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Former CPD Deputy Director Profiled in NY Daily News

New York Daily News - April 15, 2014, by Erica Pearson - Nisha Agarwal, the new city commissioner for immigrant affairs, will rely on her experience at the Center for Popular Democracy and as an advocate for language access in hospitals and pharmacies to help implement City Council and Mayor de Blasio’s push for a municipal ID card.

THE CITY’S new commissioner of immigrant affairs has been on the job for just weeks — but she’s been tackling the biggest issues on her office’s agenda for years.

“It’s such a gift to be in this role, given what I’ve done before,” said Nisha Agarwal, 36, a public-interest lawyer and the daughter of Indian immigrants.

“A lot of people have been asking me, ‘What’s it like working in government?’ because this is the first time I’ve ever done that actually, and the reality is the issues are very similar, and the perspectives on those issues, philosophically, are the same,” said Agarwal, who grew up in upstate Fayetteville and lives in Brooklyn.

She was appointed in February.

As the City Council and Mayor de Blasio move to create a municipal ID card open to all residents, regardless of immigration status, Agarwal will use her own research about identity cards across the nation, collected while she was deputy director of the nonprofit Center for Popular Democracy.

“It’s really exciting to be in a place of actually implementing them,” she said.

“In order to have an effective municipal ID program, it certainly cannot be focused only on immigrant communities. It has to engage a broad range of city agencies and it has to appeal to a broad range of communities within New York.”

Agarwal will also draw on her past as she works to create an immigrant report card of sorts to track how well city agencies are including the newest New Yorkers — especially those who struggle to speak English.

“I started my first campaign as a young lawyer working on language access in hospitals and pharmacies,” said Agarwal, who directed New York Lawyers for the Public Interest’s Health Justice Program and was the primary drafter of the city Language Access in Pharmacies Act.

The city law requires chain pharmacies to translate prescriptions into New Yorkers’ primary language — so that they don’t make dangerous dosage mistakes.

It was transformative for her to be a part of developing the new law.

“I’ve always believed that local government is such a site for innovation and progressive change. To actually have a small role in that, it changed my career trajectory. That felt like, now I can see what the city can do,” Agarwal said.

Now, she’s in the position to answer a different question:

“How do we make those laws and policies really stick and go deeper across city government?” Agarwal said.

Before de Blasio picked her to head his Office of Immigrant Affairs, Agarwal developed a new program called the Immigrant Justice Corps, which offers fellowships to new law school graduates so that they can work as immigration lawyers based with New York City community groups.

Agarwal, who has a passion for social justice, said she’s also planning to have her own advocacy agenda — and spoke alongside activists and religious leaders last week at a Foley Square immigrant rights rally.

Her interest in fighting injustice was sparked early — and shaped by her relatives, said Agarwal, whose grandfather marched with Mahatma Gandhi.

When neighbors put up a new swing set but wouldn’t allow everyone to play on it, a young Agarwal was furious.

“That was my earliest memory of injustice, I thought it was terrible. But my response at the time was just to sort of throw rocks and to get really angry,” she said.

“My parents sat me down and said, ‘First of all, maybe you shouldn’t do that. We appreciate your instinct to fight injustice but throwing rocks is not the way to do it. Let us tell you about this man, who is from the country that we come from, who is Gandhi, and he believes in nonviolence.'”

“I think from the earliest stages of my life through my parents and other role models I have had this sense of wanting to do social justice work,” she said.