Keeping Families Together

Professor Maureen Sweeney (l) with student attorney Tonya Foley ’21.

Tonya Foley ’21 knew she was meant for a career in immigration law well before applying to law school. Living in Naples, Italy, during the 2015 refugee crisis, the mom of two was deeply impacted by her interactions with people who had risked their lives in rubber boats to find a safe harbor.

So, when picking a law school, one of the most important factors for Foley was a robust immigration clinic. That’s why she chose the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law.

“I feel strongly about using the privilege of this education to help people,” said Foley. “The immigration system is so complicated that legal representation can make all the difference.”

Foley and her colleagues at the Maryland Carey Law Immigration Clinic, led by Professor Maureen Sweeney, proved that last fall when they won permanent residency for the mother in a family with two teenagers who had never known another home than the United States.

The student attorneys, including Foley, Alba Sanchez Fabelo ’20, and Miles Light ’21, “did an amazing job,” said Sweeney, “gaining the trust of the family, documenting the hardship that would accompany deportation, and convincing the judge to grant residence.”

The case was referred to the Immigration Clinic by Maryland Carey Law alumna Michelle Mendez ’08, director of the Defending Vulnerable Populations program at the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC), a national non-profit.

Through three job changes, Mendez had been working the case pro bono since her days as an Equal Justice Works fellow in 2009. That’s when her client was taken away in handcuffs in front of her two young children for a minor traffic violation (later dismissed) in the parking lot of a church where her husband was teaching youth group bible study, and turned directly over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Years passed as Mendez fought through multiple denials and appeals to keep her client in the country, finally getting the case reopened in light of new evidence that the mother’s daughter was exhibiting emotional issues—including a crippling fear of police officers—and learning disabilities at school. Arguments before Baltimore Immigration Court were set for November 2019.

“Knowing I could not give this family the time and attention they needed and deserved,” said Mendez, whose current position is travel intensive, “with a heavy heart, I asked Professor Maureen Sweeney if the University of Maryland Carey School of Law Immigration Clinic would take over the case. They were one of the only groups I would trust with it.”

Sweeney agreed and, at the start of the fall semester, the students got to work—meeting weekly with the family, tracking down expert witnesses, gathering evidence, preparing affidavits, and, finally, making their case in court just before Thanksgiving. The students’ preparation and presentation were so thorough and effective that the judge ruled for permanent residency stipulating exceptional hardship for the children if their mother were deported to a region in Central America with insufficient resources to meet the daughter’s special needs.

Foley, who will join Sweeney helping asylum seekers in Tijuana for this year’s Alternative Spring Break, said that working on the case was an incredible experience for her first time in immigration court. “I was honored to be able to help the client and give her family long-term peace and security,” she said. “It’s what I’m here to do.”

Equally thrilled by the result, Mendez is grateful for the clinic’s hard work. “It took more than a decade,” she said, “but we won the greatest prize—we kept a family together.”

All full-time day students at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law are guaranteed practical lawyering experience in the school’s many clinics and legal theory and practice classes. Each year, students in the Clinical Law Program provide 75,000 hours of free legal service to poor and other underrepresented populations and communities.

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