For 34 years, Susan Cohen has worked tirelessly as an immigration lawyer at Boston-based Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky, and Popeo PC, where her accomplishments as founding chair of its immigration practice have been internationally recognized.
The Belmont resident’s contributions to federal immigration law include working with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and others to obtain a temporary restraining order blocking the 2017 executive order travel ban targeting Muslim countries.
Yet Cohen also has an artistic side through which she literally voices her support for social justice issues. As founder of White Dove Productions, she uses music and music videos to illuminate the plights of immigrants and their vast contributions within the United States.
“Using the law to pursue justice for immigrants has never been more important, but I also hope that some people will be moved to empathy for our immigrant neighbors if they hear their story expressed through music or video representation,” Cohen said. “I feel obligated to make the world a better place, which is why I do what I do. This is my small part.”
Cohen’s most recent music video is “Looking for the Angels,” based on her original song of the same name that tells the story of a teenage boy in Honduras who bids farewell to his grandmother as he prepares to escape the brutal violence of his homeland. He promises to return to bring his grandmother to safety, but after she doesn’t hear from him for several weeks, her worst fears are confirmed.
Cohen wrote the song to illuminate the dangers of living in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, where she said teenagers who resist joining gangs are targeted for assassination while receiving no protection or legal recourse from local law enforcement agencies, which are often corrupt. The song also highlights the perils of the long, dangerous journey to the US border.
“There’s a lot of talk about economic migrants, but many are fleeing their countries for their lives,” said Cohen, whose previous music video, “Beyond the Borders,” describes the plight of a Syrian refugee family. “So many times, immigrants are only trying to seek a safe haven where justice is available to all — yet our current system is failing them.”
Both videos feature students and alumni from Berklee College of Music, including musicians and vocalists from the regions depicted. Nano Raies, the lead singer of “Beyond the Borders,” was the first Syrian woman to attend Berklee, from which she graduated last spring. She says she is proud the song “speaks the truth.”
“When some people hear ‘Syrian refugee,’ they get scared because they think we are poor and we are bad,” she said. “I hope by hearing the Middle Eastern [instruments] in this music, they see we have a beautiful culture.”
Cohen credits Berklee songwriting professor Mark Simos with helping to improve the structure of the song “Beyond the Borders,” and for introducing her to his colleague, Daniel Cantor. A Berklee music production and songwriting professor and video music producer, Cantor recorded portions of both videos at his Notable Productions studio in Watertown.
“Some students didn’t know [Cohen’s legal background], but when they heard her lyrics, their concerns melted away because the songs were so heartfelt and the stories were so important. There was a lot of love and hugs and sheer joy in the making of the videos,” Cantor said. “I think Susan is always going to have these stories she’s going to want to tell, and we’re better for it.”
Cohen says the importance of justice was ingrained by her parents, Marshall and Evelyn, as well as the religious tenets of repairing the world and loving your neighbor as yourself.
“These twin civic and religious values deeply influenced and formed me,” she noted.
Cohen majored in Spanish and Latin American literature at Brandeis University in Waltham, and she graduated from Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York City. Upon joining Mintz Levin in 1985, she assumed she would follow the path of her fictional hero, Perry Mason, into litigation — until the “incredibly gratifying” experience of helping a Japanese artist and his family obtain their green cards.
When Cohen noted how many biotech and technology companies were sponsoring foreign employees for visas and green cards, she saw an opportunity for the firm to expand into immigration law.
“The amazing thing is when I proposed it to my firm’s management, as a second-year associate, they actually listened and were persuaded to let me try my hand at building this new type of practice,” said Cohen, noting its growth to 35 immigration lawyers and specialists.
From the inception of the immigration practice in 1989, Mintz Levin has partnered with PAIR (the Political Asylum/Immigration Representation Project) — of which Cohen serves as board president — to take on pro bono asylum cases for immigrants fleeing persecution.
PAIR board member Octavio Guerra, a former client who fled Honduras in 2006 after he says police beat and threatened to kill him because of his activism in the gay community, cried when he recently watched the video “Looking for the Angels.”
“In it, I saw my family, my friends, and everything I had to leave behind without knowing if I was going to survive or not — not because I am a criminal, but because I didn’t have an alternative,” Guerra said. “Susan has a very powerful gift. Her video will touch many, many hearts, like it touched mine.”
Cindy Cantrell can be reached at email@example.com.