Faculty Profile: Prof. Maureen Sweeney

Prof. Maureen Sweeney’s mission is simple: to help poor and disempowered people. That is why serving as director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law since 2004 has been a deeply rewarding fit for the Pennsylvania native. With immigration law, “the potential to affect someone’s life is profound,” she says. “Immigration status goes to the heart of a person’s ability to support themself, to feel secure in their life, to be there for their family. If you can help somebody with an insecure status, you’ve had an amazing effect on that person’s life.” 

That same motivation propels students, who are increasingly attracted to Maryland Carey Law because of the opportunities Sweeney has forged to prepare them to be immigration attorneys, to get practice experience in the clinic. 

Since Sweeney joined the faculty, hundreds of students have taken the clinic, getting real-world experience in Baltimore Immigration Court, the Board of Immigration Appeals, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, representing clients fleeing persecution and facing family separation through deportation. With the addition of staff attorney Gabriela Kahrl in 2017, the clinic’s capacity increased from 10 to 16 students, and it was able to ramp up policy work, with students drafting and giving testimony and advocating for legislation in the Maryland General Assembly. This spring, Sweeney’s students will also offer legal advice to DACA students and their families at the University of Maryland, College Park. 

Zyra Quirante ’21 participated in the Immigration Clinic and was thrilled to be the student-attorney to get a young child-client’s deportation proceedings administratively closed. A first-generation immigrant herself, Quirante credits Sweeney with making clinic the best part of her law school career. “Prof. Sweeney helped me realize the power of legal representation and how I can use that skill to help others so they may have a chance at justice,” she says. Additionally, Quirante appreciates Sweeney’s commitment to student success, saying that the professor’s “knowledge, guidance, trust, and confidence gave her the courage to take the lead on cases and helped her “find my voice as an advocate for immigrants.” 

Sweeney deepens her relationships with students as an accessible mentor who opens doors of opportunity. One way is by accompanying students on service trips during spring break. Twice she led groups of volunteers to work at detention centers in Georgia, where she says the bench is notably hostile to the immigrant population. “As many problems as we see in immigration law here in Maryland, there are places in the country where it’s much worse for immigrants,” says Sweeney, “and where there’s even more of a dearth of representation.” To her disappointment, 2020 trip to provide legal assistance to immigrants in Tijuana was canceled because of COVID-19 travel restrictions, but future service weeks are in the works. 

As passionate as Sweeney is about readying students for the practical aspects of immigration lawyering, she is equally dedicated to her work as a classroom instructor. In her Immigration Law class, whose enrollment has doubled in recent years, students learn the history and theory of U.S. immigration policy and law and develop an understanding of immigration as a civil rights issue.  

Sweeney also teaches Practicing Law in Spanish. Fluent herself, she conducts the class exclusively in Spanish, giving both native speakers and those with Spanish as a second language the tools to professionalize their Spanish and acquire translated legalese. A highlight is visits from attorneys who represent Spanish-speaking clients in criminal defense, immigration, bankruptcy, and corporate cases. 

With a seemingly endless well of energy for providing access to justice, Sweeney is also the first in line to volunteer her expertise. She rushed to BWI airport to assist travelers affected by a 2017 freeze on new visas for people from Muslim-majority countries. In 2014, when the state of Maryland faced a crisis with unaccompanied minors arriving from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, Sweeney worked with Maryland Carey Law students who provided translation services and helped children and their guardians navigate the U.S. immigration system.  

Sweeney is also a prominent immigration law scholar. She is the principal author of a chart for criminal defense practitioners of the Immigration Consequences of Criminal Convictions Under Maryland State Law and has spoken and trained widely in the state on this topic. Her publications include “Enforcing/Protection: The Danger oChevron in Refugee Act Cases” in the Administrative Law Review (with a practitioner’s version in the AILA Law Journal), Shadow Immigration Enforcement and Its Constitutional Dangers in the Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, and Fact or Fiction: The Legal Construction of Immigration Removal for Crimes” in the Yale Journal on Regulation. Sweeney has also published in the St. Louis University Public Law Review, the American Journal of Public Health, the Yale Journal of Law and Feminism, and the University of Maryland Law Journal of Race, Religion, Gender and Class. 

Prior to joining the Maryland Carey Law faculty, Sweeney built practical experience working at Associated Catholic Charities Immigration Legal Services in Baltimore; the Migrant Legal Action Program in Washington, DC; Farmworker Legal Services of North Carolina in Raleigh, NC; and the Texas Center for Immigrant Legal Assistance in Houston, Texas. 

Sweeney’s leadership has earned her a long list of recognitions, including the 2020 University of Maryland, Baltimore’s Public Servant of the Year Award, the 2019 University System of Maryland Board of Regents Faculty Award for Excellence in Public Service, the 2017 Public Service Award from the Hispanic Bar Association, and the 2016 Benjamin L. Cardin Distinguished Service Award from the Maryland Legal Services Corporation. 

In addition, her work has drawn the attention of Marco and Debbie Chacón, local philanthropists committed to improving the lives of immigrants. Thanks to their support, Sweeney is now director of the Chacón Center for Immigrant Justicewhich encompasses the clinic and will dramatically increase its capacity, impact, and student opportunities. 

Sweeney’s feelings about the future are as straightforward as her personal mission. “It’s so exciting,” she says. “We will be able to greatly expand access to justice for people who need it the most.”

Share this article