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Veena Iyer
Veena Iyer

Breaking the Ice: Remote leadership to DACA response earns honor

Name: Veena Iyer

Title: Executive director, Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota

Education: B.A., history, University of Chicago; J.D., Harvard Law School

Executive Director Veena Iyer and staff at the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota (ILCM) were poised, despite the pandemic, to communicate with clients the moment the Supreme Court rejected the Trump administration’s bid to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in June 2020.

Coronavirus restrictions meant doing so remotely, from live-streamed social media sessions on the decision to online training of pro bono attorneys assisting DACA applicants.

Iyer’s leadership under the circumstances recently earned her a Hennepin County Bar Association 2021 Excellence Award.

“It’s a recognition of a team effort,” Iyer said. “All of the work we have done is the result of the enormous dedication of our staff, past and present, and volunteers and board members, past and present.”

Iyer, whose parents are from India, has family and friends who have been through the immigration system. She began her career as a legal aid attorney working with immigrants in Chicago and had volunteered with ILCM while in private practice before joining the St. Paul-based nonprofit in September 2019.

Q: Best way to start a conversation with you?

A: I love getting to know people, where you grew up, how you like spending time, your favorite book. I’m probably going to ask questions about you but if you start, I have no problem with that.

Q: Why did you go to law school?

A: To make the world a more just place. I worked with immigrant communities right before law school. Those are the communities that I felt a part of, that lacked access to services and that I was in a unique position to serve.

Q: What books are you reading?

A: “The Color of Law” by Richard Rothstein. I just read my kids “Areli Is a Dreamer,” a fantastic picture book by Areli Morales. Ibram Kendi’s “Stamped” has been turned into a kids’ version. I read it out loud and now my 7-year-old wants to become a professional protester. “The Night Watchman” by Louise Erdrich. “The Bombay Prince,” based on the first female lawyer in Bombay, India, by Sujata Massey, who grew up in St. Paul.

Q: What’s your pet peeve?

A: When you have straight quotes and it should be curly quotes in a printed document.

Q: Best part of your work?

A: My team. They’re an amazing group. I learn from them every day.

Q: Least favorite?

A: I miss my wonderful administrative assistant at my firm. She’s an amazing person and in nonprofits you don’t have as much “admin” support.

Q: Favorite activity away from work?

A: I love to read, take walks with my family and trivia. I’m a member of the Jane Austen Society of North America.

Q: Where would you take someone visiting your hometown?

A: For this purpose, I’ll describe my hometown as our family’s hometown in India, Chennai. I would take them to the house where my grandmother grew up. My mom was born there, my great grandfather and my great uncle who were judges lived there. Then probably have some yummy home-cooked Indian food, and talk to my family about the legal profession in India and  show them the kindness and hospitality of home in India.

Q: Legal figure you most admire?

A: I’m fortunate to have had so many wonderful mentors in particular Judge Matthew Kennelly in Chicago, Judge Susan Burke in Hennepin County and Justice Natalie Hudson. And the ethos of Justice Marshall, what he did with his career and as a judge.

Q: Misconception that others have about your work as an attorney?

A: That it has to be adversarial in a negative way. I and my staff advocate hard for our clients but we value doing so in a manner of professionalism and respect that makes it clear that we’re debating about ideas but we’re not denigrating each other as people.

Q: Favorite book, movie or TV show about lawyers?

A: I adore “Law & Order.”


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