Lily S. Axelrod grew up attuned to the concerns of American immigrants: Her paternal grandmother fled violence against Jews in Poland and came to the United States in the 1920s. As a kid, Axelrod heard stories of her grandmother receiving her first pair of glasses from Jane Addams' Hull House, one of the earliest social-service agencies for immigrants in the U.S.
"I became committed to the idea that America is a country of refuge, and that in every generation we benefit from the diversity and ambition of newcomers," Axelrod says. "At the same time, I was studying Spanish and learning about the history of Latin America, and I looked around me and saw that today's newcomers face some of the same discrimination and challenges that my own family did."
Now an immigration lawyer who focuses on deportation defense—which largely involves getting her clients out of immigration detention and keeping their families united in the U.S.—Axelrod started out as a bilingual community organizer in the Deep South. After some time organizing around immigration issues, she noticed that immigration lawyers were "in a unique position to act as a guide through our complex system," and thus her interest in immigration law was piqued. She took a job as a paralegal to learn more about the field, and soon enough she was studying for the LSAT en route to Harvard Law School, where she graduated cum laude.
Axelrod is fluent in Spanish thanks to many years of study in school plus time spent abroad (in Oaxaca, Mexico) during her undergraduate years—something she recommends to anyone who wants to pursue similar work. "Of course it's not the same as my clients' immigrant experience, but it's important to feel humbled and disoriented by being a stranger in another culture," she says. It's an essential skill as she helps her clients comprehend the labyrinthine system of immigration law, which a federal judge recently noted is "second only to the Internal Revenue Code in complexity."
Axelrod has a long-term goal of "untangling the immigration bureaucracy from the criminal justice system" and helping bring "an absolute end to immigration detention," and her track record so far suggests that she'll get there. In the meantime, the stream of individual victories she racks up regularly on behalf of her clients attests to her skill and her compassion.
"Winning an asylum case, or re-opening a domestic-violence survivor's deportation order to give her a second chance at applying for residency, or getting a visa for an abused undocumented child—all of those feel like big accomplishments to me right now," Axelrod says. "There's no feeling in the world like seeing the relief on a client's face when the judge grants their case."
Explore the complete list of this year's 30 top thinkers under 30 here. (Lead 3-D Illustration: Comrade)