Soon after Parthiv Patel earned a law degree at Drexel and passed demanding bar exams in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, doors slammed shut. A so-called Dreamer who was illegally brought to the United States from India at age 5, Patel was denied a law license because he is not a citizen.
His story grabbed the attention of Gurbir S. Grewal, New Jersey's newly appointed attorney general, weeks after Patel won the right to become a lawyer through a yearlong legal battle. Bucking tradition — and the Trump administration's plans to rescind the rights of Dreamers — the first Sikh attorney general in the nation decided he would personally congratulate and swear in Patel as an attorney at a ceremony in the statehouse.
"The American Dream is in fact alive and well in New Jersey for all, including Dreamers like Parthiv," Grewal said before announcing plans to join litigation challenging Trump's proposal to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which affords hundreds of thousands of Dreamers temporary protection from deportation and allows them to work.
The ceremony, attended by Gov. Murphy, a Democrat, and other dignitaries, was one of Grewal's first public events — and it was deeply personal and symbolic. Typically, lawyers and judges administer the oath of office for newly minted attorneys, but Grewal said he wanted to do the honors and "send a positive message about the value of Dreamers in this country."
In his first six weeks as New Jersey's chief law enforcement officer, Grewal has undertaken a host of progressive actions and has made it clear that he wants to have a significant impact on social justice and civil rights issues. Immigration enforcement, police-community relations, transgender rights, the release of dash-camera videos to the public, and the opioid epidemic are among the topics he has already begun to tackle.
"We're all informed by our life experiences in everything we do," he said in an interview last week. "My experience growing up as a Sikh in this country, and having dealt with bias, hate, and bullying has sensitized me to the effects that this conduct can have on others and motivates me a great deal."
Grewal, 44, grew up in Essex County with his parents, an engineer and a bookkeeper who became naturalized citizens. His parents came from small villages in India and immigrated to the U.S. "with a hope to make a better life for themselves and their family," he said. They taught him to be humble, grateful, and proud of his heritage. There is "no incompatibility between honoring their religion and being an American" they told him.
In January, when two Indonesian Christians were arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers while dropping their children off at school in Middlesex County, Grewal fired off a letter to the U.S. secretary of Homeland Security, asking for a review of the case and saying he believed the action violated federal policy.
"My job is to stand up for New Jerseyans," he said, adding that that includes seeking to reverse federal actions that trample on people's civil liberties.
At Grewal's initiative, New Jersey has joined more than a dozen multistate lawsuits that were filed against some of President Trump's more controversial policies in the last six months, including the ban on transgender people serving in the military. All the while, he is continuing traditional law enforcement activities and stepping up investigations.
One of his proudest moments was when he announced that his office had broken up a gun-trafficking ring in Camden. "One of our biggest concerns is kids playing outside when the weather warms up and being hit by a stray bullet. … That's the prosecutor side of me," he said.
At an early age, Grewal was certain he wanted to be an attorney and he never wavered.
"I've always been a fan of history, and when you look at history, American history, lawyers have played a critical role in the civil rights movement and in making sure there's equal protection under the law," he said. Asked whether he ever had any other, perhaps more glamorous, dream job in mind growing up, he chuckled and said no.
After earning a degree from William and Mary Law School, he built a career as a prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney's Offices in New York and New Jersey and tackled terrorism and Russian hacking cases. In New Jersey, he rose to become chief of the Economic Crimes Unit.
In 2016, Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, appointed Grewal, a Democrat, to serve as the Bergen County prosecutor.
Lawmakers balked at approving the nomination, and Grewal initially held the title of acting prosecutor.
"One of the strikes against him was he was an outsider. No one knew much about him and he wore a turban and it was strange — you don't normally see people walking around with a turban," said Sen. Gerald Cardinale, a Republican from Bergen County and the only lawmaker to vote in favor of Grewal back then.
Grewal quickly "won people over by being fair, honest, and an extremely competent guy" and he earned the title of prosecutor, Cardinale said. "He's an independent thinker and a gem."
In January, Grewal was unanimously confirmed when Murphy tapped him to be attorney general. Murphy touted Grewal's stellar background and said he wanted diversity in his cabinet.
The new attorney general has found supporters in improbable quarters. Amol Sinha, the executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, says Grewal has signaled he is willing to collaborate on social-justice issues. "He's set the tone and let us know he is available and will try to remedy injustices," Sinha said.
The ACLU had represented Patel after he was denied admission to the bar associations in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The challenge was successful and he became the first Dreamer to obtain a law license in each of the two states. The night before Patel was sworn in, Grewal messaged Sinha to find out whether Patel would swear or affirm the oath of office and which holy book, if any, he would want to use during the ceremony.
"Imagine that. The attorney general is calling the ACLU to find out what holy book the first DACA recipient in New Jersey would like to use at his swearing in," Sinha said. "I was so moved."
Patel said he was glad his experience as a Dreamer allowed Grewal "to give an extra push" to his announcement that New Jersey would join 15 other states in litigation to prevent DACA recipients from being deported. Grewal's "extraordinary sensitivity" and attention to detail about the holy book also impressed Patel. "He could have sworn me in without any book. All that's required is I raise my right hand," he said.
Grewal also took the time to welcome and deliver a personal message to a roomful of immigrants from 18 countries at a naturalization ceremony in Trenton last month. He acknowledged the political climate and anti-immigrant backlash in the country, but told them to hold on to hope.