Being of Azerbaijan descent and born in Milan, Italy, Rehim Babaoglu of Thomason Hendrix Harvey Johnson & Mitchell PLLC, preaches the American dream from his pulpit high above Main Street as an immigration lawyer.
He tells the story of a 5-year-old boy in 1951: “I was on a boat and it was coming into New York Harbor, people were being called on deck and I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. I go up on deck and there, in the fog-shrouded harbor, is the Statue of Liberty.”
It was, he said, “the penultimate immigrant experience” and is one he has carried with him throughout his life. He grew up in coldwater tenement flats in Newark, N.J., a fictional yet very true-to-life setting for “The Sopranos.”
“I used to shine shoes as a kid in bookie joints, they were on every corner,” Babaoglu said.
Babaoglu’s father spoke eight languages and worked distributing international music records, but he went to college at Rutgers University, originally with plans to be a dentist, yet ending up with majors in Russian language and history.
His work as a probation officer after graduation taught him that there was too low of a ceiling in government work and, while observing attorneys in court, Babaoglu said, “I can do better than that.”
It was the dean of the Rutgers Law School who suggested studying at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
“Lots of Jersey boys were coming down here and going back to Jersey and passing the bar, and they were successful,” Babaoglu said.
But he stayed in Memphis after graduating in 1974, recognizing the city as a great place to raise kids and preferring the milder weather to the winters of the Northeast.
Babaoglu went to work for the firm of Crislip & Blount for four years before taking a teaching job for third-year law students at his alma mater. From there he went to work for Farris, Hancock, Gilman, Lanier & Hellen for a couple of years before branching out with his own practice.
After practicing general law for years – personal injury, jury trials, federal trials, criminal trials – he settled into a calling he seemed destined for: immigration law.
“Over the years, I guess it’s because of my unusual last name, other lawyers thought I knew something about immigration law, so they would refer cases to me and it just snowballed to the point where now I do it 100 percent of the time,” he said.
It’s an area he is intimately familiar with and one he loves delving into every day.
“It’s a people practice, it’s not shuffling papers,” Babaoglu said. “I enjoy dealing face to face with people, I find them fascinating. I’ve represented generals, criminals, scientists, teachers, businessmen … people seeking asylum from all parts of the world.”
Babaoglu joined Thomason Hendrix in 2000 and is now head of the immigration law section, a group that is looked to by attorneys from around the country.
“We don’t get the easy cases, the ‘ham-and-eggers’,” he said. “We get the difficult cases, we get the referrals from other immigration lawyers, from agencies, Catholic Charities, non-governmental organizations, as well as pro bono.”
Babaoglu has taken special satisfaction recently from his work with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, created by the Justice Department for children brought in years ago by their parents illegally.
Now as teenagers, they are unable to obtain Social Security numbers, can’t work and can’t go to college. The program allows them to get two-year authorization to stay in the U.S. with a Social Security number, driver’s license, and the ability to go to college, work and join the military.
“I love working with the young kids,” Babaoglu said. “They’re getting a chance to finish, they’re not limited and they can get a college degree, it’s just so good to see; these kids are really talented.”
Far from his boyhood home in New Jersey, Babaoglu and wife Lydia have raised two children – a daughter, Lara Reynolds, and a son, Christopher – in Memphis. Even farther from the land of his father whose brothers were killed by the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin, Babaoglu helps others gain a safe place to raise a family. It is complex, detailed and immensely rewarding work.
“To give people opportunities here in this country, it’s gratifying when you win an asylum case for some Russians from Kazakhstan who were discriminated against there in that country and the father’s an engineer, the mother’s a teacher, they’ve got two young kids, and they can contribute so much to our country,” Babaoglu said. “My clients are ambitious, they’ve got drive and initiative, and they appreciate the opportunity in the United States that some Americans don’t appreciate.”