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Law student fights for guest workers’ rights

Law student Stephanie Gharakhanian spent nearly three months in the spring working in Mexico City at ProDESC, a nongovernmental organization that defends the economic, social, and cultural rights of underrepresented workers and communities in Mexico.

Gharakhanian, who graduated from Northeastern’s School of Law on Friday, received a fellowship from the law school’s Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy to participate in the experiential-learning opportunity. The PHRGE fellowships provide law students with the opportunity to work at partner institutions to address economic, social, and cultural rights in the United States and around the world.

Through her fellowship, Gharakhanian conducted extensive research on how ProDESC could apply provisions and other aspects of U.S., Mexican, and international laws to its work focused on guest worker rights. She noted that guest workers often face unfair practices from employers and recruiters, including unjust recruiting fees and hour cuts.

Before the fellowship, the majority of Gharakhanian’s Northeastern education focused on American law. The shift to Mexican law opened up her eyes to the differences between the two systems. For instance, legal precedents in Mexico are not based on case law, but rather set only after the country’s Supreme Court rules multiple times on a particular issue.

“It’s a very different way to begin conducting research,” she explained.

Though she speaks Spanish, reading and interpreting law in a new language presented a series of unique hurdles. “I spent a lot of quality time with my Spanish-English dictionary,” she said.

Gharakhanian’s fellowship builds on her human rights work on co-op at the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, which was established in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and supports African-American and immigrant workers’ rights. There, she provided litigation support on a range of issues, one of which involved filing a federal complaint about violations against workers at a crawfish farm.

The co-op experience also offered Gharakhanian an initial glimpse into guest workers rights. The National Guestworker Alliance is a project of the New Orleans’ Workers Center for Racial Injustice.

Gharakhanian’s passion for social justice issues blossomed as an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame and each of her social justice experiences since then has led directly to the next one. After earning her bachelor’s in international peace studies, she joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and began volunteering in El Paso, Texas, at a parish not far from the U.S.-Mexico border. Working in an environment featuring a convergence of cultures served as inspiration to attend law school, she said.

“There were so many times when I thought that if I were a lawyer, I’d have the knowledge needed to address the legal issues the people there were experiencing,” she said. “By going to law school, I knew I could be of greater service to many people like those I became very closely connected with in Texas.”