I had a chance to sit down and chat with my friend, famed UK immigration solicitor Harjap Singh Bhangal in July of 2016.
His reputation generally precedes him, particularly in the South Asian diaspora and fuelled by his hugely popular TV call in show (episodes are up on his YouTube channel). Harjap has never feared calling a spade a spade, and that's a big reason why immigrant communities trust him, love him.
Harjap is in town shooting a movie and we had a chance to sit down right before dinner to discuss a number of topics - what led us to the practice of immigration law, stereotypes around "brown" or "asian" lawyers (also, oddly #brexit, the departure of the UK from the European Union) and why we're not going to be millionaires practicing immigration law (and why that's ok!) and advice to lawyers starting out today...(don't be surprised when your client asks you to do something unethical...)
Raj Sharma: All right. You're on.
Harjap Bhangal: Okay. Ask away.
Raj Sharma: All right. Everyone's been asked the same four or five questions, starting with an introduction, who they are, where they practice and for how long.
Harjap Bhangal: All right. My name is Harjap Singh Bhangal, I am an immigration solicitor in the UK, usually you call my lot attorney or lawyers, we call it solicitor. I qualified in 2002, I practice in London, England and Birmingham. And we also have an office in Jalandhar in Punjab, India. I've been doing it for that long, all I do is immigration law, it's all I've ever done.
Raj Sharma: I think this is a sort of interesting question. I kind of think about it for myself as well, which is that I was articling with the Federal Department of Justice. There was a rotation and I did get exposed to one immigration file. It turned out to be a medical inadmissability case. It's something I do a lot now. After that of course I had to find a bahana, an excuse to come to Calgary, and the job that I got was as a refugee protection officer with the Immigration Refugee Board. I think for me I kind of just fell into immigration. Was that the same for you as well, or did immigration fall onto you?
Harjap Bhangal: It was a bit of both really. I was very good at my languages, so my Hindi-Punjabi was very good. And I found out that a common problem that people had in the UK was immigration. So when I was training, I trained in three areas of law, Crime, Family and Immigration. However, immigration was the most common. Punjabi criminals are not as much found in the UK as much as say, Vancouver. We have different problems. We have a lot of illegal immigrants, compared to probably Canada [up to] to 1.5 million.
The main problem is "I came over here and I overstayed." Or "I've come here and I've gained asylum." This was back in 2002. I found it interesting, I found out I was good at it, so we found each other really. Then I never really thought about doing anything else. As soon as I qualified, it was the only thing I knew how to do well, and then I did it and so I thought "Right. Let's stick to immigration, because there'll be enough immigration work out there amongst the Asian community to keep me going." And it has, to be honest.
Raj Sharma: Right. Now you Brits call Asians-I guess we'll call them "brown" over in Canada.
Harjap Bhangal: Yeah I found that very, very intriguing. You could not get away with calling browns-you could not say "Hey, you're a brown community." You can't say that in the UK, buddy. You can't say that. When we talk about Asians in the UK-
Raj Sharma: We're talking about South Asians.
Harjap Bhangal: We're talking about South Asians. We're talking about Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans.
Raj Sharma: Right. And if we say Asian over here, we're talking about the Chinese. We're talking about the East Asians.
Harjap Bhangal: You're talking about Chinese, Koreans, Japanese. We wouldn't call them that. We call them Orientals.
Raj Sharma: Right. And we would find that a little bit problematic. I think that terminology might be a little bit problematic here.
So Harjap, what do you think? Do you think that sometimes, because you're brown or Asian, and we're lawyers and we speak other languages, do we just sometimes get stereotyped, as in "Oh he must be an immigration lawyer," or "I.e. Raj Sharma's not practicing tax law with Baker Hughes," or whatever the case may be.
Harjap Bhangal: Why isn't he doing commercial law?
Raj Sharma: Right. I don't know, is that a stereotype or maybe it's a valid stereotype?
Harjap Bhangal: Yeah, I found it was hard, as a brown, to break into areas of-like in the city firms. The brown females would do much better than the brown males. So we were stuck with the high street practices, trying to use our contacts, or contacts that our parents had made. Trying to get a job. In the high street practices, you're dealing with immigration, you're dealing with crime, you're dealing with family.
Raj Sharma: Yeah, meat-and-potatoes.
Harjap Bhangal: Yeah, basically. Bread-and-butter stuff, buying houses, conveyancing we call it. So you're dealing with that sort of-
Harjap Bhangal: So you're dealing with that sort of stuff really.
Raj Sharma: Well, it's incredibly rewarding. I mean I wouldn't have it any other way. I summered at one of the biggest law firms in Alberta, I summered with the Court of Appeal, I summered with a top criminal lawyer, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
Harjap Bhangal: Yeah. I think we have a lot of law changes. I don't know about Canada, but we're not an immigration-friendly country any more, the UK isn't. So therefore work has sort of died down, and with the Brexit thing we're expecting a lot more work to die down, the appeals are gone.
Raj Sharma: I call it the Revenge of the Empire. I mean you've got England, you've got the sun that never set on the British Empire, so one of the natural consequences I think of empire-building, is that what happens when you invade 50 plus countries? Well, a lot of those guys are going to be following you back home. Now suddenly they're uncomfortable with it.
Harjap Bhangal: I see a lot of stuff on the internet, and I mean, [inaudible 00:05:37]. It's like, typical of Britain. Invades half the world and colonizes it, then complains about immigration.
Raj Sharma: We were talking about Brexit and we were laughing, we had a good laugh the other day, which is like "If only India knew that all it took to get Britain to leave was a referendum, instead of dealing with them for about 150 years."
Harjap Bhangal: Yeah. Mr. Gandhi was stuck by the sea making salt. Spent a lot of time in prison.
Raj Sharma: A lot of time in prison.
Harjap Bhangal: Yeah, it wouldn't have been needed. We should've just held a vote on it. Yeah, I also think that where else do you want these people to come? You've virtually pillaged their countries, right and taken all the resources. Where do you want them to go?
Raj Sharma: It's more than that. Okay, so you've gone there, you've exported your rule of law, you've exported the Westminster style of government, you've exported English, you've exported your court system and your train systems and everything else and then all of a sudden you're shocked that these individuals would actually want to then come to the fount of the system that they now subscribe to?
Harjap Bhangal: We now have a big problem in the UK. We've got a big problem with ... The racists feel that they've been ratified, that their views have been legitimized. We had a 57% increase in racist activity, in racist-reported crime, just after the Brexit.
Raj Sharma: What I don't understand, is that net immigration, as far as I can research-and maybe we're going off here on a tangent, after Brexit-but what I don't understand is that your net immigration to the UK is 330,000 people, the net. Minus the outflows because obviously it's a two-way street in the EU.
In Canada, we accept 300,000 people every single year. I don't understand why this became, why immigration became the driving force behind this incredible, global, cut-your-nose-to-spite-your-face moment.
Harjap Bhangal: We are not as big as Canada, we don't have the physical space. Second, we are developed. We're not developing, we're fully developed. The other thing is it's a big strain on the resources. We're not pumping in the money into the resources that we should have. These things all play a big factor. When you haven't got much space, immigrants are more in your face. We can't send our immigrants to Winnipeg, right?
Raj Sharma: That's really interesting. The areas that voted the most to leave are the areas that have the least exposure to immigrants and immigration. The areas that had the most exposure to immigration were most likely to vote remain.
Harjap Bhangal: There's a reason for that. The one or two immigrants that the areas did have, they thought that was enough. Imagine if the immigrants in London invaded Great Yarmouth, or Bournemouth. They'd be like "No, our country's taken over." The phrase that was used was "We've got our country back." What the heck does that even mean? No one took your country in the first place. Britain feels invaded by immigrants. That is the irony of it.
Raj Sharma: That is the irony of it.
Harjap Bhangal: Why do they feel invaded?
Raj Sharma: The other thing I was going to ask you-I guess we took a sort of detour into Brexit-but the memorable highs and lows. You've been doing this for over a decade, you've got offices in India, you've got offices in England, you've got quite the social media presence on YouTube, and of course you've got your TV show. So I know that you've got thousands upon thousands of stories.
Harjap Bhangal: Oh god. Every story is like a new Harry Potter. Just when you think you've heard them all, someone comes up with another story and you think "Really? I thought I'd heard it all." But it's there, and there's a lot of stories and a lot of people have experiences. I suppose I don't ever think that there's anything such as a straightforward immigration story. Everyone has different motives, different reasons behind it.
Whether it's your 25-year old girl from Punjab marrying a 45-year old guy, divorcé of two, in Canada. Even that, you'd sit there and it makes you wonder why are you doing this and what are the motives behind it. Everyone has a story to tell, for everyone. Whether people are coming for economic migrants. Whether they're coming to sponsor their families.
Highs and lows, god I've seen-it's a satisfying job, because you're not going to become a millionaire doing immigration law, right? So what you have to look forward to-
Raj Sharma: What?
Harjap Bhangal: Someone never told you? Whoops.
Raj Sharma: This is a problem. You're about a year or so older than I am. What? No one told me that.
Harjap Bhangal: You'll find out next year. So our reward is-
Raj Sharma: Helping people.
Harjap Bhangal: Yeah, making people's lives better. Changing lives [inaudible 00:11:11]. When people ask me what I do, I kind of "I change people's lives for the better. That's what I do." That's our reward, the mental satisfaction. And the blessings, I suppose.
Raj Sharma: Any particular lows? Every defeat, a worthy or meritorious case that you lose I think is every lawyer's nightmare.
Harjap Bhangal: Lows, I think it's just stuff that people do to go abroad. I've seen brothers marrying their sisters, true sisters, cousins just like a normal thing here. People don't bat an eyelid. If you'd mention it to them socially, these guys get morally uptight.
Raj Sharma: They're indignant.
Harjap Bhangal: I've seen religious cases being used to smuggle people in, sporting bodies-
Raj Sharma: Like kabbadi
Harjap Bhangal: Like kabbadi. You know everyone has a moral standing until it comes to the word "visa"? Then the morals go out the window, and it's all a go. It seems to be acceptable. The same people who say "Actually, it's all right, it doesn't matter. So what, he married his cousin to get into the UK?" I think well, what can I say to that?
Raj Sharma: You become very utilitarian at that point.
We're about the same age. Any particular advice you'd give to a younger Harjap from ten years ago, or someone that wants to follow in your illustrious footsteps?
Harjap Bhangal: I would say, Become a commercial lawyer, man. Become a tax lawyer.
Raj Sharma: Forget High street. It should be Fleet Street.
Harjap Bhangal: It should.
You know what? The perceptions of what you're going to do when you're doing a law degree, and what you end up doing as a lawyer are totally different. I don't think I've ever had to use anything I was taught in my law degree.
Raj Sharma: You're right.
Harjap Bhangal: Practically, until now, that's the one thing. Second, I'd say look. If you're going to do something that's socially rewarding, then you've got to realize that it's not going to be financially rewarding. And if you're going to do something that's financially rewarding, you probably might not even get to see a client all day. Your client will be a big corporation, and you'll be sitting up behind a desk doing repetitive stuff. It's all about what satisfies you personally.
Raj Sharma: Right. It's a give-and-take, no matter what.
Harjap Bhangal: You've got to find that balance. And I think that's what you need to do. And don't believe what you see in the films, man. What you see ... You're not going to be defending OJ every week. Or you're not going to be in any big courtroom scenes, which you see in the Bollywood films. A lot of it is just pushing paper, you become a pen pusher. However, what you do do, is make sure the advice you give is good, clear. People won't like to hear the truth-that's something I've learned-people don't like to hear it, but your duty is to tell them. And don't try and tell people what they want to hear, tell them what they need to hear. In the long run, whether they appreciate you or not, you've done your duty. Don't expect people to appreciate telling the truth. It hurts. And then people say "I paid you for you to tell me that?" "You did want to know. That's the advice."
Don't be surprised if people ask you to do stuff that's unethical. They come with that mentality, from places where that's the norm.
Raj Sharma: Yeah, don't be so shocked. I think that's great, all of that is good advice. How do you stick to your moral core? Integrity without ambition, or ambition without integrity is a dangerous thing. We're going to have all those opportunities to cut corners ourselves. Sometimes the only person that knows will be you. Not that many other people, but it's important not to make that trade-off.
Well, welcome to Calgary, I guess we'll be chatting a little bit more. You'll be here for a little bit.
Harjap Bhangal: Will do. We will talk Brexit and Canadian immigration law. Now there are loads of Europeans who want to come to Canada, I'm going to ask you how they can do so.
Raj Sharma: You got it. All right, thanks.