My Path to Law

Straddling two identities as a lawyer and DACA recipient

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Photo of Zain Sayed by Lauren Carter

My first recollection of the U.S. legal system happened during my father and mother’s separation in 1995. Fearing the effect of acrimonious behavior that he had seen during courtroom proceedings regarding our custody, the judge warmly welcomed my sister, Aaima, and me, ages 5 and 7, respectively, to his chambers.

It was a mere two-and-a-half years after we had entered the United States in early 1993. At the time, my family lived with my uncle, who had been in the U.S. since the mid-1980s and who housed us in a small ranch home. After an intense dispute with my father and uncle, my mother found herself temporarily homeless with only the clothes on her back. Despite obtaining temporary work as a paralegal, she had little knowledge of the law or her rights. Her employer, a female attorney originally from India, not only provided her with shelter but assisted her in gaining custody of her children.

It was a low point in our lives but only one in a series of challenges we would ultimately face being raised by a single parent who lacked higher education and who received sporadic or no child support. As recent immigrants, we also could not fall back on the type of government safety net that would typically help support children in similar situations.

Unbeknownst to my sister and me, my mother often wondered whether she would be able to provide food for the next day. After she obtained our first apartment, our first set of utensils were from a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts—not out of choice, but out of necessity.

Yet my mother was still able to create enough stability, or some semblance of it, for my sister and me to excel academically, a pursuit that my mother would always say was critical in creating a brighter future. I would finish high school in New Jersey, where I achieved the highest standardized test scores and among the highest grades in my graduating class. I went on to begin college at New York University.

Despite my interest in cosmology in middle school, my mother, who feared I may become a stereotypically disheveled professor, steered me toward other professions. During high school and the earliest years of college, I had my eyes set on medical school.

Although we had always known of our lack of immigration status, much of its effects had yet to rear their heads.

In 2007, I lost my wallet, which contained my driver’s license, Social Security card and employment authorization card. While at a government office to replace these documents, the agent asked whether my mother, who had accompanied me, was aware of deportation orders that had been issued in absentia several years prior.

Hearing of these orders was devastating. My focus shifted from academics to wondering when we would be placed on a plane back to Pakistan. At the same time, I also realized that admission to medical school would be virtually impossible. Prior to the announcement of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals by President Barack Obama in 2012, U.S. medical schools rarely took students who were not citizens or permanent residents. On the rare occasion that they did admit international students, they usually required four years of tuition to be placed into escrow, a financial feat that would be impossible for me. Additionally, a few days prior to my sister’s first week at college at Rutgers University, her financial aid offer was entirely revoked due to her immigration status.

A scholarship and financial aid at NYU notwithstanding, I knew that my college tuition had already been placing severe financial stress on my mother. There was no way for her to bear the tuitions of both schools simultaneously. Without the drive and focus to continue, and knowing that my mother would not be able to afford payments to both schools, I decided to pause my education.

In 2009, I enrolled at Saint Peter’s University, a small Jesuit institution in New Jersey that was significantly more affordable. While there, I chose to pursue a degree in economics and pursue law school.

I enrolled at law school at Washington University in St. Louis in 2011. The law school published a yearly profile on its incoming class, which included a section on which foreign countries were represented by students visiting the U.S. for their legal degree. The class of 2014’s law school profile listed four countries: China, South Korea, Germany and Pakistan. Unlike China, South Korea and Germany, there were no students visiting from Pakistan. Just me. It was an acute reminder of how I’ve always straddled two identities: one in all but paper as an American, the other in little but paper as a Pakistani.

Zain Sayed is an employment attorney in Illinois, one of only about 10 states that admit DACA recipients to the bar. He works in Chicago for a midsize company that provides leave administration and human resources services.

#MyPathToLaw is a guest column that celebrates the diversity of the legal profession through attorneys’ first-person stories detailing their unique and inspiring trajectories. Read more #mypathtolaw stories on Twitter.


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