BY JAMES FARRELL
Jenifer Rajkumar has followed the path of social justice wherever it led, and at age 34, she’s already accomplished a significant amount.
From serving two terms as the first South Asian district leader of Manhattan’s 65th Assembly District to serving on the legal team behind one of the largest gender discrimination case ever to go to trial, Rajkumar built an impressive resume of public service even before landing a position in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office as the director of immigration affairs and special counsel for the New York Department of State.
“I dedicated my career to social justice and making a difference in people’s lives,” Rajkumar said. “Throughout my career I’ve explored the best ways to make an impact.”
For Rajkumar, the heart of her work has always been finding the best way to aid those in need, whether through litigation, policy or governance. She said that it’s the potential benefactors of her work—immigrants, women, the struggling—that have driven her to accomplish so much.
“My secret is that I think about the people that I want to help every day, the people [who] I met when I ran for office, the people [who] I met as a lawyer, the women and the workers [who] I have worked to represent,” she said. “I think about my parents.
They immigrated to this country in the 1970s with just $300 and a suitcase. My mom was born in a mud hut in India. They immigrated to the United States with little and were able to thrive here because of the opportunity this country provided. So, I am grateful every day. Every day I think about that and I’m grateful, and that gratitude drives me to work hard to help others.”
In the New York Department of State, Rajkumar has found a place where she feels effective. She called Cuomo “one of the biggest change agents in the nation” and works in the department on projects across the state to empower immigrants.
This involves drawing on her work as a lawyer to ensure that immigrants’ rights are fairly upheld. She is currently working on the Empire State Immigrant Legal Defense Project, an initiative to gather the state’s legal talent in the service of expanding legal services for immigrants. More information will be available in the near future, Rajkumar said.
Rajkumar also works closely with the state’s Office of New Americans, which helps newly arrived immigrants to integrate into New York state. With this office, she supports the NaturalizedNY Initative, which helps immigrants become legal U.S. citizens.
“We want to make sure that all newcomers to New York are fully integrated into our life and economy,” she said.
In the years before joining the department, Rajkumar was busy with numerous initiatives as a Manhattan district leader.
These included legal clinics for low-income and public housing New York residents and recruiting young people—especially South Asian Americans and young women—to get involved in government.
And in one of her earliest accomplishes, Rajkumar was part of the legal team with the firm Sanford Heisler on the case Velez v. Novartis—a gender discrimination class action that is considered to be the largest ever to go to trial and named by the United Nations as one of the top 10 cases advancing women’s rights. Sanford Heisler represented 5,600 female sales representatives in a class-action lawsuit alleging gender discrimination and calling for equal pay. Rajkumar and Sanford Heisler won hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation for the case.
“It was my first case as a lawyer,” Rajkumar said. “I was very pleased to be part of this enormous effort to make sure that women receive fair treatment in the workplace.”
But with so many potential paths of public service, Rajkumar believes that she is in the right place and doesn’t intend to move anytime soon.
“I’m looking for the best way to make an impact,” she said. “I believe that working for the governor is the best way to do that.”