Niloufar Khonsari Is Winning an Unlikely Legal Battle

Niloufar Khonsari Is Winning an Unlikely Legal Battle

By Taylor Mayol


Because immigration is complicated, and so is she.

By Taylor Mayol

Niloufar Khonsari works on the sixth floor of a towering marble building in San Francisco’s financial district, right next door to the city’s Federal Reserve. A gold nameplate leads me inside Pangea Legal Services, where just beyond the cherry-wood door a team of baby-faced lawyers are at work. The petite 32-year-old Khonsari greets me with an easy hug and takes me back to her office, which features a prominent Pink Floyd poster with the quote “Mother, should I trust the government?” That’s actually a question Khonsari’s clients ask often these days.

Anyone not living under a rock, knows it’s not a good time to be an immigration lawyer in America; it’s even worse to be a deportation defense lawyer. In fact, Khonsari just got back from a meet-and-greet with the newest sheriff in charge of local Bay Area immigration enforcements, and already she can see it’s not going to be an easy relationship. Yet, despite the odds, in just three years, this Iranian-born, Georgetown graduate has managed to build a thriving nonprofit using a relatively unheard of business model called “low-bono,” where clients pay a nominal fee and more than half of financing comes from grants and donations. But her powers of persuasion don’t just win over investors; Pangea Legal Services has won most of its cases, securing asylum for undocumented migrants facing deportation, compared with a national average of 46 percent, and most of those aren’t even adversarial but proactive. Khonsari’s even managed to get the ear of some of California’s most powerful lawmakers, including Nancy Pelosi and Dianne Feinstein. Did I perhaps just embrace the next Kamala Harris?

With long, almost-black hair, light olive skin and perfectly sculpted eyebrows, Khonsari’s success likely has something to do with her ability to adapt. Wearing a dark-green turtleneck and blazer, she’s like a chameleon. The five-language-speaking former Fulbright Fellow fled Iran with her mother as a baby, going first to Germany and, by sixth grade, to America — but not legally, which meant a lot of moving around. “I became a pro at sitting down next to people and asking, ‘Do you want to be my friend?’ ” she says. As political refugees, Khonsari and her mom finally gained citizenship by her senior year in high school. Fast-forward and Khonsari is engaged to an American real estate attorney and wears a giant, sparkly star sapphire ring. 

Pangea mr 4607

Niloufar Khonsari walks with her client ”Nelly” down the streets of San Francisco. Nelly fled Honduras with her three children after several family members were shot in the streets.

Source Cheshire Isaacs for Pangea Legal Services

In Khonsari’s snug office, her new client Maria (we’ve changed her name for protection) and her 2-year-old granddaughter take a seat. Over tears and then laughs, they go over the details of Maria’s background. Maria fled a lifetime of violence and an abusive husband in Honduras 12 years ago, before sending for her two daughters and son (one of her daughters and two son-in-laws were murdered by a cartel before they could make it). There is now a deportation warrant out for the 52-year-old, but she’s terrified to go back since she has no family there — and the cartels don’t look kindly on women who flee. (Honduras has the highest number of female murders in the world.) 

Most of Pangea’s clients are from Latin America, and they find their way to the office only after being threatened with deportation, so this is not a group that benefits from sympathy; in 2014, almost 316,000 undocumented immigrants were deported. Clients who do win asylum are put on a path to citizenship and given a work visa. What makes Khonsari so good is that she can navigate the politics. She’s been known to take clients to meet with lawmakers, and in the courtroom, she sticks around after decisions to ask for feedback from judges and prosecutors. What swayed their decision? What could she do differently? It may be classic Sun Tzu, but it works. She’s kind to her core, but at the same time she has guts, says Francisco Ugarte, an immigration attorney with the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office.

But not everyone is a fan. Khonsari says some of her colleagues have balked at her age and inexperience. To be fair, a big reason for her success rate is that she takes on far fewer cases than most nonprofits in this field. Then, of course, there are those who disagree with her mission entirely. Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, says immigration lawyers intentionally drag out deportation cases, putting the safety of Americans at risk. 

After dark, we walk to the Spanish-language network Univision’s headquarters just a few blocks away. She’s a familiar face, not just to the journalists here, but, since she has a regular segment on the rights of undocumented immigrants, also to the channel’s hundreds of thousands of viewers. Khonsari has in many ways become a spokesperson for immigrant rights, leading rallies, petitioning politicians and countering the xenophobic voices on the right. Tonight, Khonsari is discussing how to prepare before you’re detained. Because her answer is: No, you can’t trust the government. But with a track record like Khonsari’s, you can trust her.

Video by Charlotte Buchen.

An earlier version of this story stated that Khonsari was married.