Updated: Aug 9, 2021
Mitra Ebadolahi: Protecting Civil Rights at the Border
Mitra Ebadolahi’s dedication to securing equity and justice for all has been a lifelong pursuit. After immigrating to the United States from Iran as a child, Mitra took advantage of every educational opportunity to develop a comprehensive understanding of the institutions and structures that shape people’s lives and to fully craft her perspective of how the law does—and should—function for those who have been historically excluded from power. Now, as a Senior Staff Attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of San Diego and Imperial Counties, Mitra brings this extensive knowledge to bear on constitutional cases that seek to assert the rights of individuals and communities throughout the borderlands.
Mitra was born in Tehran, Iran in 1980, in the wake of the Iranian Revolution. Shortly after her younger brother was born, her family left Iran for California, where her mother’s family had previously settled. Although both her parents were college-educated, their degrees did not transfer to the United States. Consequently, her father began working at a gas station as a cashier, and her mother worked as a librarian. Mitra’s parents highly valued education and made significant sacrifices to afford their children better opportunities in America.
Mitra naturalized in 2000. Mitra fondly remembers her swearing-in ceremony, where she was moved by the diversity of the participants and the paths they took—each journey with its own sacrifices and hardships—en route to that moment. The spirit of naturalization ceremonies, in her view, represents the very best of the United States.
Growing up, Mitra did not know she wanted to be a lawyer; in fact, neither she nor her parents knew any lawyers. Instead, her journey to a legal career was the end result of a more deliberate learning process, during which she paid close attention to the intersection of law and power in multiple fields of study.
While an undergraduate at UCLA double-majoring in International Development Studies and History, Mitra took on an interdisciplinary curriculum that included courses on geography, political science, history, and economics, with a focus on the Middle East and Latin America. During her studies, she encountered two “languages” that repeatedly operated to disempower the communities with which she identified the most: economics and the law. Time and again, particularly in the context of accelerating globalization, Mitra observed how people without economic power or political capital were at the mercy of these two disciplines.
In pursuit of a fuller understanding of these schools of thought, Mitra secured a U.S.-UK Fulbright Scholarship with the help of UCLA’s College Honors Program. As a Fulbright Scholar, she studied at the London School of Economics, where she enrolled in the Politics of the World Economy program within the Political Science Department. Aware that many LSE professors were staunch advocates for neoliberal economic models and “free trade,” Mitra’s goal during her studies was to better understand the perspective of those whose worldviews were fundamentally at odds with her own.
Mitra atop the mountain at the Teleferique Cable Car, Jounieh, Lebanon in 2015.
Due to family financial hardships, when Mitra decided she would apply to law school, she also decided that she would attend only if she could do so without amassing significant debt. With a steadfast commitment to public interest lawyering in mind, she ultimately decided to attend New York University as a Root-Tilden-Kern Public Interest Scholar and Institute for International Law and Justice Scholar.
After completing her JD, Mitra also completed a thesis-based LLM in International Legal Studies, the coursework for which she completed between the federal district court and appellate clerkships she had secured post-graduation. Her LLM thesis focused on the “human collateral consequences” of the United Kingdom’s counterterrorism laws and policies after September 11, and on the limits of human rights-based litigation to preserve or protect individual and community dignity.
Bookending Mitra’s LLM program were two clerkships: one with Judge Margaret Morrow in the Central District of California and another with Judge Betty Fletcher on the Ninth Circuit. She found clerking to be an invaluable experience in establishing her career on the West Coast and understanding how courts functioned in practice.
After her clerkship with Judge Fletcher, Mitra worked for the ACLU’s National Security Project in New York, where she litigated a variety of constitutional and Freedom of Information Act cases. In 2013, she joined the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties as a Border Litigation Project attorney. Now a Senior Staff Attorney, Mitra focuses on cases asserting civil and human rights violations in the borderlands—lawsuits at the intersection of immigrants’ rights, police practices, and racial justice. The substance of Mitra’s practice covers a wide range of civil rights and constitutional law. She has litigated cases that raise constitutional challenges to summary removal practices, seek to protect First Amendment rights of journalists and civilians at the border, assert the rights of Mexican victims of cross-border shootings involving U.S. government officials, and aim to procure government documents under FOIA to educate the public regarding immigration enforcement tactics within the United States.
Although she dislikes when disputes become antagonistic and awaiting significant decisions in complex cases, Mitra appreciates the opportunity to live within and learn from a diverse, resilient border community and to share her understanding of the law with her community, in return. Mitra prioritizes client-centered lawyering; she has learned so much from her clients and community advocates.
In particular, Mitra finds it highly affirming to be able to advise her clients and community members that they have certain fundamental rights, insulated from government intrusion, and that they can use a variety of tactics to enforce those rights when transgressions occur. She finds it fulfilling to translate the Constitution beyond something simply theoretical or aspirational by giving constitutional rights a practical, utilitarian meaning in the lives of her clients and community members.
Mitra snuggles with a skeptical canine friend at the South Park Walkabout in 2017.
Outside of Legal Practice
When she is not dedicating her time and efforts to border litigation, Mitra serves as an adjunct lecturer at University of California, Irvine School of Law. She has taught seminars on Constitutional Rights at the Border and Race and Criminal Justice and has taught courses on immigration, asylum, and refugee law. Teaching helps Mitra remember what it feels like to lack familiarity with the law; rereading cases and helping students understand them helps her better understand the material and provides a fresh perspective on the legal landscape.
In her limited free time, she enjoys tackling the PopSugar Reading Challenge, trying not to steal other people’s dogs, and learning how to cook.
Advice for Students and New Practitioners
Mitra encourages law students on public interest career paths to understand the range of options (whether direct services or impact litigation or a mix of both) and to determine the contexts which they most enjoy. She also advises students to obtain broad exposure to both criminal and civil law before focusing on a more specific area of practice, as public interest work often involves issues that straddle both these provinces of law.
As for courtroom practice, Mitra advises that lawyers refrain from talking over the judge and misstating the record, and instead be willing to admit when they do not know the answer. Relatedly, she also urges attorneys and law students alike to abandon the bravado and know-it-all personas. While Mitra acknowledges that it is important for lawyers to share their expertise, she notes that it does not have to come at the expense of actively listening, recognizing one’s privilege, and exercising humility—all of which are critical to being an effective advocate.
* Alisha Ansari is a member of the San Diego Chapter of the Federal Bar Association’s Public Relations Committee. She is Mitra’s former student and a Judicial Law Clerk in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California.