Open Doors: Jordan Michel

The GW Law student spent decades navigating the labyrinth of immigration law and now uses that understanding to help fight for civil and human rights.

January 31, 2022

Jordan Michel's journey to GW Law took him down paths he never expected. (Courtesy Jordan Michel)

Jordan Michel's journey to GW Law took him down paths he never expected. (Courtesy Jordan Michel)

Jordan Michel is now in his third year at GW Law—president of the Student Bar Association (SBA), with a year of Air Force training and a judicial internship under his belt and a job with the Air Force Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps coming up this year. He is a recipient of multiple donor-funded scholarships, including the Janet Altman Spragens Scholarship and Jeanette Michael Memorial Endowed Law Scholarship.

And his path to George Washington University was anything but straightforward. Michel grew up in rural Jamaica, where he watched his grandmother sell the fruit they grew in their yard as his grandfather worked at the local sugarcane factory. An animal lover, he dreamed of being a veterinarian. A few years after emigrating to the United States to join his mother, who was then working as an au pair, he graduated from high school at just 16. He applied for and won a full scholarship to Seton Hall University’s Ph.D.-M.D. program, where he planned to study veterinary science and political science.

“My dream was that I was going to be a double doctor by the time I was 25,” he said.

That’s when, filling out paperwork for the financial aid that would make his continued education possible, the ambitious, dedicated 16-year-old learned the meaning of another word with a devastating personal application: “undocumented.”

It was shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and though Michel’s mother had previously been on a path to naturalization after obtaining her associates degree, that law was one of many that had changed in a wave of hardline anti-immigrant legislation. Michel now tells the story with a laugh (“I was like, ‘Mom, I need my social [security number] and my passport!’ And she was like, ‘….Oof’”), but the blow was shattering.

“My world turned upside down,” he said.

Suddenly, Michel’s educational future and even his backup plan—joining the armed forces alongside many of his friends—had dropped away. His father was a veteran, but undocumented immigrants could not enlist.

Still a teenager, unexpectedly finding himself in legal and emotional limbo, Michel soldiered forward. He found a university that accepted students without immigration papers, and he tried to study full time while also working multiple jobs in catering and club promotion to fund his education. Employers took advantage of his immigration status, paying him under the table for less than his coworkers made. He was not yet 20; the pace simply wasn’t sustainable. Eventually, he had to drop out of school.

In his early 20s, Michel started his own club promotion business—without a social security number, he found it was almost the only way to ensure he could be fairly paid—and received his green card after marrying an American woman. But they were young, and the relationship fell apart after four years. Michel, who’d always held himself to a formidably high standard, now felt he’d failed. He was in his mid-20s, and the two doctoral degrees he’d expected himself to earn by that age were still on the horizon.

“I held that against myself for a long time,” he said.

But Michel was still determined to go back to school. His time in the service industry had gotten him interested in sociology: how and why people formed groups, the way economic and cultural privilege informed them, how those groups overlapped with or repelled each other and the way a single song—in New York City clubs in the mid-2000s, he said, it was probably by Usher—could make those boundaries fall away. And after years of trying to navigate the maze of immigration law, Michel knew more than most about the way legal systems could affect sociological status.

In 2017, he enrolled at Hunter College and threw himself into sociology, equity studies and anthropology, drawing on his earlier educational credits to earn his bachelor's degree within a year. “Through that process is actually where I found law,” he said. “Looking at all these social issues, it always came back to the law. A law could create a problem or codify a problem, or it could solve the problem.”

Michel was especially struck by the 1923 case of Baghat Singh Thind, a Sikh man whom the Supreme Court ruled was racially ineligible for naturalized citizenship as a “free white person”—despite being “a member of the Caucasian race,” as the court had recently defined whiteness—in part because Thind’s “physical group characteristics” rendered him “readily distinguishable from the various groups of persons in this country commonly recognized as white.”

The case “essentially defined whiteness as an exclusionary tool,” Michel said. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to go study law,’ because if we can have this stuff on record in courts—literally defining and enforcing inequity—that’s not okay. I’ve got to do more than just sit here and write about it, because politicians and judges don’t read academic sociological studies.”

It was no surprise to his family. “They said they always knew I was going to be a lawyer,” he said. “I was like ‘No, I was going to be a vet!’”

Michel’s interest in broad legislative issues led him to GW Law—and this time, the obligations he’s taken on alongside his schooling are voluntary, rather than economically necessary. He not only leads the SBA and previously served as employment chair of the Black Law Students Association but also works as a student attorney in civil and human rights at the Jacob Burns Community Legal Clinics and has spent the last year training with the Air Force.

“Like so many others, I applied to law school with a dream and a desire to effect change, but with no idea how I would afford it. [Donor funding] goes a long way in making law school possible for me,” he said.

While immigration law shaped much of Michel’s life, he sees human rights as his calling—and the military as a powerful means either to enforce or to breach those rights, depending on whether the right people are in the room.

“I want to serve humanity, and I can see how it might seem weird to join the military in order to help people,” he said. “But people think the same thing about the law: it’s a field that can do a lot of harm, but it has the potential to do so much good. I think being in the military and being on that side of it will teach me some of the realities of humanitarian law in a way that will allow me to apply that knowledge to make real change.”

And Michel says the convoluted path that took him here is as valuable as the place he's arrived. "Coming to law school when I did, through the gauntlet I ran to get here, I get to be 100 percent sure that this is what I want."

Open Doors: The Centuries Initiative for Scholarships & Fellowships lays the groundwork for the university’s third century by charting a course to increase access to the transformative power of a GW degree. Learn more about how GW is expanding opportunity for the next generation of leaders.