Skadden Fellow: Nisha Agarwal on Her Challenges and Opportunities as New York City’s Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs

Nisha Agarwal’s decision to enter public service surprised absolutely no one.

“Social justice is very deeply rooted in my family,” Nisha says. Her parents taught her from a very young age to work hard in support of her beliefs — which early on centered mostly on the importance of returning ailing animals back to health. Nisha’s grandfather, who marched for Indian independence alongside Mahatma Gandhi, served as a powerful example of what can be accomplished through devotion to one’s ideals.

The focus of Nisha’s own public service began to take shape when she was starting law school and her brother became seriously ill. “Thankfully, my family spoke English and had insurance, but the experience was so difficult even without those barriers,” says Nisha, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from India. “It really opened my eyes to the many struggles that immigrants and others who are less fortunate must face.”

After graduating from Harvard Law School in 2006, Nisha joined New York Lawyers for the Public Interest as a Skadden Fellow. Her project focused on addressing language barriers in the health care setting. Nisha stayed with the organization for nearly six years, ultimately serving as the director of its Health Justice Program. As director, she addressed many of the obstacles for immigrants seeking health care she had witnessed firsthand. Among other projects, she advocated for low-income immigrants unable to access health services due to language barriers and helped implement important reforms throughout New York City, such as the country’s first Language Access in Pharmacies Act. “It was my dream job,” Nisha says. “It was exciting to craft solutions to address the gaps that so many immigrants must overcome.”

In 2012, Nisha and former Skadden Fellow Andrew Friedman (’98) co-founded the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD), a national nonprofit that seeks to shape policy by building and strengthening partnerships between community organizing groups around the country. Nisha served as a deputy director, coordinating legislative campaigns regarding health care, immigration and civil rights, and on the organization’s senior leadership team, which was responsible for strategic planning, institution-building and fundraising.

Then, in February 2014, Nisha found her “second dream job”: Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed her to serve as commissioner of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA), which is responsible for developing programs to assist the city’s more than 3 million foreign-born residents. Nisha says her role feels like an extension of her previous position, albeit on a much larger platform. During her first week as commissioner, she outlined her three top priorities: identifying where to expand immigrant inclusion, providing the immigrant community with legal access and determining how New York can help advocate for reforms for immigrant communities. Her first major responsibilities include assisting in the creation of a municipal ID card, which will be available to all city residents regardless of immigration status. This marks familiar territory for Nisha, who completed a large study of such IDs while at CPD. “It’s exciting to be able to actually implement the ID cards,” Nisha says. “New York will soon be the largest city ever to have tried this program. But for it to work, it has to focus not only on immigrants but on everyone in the city. The goal is for the cards to become a widely accepted form of identification, including by the NYPD and financial institutions.”

During her first months on the job, Nisha also met with a wide range of groups to discuss their most pressing concerns. She recalls that whatever immigrant communities the advocates represented and whatever languages they spoke, they consistently raised the same issues, including wage theft, abusive employers, and the need for legal access and assistance. Nisha and her team have begun the challenging process of marshalling the resources necessary to address these concerns for the city’s immigrants.

“It feels like we’re rolling a boulder up a mountain,” Nisha says, “but we’re doing it as a team.”