Crossing Borders

Since her first summer as a law student at Yale, Professor Jaya Ramji-Nogales’ legal career has taken her across international borders, put her at odds with sovereign governments, and placed her in the thick of humanitarian crises. She has documented and challenged human rights abuses in Cambodia, India, and Uganda. Before entering into a more “traditional” practice, Ramji-Nogales used a year-long international human rights fellowship to partner with a South African lawyer in the creation of a refugee law clinic at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. At every opportunity, she has worked to make law an effective tool in the hands of people who otherwise would have none. And now, Ramji-Nogales teaches her students at Temple how to do the same thing.

“I have a deep interest in laws about crossing borders,” Professor Ramji-Nogales explains. It’s the common thread running through her academic focus on international law, which centers around human rights, refugee law, and transitional justice. But she also teaches civil procedure and evidence, she explains, “because these courses focus on procedural due process, and fair procedure is crucial in guaranteeing fundamental human rights.” Her scholarship focuses on the procedural rights of immigrants in the United States under international human rights law, because, in her words, “these rights are not strongly protected under U.S. law, so it makes sense to explore international standards of justice.” Temple Law’s strong programs in international law and public interest were significant motivations for Ramji-Nogales’ decision to pursue her interests here.

One area of U.S. law in particular has come under Professor Ramji-Nogales’ critical gaze: asylum law and policy. Ramji-Nogales’ co-authored book, Refugee Roulette: Disparities in Asylum Adjudication and Proposals for Reform, presents data that reveal tremendous disparities in asylum approval rates throughout the country. The study, which was reported on the front page of the New York Times, found that asylum adjudication in the United States appears to be tied to random factors influencing individual decision makers rather than the merits of the actual asylum applications. In a follow-up study, Ramji-Nogales is working with her Refugee Roulette co-authors to investigate data on decision-making at the Department of Homeland Security’s Asylum Offices, which is the first step in the U.S. asylum process.

But even as Professor Ramji-Nogales becomes immersed in the daily practices of asylum adjudicators across the nation, she has steadfastly pursued inquiries into her other areas of interest as well. An article on transitional justice (the process by which societies account for crimes of mass violence), another one on women, forced migration, and international criminal law, and a third on reparations in Cambodia are all in various stages of completion. The last has particular significance, not only because it involves her work as legal advisor to the Documentation Center of Cambodia, but because she is co-writing it with Temple Law student Toni Holness.

The DC-Cam, as the Documentation Center is popularly called, is responsible for documenting potential evidence of crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge regime for use in the genocide trials currently underway there. Professor Ramji-Nogales first worked with the DC-Cam while in law school and has maintained a close relationship with the organization, serving for over a decade as a legal advisor. Because of this relationship, each year, the DC-Cam hires one Temple Law student for a summer internship involving hands-on experience seeking justice for those whose lives have been torn apart by the human rights abuses they have suffered. It’s a transformative experience, compelling a richer understanding of what it means to serve as a lawyer in the global community.

But for Temple students, the experience does not have to end there. As a professor, Ramji-Nogales is deeply committed to engaging interested students in scholarly work, often serving as an advisor for guided research papers or law review notes. For students like Holness, who spent a summer at the DC-Cam, this can mean an opportunity to join the global human rights community sooner rather than later by gaining both scholarly recognition and valuable connections. “It’s really about creating an opportunity for students to take what they’ve learned and put it into practice,” says Ramji-Nogales. “Mentorship like this is important for all law students, but it’s particularly necessary in navigating the tricky field of human rights law.”

The opportunity to provide such mentorship is a big part of why Ramji-Nogales became a law professor in the first place. “Becoming a lawyer is a big change, and change is never easy. Law school can be really difficult for students, especially women and minorities of all kinds. I like helping all of my students to build confidence in their lawyering abilities, and to find the right career path as they transition from law school to practice.” It’s an approach that has resonated well at Temple Law, where Ramji-Nogales has found that her colleagues often have an open-door policy “with students and with each other. You can really discuss anything that’s on your mind – the Temple Law faculty is here to help.”

In many ways, Professor Jaya Ramji-Nogales’ interest in mentoring students mirrors her more academic pursuits. In both contexts, Ramji-Nogales is concerned with mapping the complexities of migration – whether personal, professional, geographic, or some combination – across the borders that demarcate all of our lives. Because of her efforts and those of the many lawyers she’s trained, refugees and immigrants the world over will have one more tool to use as they make their perilous journeys: the law.