UC Hastings is buzzing with news of a 1L who has been appointed to the San Francisco Immigrant Rights Commission. His name is Ryan Khojasteh. His parents fled the revolution in Iran in 1979 “to pursue their American Dream,” Khojasteh told the Board of Supervisors, and now he’s committed to doing what he can to work for the immigrant communities here to “preserve their rights, to advocate for them, and to make sure their quality of life remains unchanged come January.”
Khojasteh is a busy guy. He testified before three members of the Board of Supervisors on Monday, December 12, and finished his contracts final 30-minutes early the next day to rush over and see if he would be appointed. He also volunteers at Curry Without Worry at UN Plaza, and is a Delegate Candidate now for Assembly District 17, and over winter break he compiled a list of all the commissions that UC Hastings students would qualify for and that have openings this year in what he hopes “may be the start of some sort of UC Hastings movement to become involved in city politics!”
I caught up with Khojasteh recently at Philz Coffee on Golden Gate to discuss where he’s coming from, where he’s going, and how he finds the time. See below for the video of his Immigrant Rights Commission testimony and a lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation. – by Alex A.G. Shapiro, External Relations
Who are you? Where are you coming from?
My name is Ryan Khojasteh, twenty-three years old, first year law student at UC Hastings. I was born and raised in the Bay Area, born in Campbell, raised in Campbell. My parents came to California in the late 80s from Texas and Louisiana. They came to California because the liberal environment and they thought it was a good place to raise a kid. I went to small schools growing up and then I went to Bellarmine, which was an all boys Catholic school in San Jose. Like most Bellarmine kids do, I went right down the street to Santa Clara University. I’ve always been in the same area. I studied Political Science and French. It was in college where I started really being able to do things relating to politics. I’d always been interested in the world affairs and politics because of my parents and fleeing the revolution to finish their education here in America. I’d always learn about their stories growing up. What was it like to leave a country that was oppressing your freedoms and your political rights to come here and what you had to go through just to be able to give me my American dream?
Wait, pause. I thought your parents moved to the Bay Area from Louisiana.
What had happened was my dad fled Iran right before the hostage crisis. He came here and then a little while later, about a year or two after, my mom was able to come. My dad went to college in Louisiana. He finished his college and then went to Texas with my mom, who then finished her college. This was the late 70s and the early 80s and you would expect that the South during that time, for people who looked different, to come in at a country that was in the brink of war … At that time the Iran/Iraq war was going on and they had just taken American hostages. The country was going downhill. You would think that people, these white Americans in the South would be more mean to them, and they weren’t.
I mean it wasn’t perfect, but it was a lot better than it was right now. There were no acts of hate or discrimination, or those kinds of things going on. They felt more welcome than a lot of people now feel. That’s one of the things I talked about in my testimony, but just what my parents went through and learning about that growing up really opened my eyes to the injustices that go on in the world, and I was always interested. That’s why I studied political science in college, and then I worked for Congressman Mike Honda’s office. I got to do Department of State issues, things going on with embassies, people who had issues, the issuing of visas, people that needed help, whether for students that come here and finish education, or people just come here temporarily so I learned a lot through that. I did a lot of volunteer work.
I helped young students in underprivileged Latino schools finish their homework. I traveled to Costa Rica and I was an English teacher, a kindergarten English teacher for a little while in the summer. That was a great experience, and then I worked with Iranian immigrants, and I helped them learn English and attain citizenship, and I think that to really understand the world you got to go out and meet people and learn things.
What made you then apply to law school?
I had always known that I’d wanted to go to law school as a kid. I thought that that was the right route to take for the things I was interested in: being able to fight for equality and justice for people. I didn’t go to law school necessarily to be a lawyer. I don’t really know what path I would take in the law. I’m open to it, but I think that learning those skills to issue spot and problem solve are applicable to a lot of things. Learning how to public speak and network with people, I think, it’s just a great degree to have that could apply to a lot of things. One of the reasons why I chose UC Hastings was I’m from this area. I love California. I visited the school. It was just amazing how close it was to everything you would want to do, whether it’s working at a firm in San Francisco, or working in politics. City Hall is right there, Attorney General’s Office, all the courts. I think it was location-wise unbeatable to anything else.
UC Hastings is well known in the area. I’d always known about it. I knew at one point in my life I wanted to live in San Francisco. I was always so close. It seemed like that perfect city, just an hour away, so I’m really glad that I got to be here. One of the things I noticed that I like about UC Hastings the most is its student body. The strength of the community, its vibrancy, its diversity, just how great everyone is to each other, and I’m learning just as much as I am with them as I am in class, and I think that’s great. It’s really a supportive network that wants everyone to be successful. Now that I think about it and when I look back, I lived a lot of life this first semester, and I’m sure all 1Ls do. There’s so much that goes on and your life changes. I really think that with the professors and the community and the students that I’ve met, I can say San Francisco is now my home.
UC Hastings has made San Francisco my home, and I don’t see myself going anywhere else in the future. I’d like to stay here and we’ll see what happens.
How did you end up pursuing a seat on Immigrant Rights Commission?
With the volunteer work I’d done in the past I knew that wherever I would go to law school I wanted to stay involved and play my part in whatever I could. Coming to San Francisco and seeing all the opportunities, I did a little research, called a few people, sent a couple of emails. Just being proactive is all it takes, and I learned about this position. I was interested. I met with a couple of people. I went to some of the meetings that they have at City Hall once a month, and then I applied. I think what really motivated me more so than just wanting to be involved was the election and the divisive rhetoric and how it was approving of xenophobia and discrimination and bigotry.
There are moments in life where you will never forget what you were doing. One of those was for me September 11. We had a moment of silence. I was in second grade. That was when I wanted to really fight for what’s right, but I was too young to do anything. Then the second moment was the morning after this election where I had Professor Moscato and Professor Takacs and we talked about what’s going on. I really appreciated Professor Takacs had a moment of silence for everyone. That was the second moment of silence I really ever had where I was so into it and I knew that I needed to do something. We had a town hall where students were just saying, “I’m afraid. My family is afraid. I can’t believe this happened.” People were in shock.
People could just speak, and I said, “I see that from what you all are saying we can see hope and we shouldn’t feel like we’re broken.” Kamala Harris ’89 was elected senator. She was sitting in this very same seat. Why can’t we do that? I’ve been thinking about it and there’s two ways you can view this election. One, you can see it as you can feel defeated and broken, and you can just brace yourselves and wait for these four years to go by quickly and hope that the country remains intact, or you can view it as a call to action which is what I try to say, that guess it’s time for our generation to mobilize and to do our part and to make sure our country stays intact. You can’t be passive. You need to be active.
We all are smart kids with good backgrounds, good heads on our shoulders. We’re here and we want to help the world. That’s what a law degree will allow you to do. It doesn’t matter what kind of field you go into, you have those skills to do that. I think now is a time with how close we are with City Hall and how Donald Trump attacked sanctuary cities and threatened to cut federal funding, and our values, we have these certain values in San Francisco: inclusion, respect, everyone is welcome. We celebrate our diversity, because San Francisco would be nothing without all the cuisine and culture and language. It’s up to us to fight to protect that, and that’s why I wanted to go into this commission even more so, immigrant rights, where you go out in the community, you invite people to come in and speak about what their problems are. You help people gain citizenship, and then you get to have meetings with the mayor and the board of supervisors and advocate for certain things.
I think now with the times we’re in it’s going to be a very important job, and there’s a lot of work that needs to be done, and I just felt that with my background and my parents and what I’ve been through and this election and where I am, I felt it as sort of like a duty to do my part. So much was given to me in life that I need to give back to the immigrant community because that’s where I came from. What I want my fellow students to take away is that if I can do it, anyone can. All it takes is being proactive. Going to testify, why do you want to do this? We’re all great public speakers. We’re all intelligent, and what I’m trying to do for my project over Christmas break is just in one document put all the openings, all the vacancies, all the qualifications and the head contacts, and whatever you’re interested in, just shoot me a message. We can talk. I can sponsor you. When you testify I’ll give a public comment in support.
There are so many different areas. There’s homelessness, veteran’s rights, drug reform, things like that that I feel a lot of people would be interested in those kind of things. We’re right there. It’s a two-year term and I know that in law school people are busy, but if you want to do what’s right, and then it’s not really a commitment. You’re helping the community and that’s why we came to law school. That’s what I really would like to do. I would like to encourage my fellow classmates to be more involved in the affairs that go on in the city, because at the end of the day a lot of us will go into government. A lot of us, if we go into a firm will do pro bono work, and this is what we can do in our capacities now.
A lot of us are too young to run for office. We’re in law school; we can’t run for office, so I think an appointed position is the right way to go. I think that I didn’t expect the amount of attention that my little video gave, but what I noticed from friends and family and people that knew my parents and people that knew my friends of friends that it wasn’t really what I said necessarily. It was just the fact that I was there. You want to do your part and it allows for people to have hope. I was watching the interview with Michelle Obama on Oprah last night, and Oprah asked Michelle Obama, “Do you think that your husband was able to achieve hope?” She said, “I think right now we’re living in a time where we know what it’s like to feel no hope.”
It’s for my generation to rise up, to play our part, and to allow other people to have hope, and I think just being there, just showing that you care. Even if it’s at the bottom of the ladder which is what a commission is, but it’s a start, you can do some good work in the community and I think that that’s what we need right now.
What does success look like at the commission?
I think success in the commission would look like immigrants coming into these public hearings we have once a month and saying that, “Thank you for your work and everything you’ve taught me, whether know-your-rights sessions or just further reaffirming our value.” The board of supervisors wrote a letter. The Human Rights Commission wrote a letter and a statement. We can release a statement. We can go out, hear people. I think what will be great is if we worked along with the film commission and maybe made a documentary. Just go out in the community and show the fear that people have, so that people can understand. We had a know-your-rights session at UC Hastings. We can do that. We can advocate certain legislation. I know right now there’s an ordinance that’s pending that would establish a unit in the public defender’s office to have a unit to fight against deportation, things like that.
Getting those kind of things passed, just showing our community that we have your back and we’re not going to abandon you. One person, one president won’t change San Francisco, and just having someone come in and say, “Thank you. I feel safer now.” That’s success. Maybe even if it’s not anything being done, it’s just the fact that they feel that they have someone fighting for them. I think that’s what success looks like.
Can you see running for office yourself one day?
Since I was young, I knew that I wanted to run for some sort of office. The way I think of it is one day if I feel qualified enough to run, I will. It’s important to realize that it doesn’t really matter what I want. It’s what’s best for the people, so I think if it comes to that point where I think that I’m the best candidate for a certain position and that I’ve finished my education and then I feel like I can do a good job, I’ll do it.
I think that’s one of the flaws in our political system where a lot of people do it because they have the connections, or they feel entitled, or they think they just can. They have enough money. It should be certain issues you fight for and a community that you want to bring up. That’s why I think that the Democratic party needs restructuring. I’m running for a position; it’s a small assembly delegate to the Democratic party for District 17, which is this area. They have it every two years. They pick seven men and women from each district to go to both California conventions for this year and next year and to be part of the conversation of the party.
Luckily, last year I was appointed to be a delegate for the California convention. I got to cast an endorsement for senator-elect Harris for her senate run, which was awesome. I knew at that point I was going to UC Hastings, so I got to vote for a UC Hastings alum. That was awesome, but I want to continue to be involved. We need youth to come in and change the ways, the old ways that people didn’t like and what was frowned upon during this election, the establishment. I think it would be a great opportunity. I don’t know if I’ll win or not. There’s a lot of people running, but it’ll be a good opportunity to just go up there and to give a speech. It’s the day before classes start too. That’ll be a cool way to start the semester. Just to be part of the conversation. I think that that’s all that we need right now; young people to want to be involved.