Sirine Shebaya -- Civil Rights and Immigration Law

Currently in private practice as a Civil Rights and Immigration Attorney; previously Civil Rights Attorney at ACLU of Maryland, then Program Director at Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition

At what stage of your academic career did you start thinking about seeking nonacademic work?

I come from Lebanon and had done my undergrad degree there. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do afterward, but being an academic seemed like a great option, so I applied to three PhD programs abroad. I got into one and it looked like an interesting opportunity, so I went for it without fully having thought it through: Does it suit me? What does it look like to be an academic? But pretty early on, within a couple of years of beginning the PhD program, it was clear to me that I didn’t think that I’d want to be an academic for the rest of my life—at least not purely theoretical academia without any practical component. I was going to finish my PhD because I started it, but I was not going to be really happy in philosophy academia.

Can you tell me what you were moving away from or what you wanted in a position?

When I was in Lebanon I was pretty politically active. I wanted to have a more direct impact on the world. I like to work with people. I like the feedback of immediate meaning—a deadline or a court filing, something like that. Whatever I did, it was helpful for me to have those external inputs. By contrast, in academic philosophy, everything always felt like the stakes were not quite high enough. I was interested intellectually in the things that we talked and thought and read about, but it was a struggle to get myself to write a paper, to really get myself to care. And the reason I cared about these questions to begin with was because I cared about broader social justice issues. As I started to understand what academic philosophy was, it became clearer to me that I didn’t think I would be happy to engage with things primarily at that level of abstraction.

What kinds of questions did you focus on in your graduate program?

I focused on political philosophy and ethics. My dissertation dealt with aspects of the liberalism, communitarianism, and multiculturalism debate; with who the ultimate unit of moral concern should be. It was about the reasons that moral individualism—meaning individuals as the ultimate objects of moral concern in political discourse—does not have to be opposed to what is valuable about communitarian ideas and community-based values.

Is there a unifying intellectual theme that connects your academic interests to your interest in working for the ACLU?

I should mention that I’m about to start working for an organization called the Capitol Area Immigrants Rights Coalition. They work mostly with detained immigrants and on issues at the intersection of criminal justice and immigration. But to your question, I was interested in academia because I was interested in what it means to have a socially just world; how things should be structured so that everybody can have equal prospects; what the moral underpinnings are for these things. And I’ve always been interested in the rights of outsiders in various contexts because I grew up in a civil war. The context in which I came of age was so chaotic and awful in so many ways—wonderful in others— and my career choices have been driven by that. I’ve been working on the rights of immigrants and migrants and refugees; people who have the least voice and least ability to influence how things happen in our society; people who are very easily discriminated against and shut out of being able to access the rights that they do have in the political and legal system. I would say that’s the thread.

You mentioned thinking about leaving academia even early on in your PhD. But you did a postdoc after finishing your degree. Can you tell me how that came together?

There were a number of different things going on. One is that I was here on a student visa. I had to keep that line open, so I went on the academic job market while also taking the LSAT. I was fortunate: I had a couple of tenure track offers and this postdoc offer. The postdoc was a joint position between Georgetown University in DC and Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. It brought together scholars from philosophy, law, and medicine to consider questions in bioethics and health policy. It was two years, in a good location, and it meant that I didn’t have to commit to a tenure track job. The tenure track offers were great opportunities. It was just really clear to me at that moment that what I really wanted was not to be an academic philosopher. The postdoc was a good opportunity to explore what I wanted to do next and to see whether a different kind of academic work, more applied work, would be a better fit. I realized that it could be, but that I needed to be really engaged in a practice first. I wanted to work with people. That’s why I applied to law school that year and went to law school after the postdoc. I felt if I practiced for awhile and worked on the things that I cared about and that moved me, maybe I could eventually go back and be a clinical academic, where you combine intellectual interests with real practice, working on cases and reflecting on the state of a certain area of law.

Can you tell me more about what it means to be a clinical academic?

Legal academia employs two sorts of academics. There are theoretical professors. They’re basically like philosophers; they work on more abstract, theoretical matters. Clinical professors typically run clinics for students where they take on cases of different kinds. Some are very specific: you represent immigrants in proceedings. Some are more general: you can work on human rights reports and things like that. Some allow you to take on impact cases—big systematic litigation work. Clinical professors run these clinics, supervise students working on cases, and do some work on the cases themselves. They also do work more typical of academia: they teach some classes, they publish articles or even books. It’s a combination career that I find very compelling.

I imagine that you had internships while you were in law school. What were your experiences outside of coursework?

The first summer I worked for Human Rights Watch in DC and Beirut, Lebanon. The second summer I worked at the Immigrants’ Rights project of the ACLU in New York. I applied for a Liman fellowship, a one-year fellowship offered by my law school to do public interest work, and did my fellowship at the ACLU in Maryland. My husband was living nearby in DC. Maryland also seemed like it had much more interesting immigrant-related things happening than DC, so that’s what I did. I came in as a fellow, extended for a second year and then was hired as a regular attorney to do our immigrants’ rights work.

Can you describe that work on a day-to-day basis and also the larger projects that you work on?

The ACLU is a unique place in that you can do a combination of advocacy, case investigation and related legal work, and litigation—plus some communications, public outreach and community education. My work was very diverse, which I really enjoyed. When I started at the ACLU in Maryland, they didn’t have any work at all happening on immigrants’ rights. It was a great opportunity to build something.

When I first started, my day-to-day work involved outreach to different community organizations, clinical professors, immigration organizations and immigrants’ rights organizations to learn what the space in Maryland was like and what the needs were. Then I started actually developing projects—some for reports, legislation, and policy, some for administrative advocacy where you send demand letters to local or state governments telling them that their practices aren’t constitutional and that they should change them, trying to create change that way. Some of my work consisted of case development and litigation. My days were not very similar to one another. Some were very desk-based: doing research, writing briefs. Some days I was in detention centers interviewing people to see if I could help them in some way or discover cases that would fit the systematic goals that I was trying to accomplish while also helping those people individually. I did research for reports: Freedom of Information Act requests on various federal and state actors, qualitative interviews. I talked to the press and went to community events, talks and trainings. Some of my work involved being in court, actually litigating cases. The thing about civil rights cases is that they take a very long time from filing to really moving. A lot of the work is case development. I also did a bunch of legislative work. Our legislative session in Maryland was 3 months long. If there was a big immigrants’ rights bill that we were trying to push, I would be there lobbying legislators, putting out talking points and analyses, writing and giving testimony on various things. One year I actually drafted and presented a bill. That involved finding a sponsor for the bill, putting together a coalition of allies, writing up all of the materials, and publishing a report in advance of the legislative session so that the issue would be on the radar. Unfortunately, the legislation didn’t pass, but the next year we were able to get the changes we wanted using administrative advocacy.

Can you compare and contrast the policy work you did before the JD to the work you did after you became a lawyer? How does policy work in a legal context compare to, say, the kind of policy work that you were doing at Johns Hopkins? There have got to be political philosophers out there who are thinking, “Yeah, I want to do policy work, but do I need a JD to do it?”

It depends on your temperament and what you are looking for. I thought the legal degree was very helpful because it sharpened my policy work. It allowed me to really have a handle on the downside and the upside of following through on a policy ask. I didn’t have that concrete sense when I was working on things as an academic. The policy work that comes out of academia can be a bit abstract and not as grounded in what the law is, what you need to do to change it, and what the upsides and downsides of various changes are. The law degree helped me sharpen my focus; it gave me a better sense of concrete reality. I don’t think that a law degree is necessary for policy work per se, but a lot of policy overlaps with law, so having a really clear sense of how the legal system works and where the push points are and what methods you can use to make change in different places, that’s very valuable.

When I was an academic I would be much more inclined to start from first principles, and the focus of my writing was on how things should be—that was very compelling for me. Once I understood how the law works, I had a better sense of, for example, how changing two small things could have a really large impact. I still have the same “should” in mind for the long view, but in the short term, I’m thinking of how things are first, rather than how they should be, and thinking of concrete ways things can be changed—for example, this is something that can be resolved through litigation; that is something that would be more easily achieved through legislation or public education, etc. Sometimes it’s about power structures and who responds to whom and why a certain issue might be hot right now for legislators who feel like they have political cover to pass a law, versus an earlier time when they didn’t. The mindset I acquired in law school helps me sift through these kinds of considerations better.

Tell me about the job you are about to start, and how you moved to it from the ACLU.

I’ve done a lot of work with this organization, which sends a large part of its staff to detention centers to visit and work with immigration detainees. I’m interested in immigration detention issues, especially for prolonged detention: how people are treated, the use of solitary confinement, what happens to immigration detainees in the criminal and immigration systems. Having a certain kind of criminal conviction can really change your prospects completely on the immigration side. Educating public defenders about these things can make the difference between life or death, especially when people are fleeing dangerous circumstances. This organization directly focuses on that work. They had an opening in their Virginia Justice Program. I inherit their well-established criminal immigration program and will hopefully develop their impact litigation and systematic advocacy efforts.

[Editor's Note: since this interview Sirine has left her job and decided to take a brief hiatus from permanent employment for family reasons. She is working on a few pro bono cases in the interim.]

Tell me something about the balance between research and more interactive or collaborative tasks in your work at the ACLU and at this new job.

It really depends. Some weeks, especially for example during legislative sessions, we’re not at our desks a lot. We do some research, draft talking points, write up testimony, but a lot of the work is actually talking to people—coalition partners, legislators—getting everybody on board, making sure that positions are aligned. When I’m deeply mired in a litigation project, I spend a lot of time at my desk because I’m trying to get a brief out, trying to get some research out. Some weeks it’s mostly desk work, some weeks it’s a mix, and then there are often community events or trainings we give where you’re out there talking to people. That’s kind of like teaching classes, but a little more interactive, with a different kind of audience. My sense is that lawyers who work at the national ACLU tend to spend most of their time doing research and writing; maybe sometimes they are in court, but the bulk of what they do is to research and write. The lawyers at the affiliate level, at the state arms of the ACLU, have a more diverse docket, especially in smaller affiliates that don’t have tons of staff or attorneys. There, the attorneys often double up as litigators, policy advisors and experts, and community outreach people.

I ask because when you talked about philosophy’s questions being divorced from practical applications, I wondered whether it was too isolating, with too much time in one’s head.

Yeah. I do think that was a large part of it for me. It did feel very isolating. It did feel like there was no reality check on what you’re thinking about and very little connection to other people.

Do you have any advice for philosophers who might think they want to do what you did, or more general advice for philosophers who are thinking about leaving philosophy? You seem to have left it with confidence—you had the option to stay and still left.

The one thing that I didn’t do, and the reason it took as long as it did to find my footing, was that I didn’t use my summers well when I was in grad school. Partially that was because of my visa status: I taught summer classes sometimes and would go back and visit my family. I think people can use the summers to explore other opportunities. Get an internship with an organization that does something that you think you might want to be engaged in. Get a concrete sense of whether that’s something you might want to do. I think some people do that and they realize oh no, I really want to be an academic. Others realize, nope, I don’t want to be an academic.

I also think you can use your time during the school year. Nobody can write philosophy for 10 hours a day. People would do well, especially people who have doubts, to use their time well to see what they might want to do if they weren’t in philosophy by simultaneously exploring opportunities outside of that world.

I also think that being in school can be very exhausting in certain ways. Sometimes people who think they don’t want to be academics, really what they don’t want is to be in grad school. Once they are in a position where they are working, things really change. For me, it was worth it that I went as far as I did, because it confirmed that academic philosophy was not for me.

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Sirine's Background

Yale University School of Law (2012)

Bioethics and Health Policy Post-Doc
The Johns Hopkins University & Georgetown University (2007-2009)

PhD in Philosophy
Columbia University (2007)