because no one’s crunching the numbers, and then we’re advocating for systemic reform – how can we make this system more effective?”
Her desire to improve the system is grounded in a deep awareness of the humanity of those whose lives, as her second book describes them, hang in the balance. “The most powerful moments in presenting our work have been when asylees come to the talks,” Ramji-Nogales says. She pauses before continuing, “…And they’re just so excited that someone’s talking about their experience of the system, someone’s studying the system and trying to make it better. That’s an amazing experience, because, as I tell them, I’m doing this for you – that’s why I’m doing this work, so the system works better for you.”