Pravinchandra Patel immigrated to the United States in 1970, at the height of the civil rights movement. By the time he earned a master’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin later that year, American activists had played a role in the passage of several laws granting immigrants more rights, and one of those laws had set the stage for Patel’s arrival.
The 80-year-old East Meadow resident was born in Gujarat, India, where he studied law before emigrating to continue his education. The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 abolished America’s quota system, and granted easier access to people like Patel who sought work in the U.S.
He spoke to the Herald about his journey to America and his passion for the law, which led him to become an immigration attorney and the author of the series Patel’s Immigration Law Library. “I was always writing,” he said, referring to the start of his career. “Anywhere I would come across a new point, I’d write about it.”
Patel’s cluttered office in East Meadow holds his collection, along with several other books he has written, merchandise sporting the East Meadow High School logo and three maps of the world: one on his mouse pad, another on the wall behind him and another in the form of an interactive children’s globe.
When he completed his master’s nine months after his arrival in America, Patel also earned a visa, calling the process “fairly easy.” He was living with his wife Manjula, who was also an Indian immigrant, although their sons, Samir, now 62, and Bimal, 56, stayed behind — a common practice among immigrants his age, he explained, because “we could not afford to live [in America] and raise a family there.”
After graduating, Patel moved to Indianapolis, where he had family, and met a respected lawyer who was looking for someone to help revise the state’s penal code. Patel, who knew India’s renowned penal code well, was a perfect fit for the job.
While in Indiana, he also researched the state’s process of citing and crediting legal decisions, and wrote his first book on that subject so he could bring what he learned back to India. “Somewhere in this jungle is the original hard copy of [the] citations book,” he said, searching his office.
Patel moved back to India in 1973, where he stayed for four years with his family. Then, in January 1977, he returned to the U.S. on his own and settled in Queens. His family followed that July.
Patel did not initially seek out immigration law, but saw an opportunity to work with an established Queens lawyer named Ronald Freeman. At the time, Patel said, there was lots of available information on immigration law, but only a few lawyers studying it.
“To do small research on a particular issue, I would spend hours and hours,” he recalled, adding that he eventually tried to publish his own book on the law, but the market was so slim in the late 1970s that he was unsuccessful. Instead, he published his first book in India in 1980, and distributed it through the American Immigration Lawyers Association, which launched him into the spotlight.
Patel still speaks with an Indian accent, and when he came to America, he feared that he would face discrimination. “For some people, particularly those who are rigid or closed, they will find it hard to understand me,” he said. “But all I need to do is write, and I could do that easily.”
Paving the way for geniuses
Patel gained a reputation in immigration law, and eventually delved into a niche category, employment-based immigration, and helped clients earn what was referred to as a “genius visa.” To petition for it, they had to prove that they had “extraordinary abilities” or a great deal of success in their fields.
In 2001, the genius visa program granted citizenship to a successful Slovenian model named Melania Knauss, who, 15 years later, now Melania Trump, became the nation’s first lady.
“If you are a person of extraordinary abilities, as defined and regulated by law, you could get visa right away,” Patel said, adding that he has helped a number of scientists and businessmen earn U.S. citizenship. One was a young attorney who had been turned down by several lawyers. “How could he be at the top of the field of law at such a young age?” Patel asked. “There are giants and giants all over.” He took the challenge anyway, and won the attorney’s case.
Trouble dreaming in America
When Patel came to America, he recalled of the visa application process, “The paperwork here was not that difficult, and because of my background, nobody raised a question about anything. [But] because of the gradual economic [downturn] in this country, joblessness has gone up in the last 10 to 15 years, and the immigration process is much harder now than it’s ever been.”
The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 drastically changed the scope of immigration law, adding new obstacles for those applying for visas. George Terezakis, a Mineola immigration lawyer, explained that one of the biggest changes involved the “suspension of deportation” clause.
According to the clause’s former wording, illegal immigrants could earn citizenship if they proved to a judge that they had lived in the U.S. for seven years, could show they had good moral character and that, if deported, they or a family member, lawfully living in the U.S., would suffer.
Under the revised clause, known as “cancellation of removal,” undocumented immigrants must prove that their deportation would cause “exceptional and unusual extreme hardship” to their family — for example, if an immigrant were caring for a child who had cancer.
“The ripples of these harsh immigration laws really affect our society and the lives of the people here,” Terezakis said, adding, “When the hens come home to roost, we’re going to have a generation of children growing up in this country without their parents.”
For his part, Patel said he did not believe that President Trump’s calls to toughen immigration law would help the situation. “As long is there is a lure to come to America, people will come,” he said. “I agree that whatever illegal doors are there to come to this country, by hook or crook, should be stopped. But how should it be stopped? Nobody knows. And if laws are made, they need to be enforced countrywide.”