Meet Nysha Cornelius: 'I wanted to help people like my mother'

1119-Nysha-CorneliusNYSHA CORNELIUS places a special focus on helping clients facing deportation and removal—immigration trials, deportation appeals, and other complex immigration matters. Her work in immigration law also touches heavily on the areas of family and criminal law. She proudly defends the rights of individuals in all three practice areas. Nysha’s experience has enabled her to provide powerful legal guidance in and out of the courtroom. In addition to her employment at Paschal Nwokocha & Chukwu Law Office, she volunteers and works pro bono with the Volunteer Lawyers Network (VLN) of Minnesota. She was recognized as VLN’s 2019 Volunteer of the Year.

Why did you go to law school?

I’ve always admired my mother for her strength and resilience. She taught me that education is the one thing that can never be taken away from you. I was about 10 years old and I remember sitting in the car with my mom after a difficult parenting time exchange and asking her what lawyers do and why she needed one. Growing up I had witnessed so much pain and suffering, and in that moment, I couldn’t comprehend why my mom was not getting the legal help she needed. I decided then and there that I wanted to help people like my mother. Going into law school, I thought that meant practicing in the area of family law or child advocacy, but I quickly realized it meant becoming an immigration attorney because that was the moment I realized that the bigger problem was my mother’s misunderstanding of her rights as an immigrant.

You have an immigration-focused practice. How has it changed over the course of the immigration crackdown of the past few years?

It has kept me on my toes. Almost every day, there is a new court ruling, legal memo, or practice advisory that is issued. In the past I didn’t worry as much about my client having multiple forms of relief. Now I am always looking for plan B and plan C in case immigration policy changes overnight, which it often does. The drastic changes in immigration policy in the last few years has forced many attorneys, including myself, to be on defense at all times. It constantly feels like we are shooting at a moving target. 

I have spent a lot more time in recent years educating our clients and the community about immigrants’ rights and how policy changes may affect them. I have to explain that nothing is guaranteed, and the process takes years. For those who don’t practice immigration law, it comes as a shock that we have merits hearings set for the end of 2021 on judges’ dockets who have yet to appear at the bench. 

Additionally, as immigration attorneys, we are exposed to so much trauma. I can’t put into words how emotionally challenging it is to explain to someone, after hearing their traumatic experience, that there is no easy legal fix.

Tell us a little about your volunteer work through VLN and others.

Volunteering with the VLN has been the most rewarding experience for me. I began working with the organization as soon as I became a licensed attorney in 2013. I started by giving phone advice for two hours every week and then expanded to doing in-person consultations at Park Avenue Church every month. To this day, I continue my volunteer work with the VLN and take on full representation pro bono cases as often as my schedule allows.

Last March I had an incredibly eye-opening experience volunteering for a week at the southern border in Tijuana, Mexico, through an organization called Al Otro Lado. I would be happy to share my experience in depth with anyone who wants to know more.

This work is very important to me because I can relate to many of the adversities that underrepresented individuals face and my volunteer work allows me to provide legal services to those who may not have otherwise received legal assistance.

How is bar association membership useful to you in your career?

The most valuable aspect of my membership is the ability to have a leadership role in the Immigration Section. I currently hold the position of vice chair, and through my position I have the opportunity to get to know other attorneys, not only in my practice area, but in other practice areas as well. 

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

I love new experiences, whether it is checking out a new brewery, restaurant, or traveling somewhere I haven’t been before. For example, I am going to Tokyo, Japan in November with my husband and in January my office is taking a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico. Most of my weekends aren’t as extravagant and are usually spent at dog-friendly breweries/events with our dog, Lady Bird, or at home with our cat, Lexi.