08.08.16 | Alumni Spotlight, News, Student Spotlight

Scholar Spotlight: Joel Sati ’16

Scholar Spotlight: Joel Sati ’16

Joel Sati, a 2016 City College of New York alumnus, is one of 30 recipients of 2018 Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans.


Lawyers Should Work to Empower the Marginalized

Joel Sati, a member of Skadden’s fifth cohort, aspires to be a philosopher and professor of law who focuses on issues of political philosophy, immigration and citizenship. While at City College, Joel has served as a collaborative researcher, a Mellon Mays and City College fellow, and as an activist and organizer of the city’s African youth. Joel’s work, while strongly theoretical is grounded in his own life experience as an undocumented immigrant from Kenya who arrived to the U.S. at age nine.

“When I came out as undocumented, it was very important for my personal development that I utilize my story and the lessons I learn from it to effect change. It’s like this: my life gives me perspective, and my perspective informs my work.” says Joel.

Joel believes that diversifying the legal profession in a substantive way includes diversifying the legal professoriate: soon-to-be lawyers will benefit greatly by learning from faculty with similar experiences and from similar backgrounds. “I believe that an aspiring lawyer will be motivated even more when they are learning about various aspects of the law from faculty of color. It affirms the idea that there is no area where your experiences cannot be seen as a credit to the law, both professionally and pedagogically.”

Joel is confident that lawyers can “help make sure people’s stories have legal bearing.” He developed this idea with support from the City College Fellowship in a paper titled “The 1.5 Generation: On Jus Nexi, Rootedness, and Citizenship,” which was published in the Marist Undergraduate Philosophy Journal. Joel wrote the paper under the supervision of Professor Benjamin Vilhauer of the CCNY Philosophy Department, and he presented the paper at both CCNY and Stanford.

In addition to this paper, Joel has done more extensive work in political philosophy, writing about undocumented immigrants. He has presented his research at Rutgers and at the Society for the Study of Africana Philosophy.

Currently, Joel is working on a project tentatively titled “On Undocumented Immigrants, the Fear of Deportation, and Psychological Considerations.” This project argues, first, that, as humans, undocumented immigrants should receive basic rights protections and, second, that they should be able to do so without fearing deportation or other immigration penalties. In making this case, the paper develops the concept of firewalls, as advocated by Joseph Carens and elaborated by David Miller.

Firewalls are policies allowing undocumented immigrants to claim basic rights protections (such as that of health, education, etc.) without fear of deportation. However, Joel argues that we should not assume that this is the most effective – let alone the only –  lens through which we should understand undocumented immigrants’ experiences. He argues that, given plausible assumptions about the psychology of undocumented immigrants, firewalls alone will be insufficient protection for undocumented immigrants seeking basic rights protections.

His paper gives a basic account of other aspects of undocumented experiences beyond fear of deportation. Although a large part of firewalls’ effectiveness hinges on their ability to counter undocumented immigrants’ fear of deportation, other “fears” they experience, arise from a political environment in which undocumented immigrants are stigmatized. Though still in its draft stages, the paper seeks to make headway in investigating the role that trauma plays in the political situation of undocumented immigrants, both in the United States and elsewhere.

A major conclusion of Joel’s work is that questions of citizenship do not exist in a vacuum. Joel argues that the legal profession should pay more attention to race, instead of pretending to be color-blind: “Lawyers should discuss the status of people of color and their relationship to naturalization and criminalization practices, because the experiences of people of color haven’t been color-blind.”

To delve more into this issue, Joel worked under the supervision of Professor Richard Bernstein of the CCNY Political Science department to conduct a detailed historical study of race and immigration in early American history. The resulting paper shows how policy debates on immigration were infused with economic interests, political ideologies, and racism. U.S. policymakers were profoundly suspicious of French revolutionary ideas that immigrants might carry with them. They promoted the replication of the U.S.’s own, more conservative type of revolution, which did not include everyone. The pursuit of liberty was considered the natural right of white males, but the black Haitians who succeeded in overthrowing their colonial rulers – the second revolution in the Americas – were considered a political threat and banned from entering the US. This also extended to the slave trade; neither slaves nor slave-owners from Haiti were allowed entry to the US for fear of spreading revolt.

In the spring of 2015, Joel co-taught a course titled African American Political Thought. Shocked at the lack of a course on Black political thought, he brought the idea of the course to Bernstein who accepted on the condition that Joel co-teach it. “As someone who wants to be a law professor, to have the opportunity to develop a syllabus, pick out the readings, and then go out in front of a class and command the room, it’s an opportunity very few people get. I’m thankful for the opportunity, and who I will be as a professor will be largely due to Prof. Bernstein’s influence and the opportunity he extended.” Even though he regards it as an unqualified success, he recalls its many challenges: “Even picking out the name was controversial! I preferred the title Black American Political Thought, but even with that name you still get the sense that whether Black people consider themselves American is something that is in question even today. That should give you a glimpse.” The class utilized many books, from established classics such as Black Feminist Thought by Patricia Hill Collins and The Racial Contract by Charles Mills, to contemporary tour-de-forces such as Citizen by Claudia Rankine, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and The New Jim Crow by Michele Alexander. The course was so successful; it will now be a permanent offering from the CCNY political science department. “That’s quite the legacy to leave, and it’s something I’ll forever be proud of.”

In 2014, Joel interned at African Communities Together, where he was tasked with creating a youth organizing arm. Joel started organizing in the South Bronx, bringing together African activists and students from CUNY schools such as Lehman College in the Bronx and John Jay College in Manhattan. After organizing for a semester, Joel brought together all the young leaders he had recruited in a meeting at CCNY. Students arrived from four CUNY schools, with nine African countries being represented. The meeting resulted in the development of a strong network of young African immigrant rights activists in New York.

Through his organizing, Joel has witnessed the concrete effects of President Obama’s recent executive actions to expand Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and initiate Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA). DACA – and, if it survives the legal challenge, DAPA – grants those eligible prosecutorial discretion, which protects them from deportation for two years; they can also receive work authorization during this period.

In the Fall of 2015, Joel interned for the New York Immigration Coalition. As part of their Special Projects team, he was one of the people who laid the foundation for the Black Immigrant Engagement Initiative. The initiative, which went live in April, funded organizations and legal providers whose mission is to serve New York’s many Black immigrant communities from Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. “The Initiative was a transformative experience for me because we got to put theory into practice, if you will. When immigrant communities have access to services they become part of the community. More important, their voice gets factored in to policy issues whose solutions become more responsive to their needs.” Joel hopes that the initiative will spark similar projects with a wider scope so that more immigrant communities utilize necessary health, legal, and citizenship services as well as become agents of change in America’s complex citizenship debate.

He knows from personal experience as an undocumented immigrant the hardships faced by immigrants in this country. He recounts the day he found out he was undocumented: “When I was a senior in high school applying to colleges, I remember feeling like I forgot my social security number, and then my mother telling me I didn’t have one. That was a pretty bad time to know that, and I tried to stick it out. I applied to some schools, and then I got in. However, the school that I ended up deciding on didn’t give me aid, and since I was really ineligible for most aid, I unenrolled from school. This was before Deferred Action, so I couldn’t go to school and I couldn’t work.”

Joel found a Maryland community college willing to give him the in-county tuition rate, which his family could afford. He loved his classes and ended up graduating at the top of his class. “During community college, I started getting into immigration activism, and I campaigned for the Maryland DREAM Act, which was passed in a referendum in 2012, and now all undocumented students who attend a Maryland community college get to go to a Maryland state university with in-state tuition. They’re still not eligible for federal aid, but they have the ability to go there in-state. So that was actually pretty major.”

The executive actions are – or should be – only the beginning of a path toward comprehensive immigration reform, according to Joel. “I feel that the initiatives so far have been a good step, but I know a lot of people who were unable to qualify just because they were too old or they came a little bit later than the 2012 requirements. The executive actions don’t go as far as I’d want them to go. That may just be a function of the limits of executive power, which only makes it more apparent that we need to keep on advocating for undocumented immigrants such that they have the opportunity to regularize their status.”

However, citizenship status – or getting papers –  is not the most important thing for Joel: “One of the things that struck me about being undocumented is that you also find out that there is a difference between being a citizen because of paper and a substantive notion of citizenship – that is, being a citizen because you are considered a member of society. What will it mean to have citizenship status if you are still oppressed?” Joel utilizes the political realities of undocumented status and philosophy to examine various notions of citizenship and how to develop immigration reform that not only grants status, but, more substantively, regards those affected by it as full persons.

Joel shares his views, personal reflections, and research findings on his blog, “Undocumental”. Joel plans to use the law as a scholar and activist to help create just immigration policies and new conceptions of citizenship.

This fall, Joel will begin his PhD at UC Berkeley School of Law in their Jurisprudence and Social Policy (JSP) program. There, he will focus on the intersection of law and political philosophy as it has to do with questions of immigration, race, and normative citizenship. In addition to the PhD, Joel plans to begin his JD in the fall of 2019.

Joel is thankful for the Skadden program and the critical role it played in his pursuit of a legal academic career. He says: “Being a member of the Skadden program was an important part of my development. Because of the seminars I took and tutoring I received I improved greatly as a scholar and a writer. With the program’s guidance and support I was able to finish school. More important, I believed that a career in legal academia is something that I can shoot for.”