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The People

A Champion for Immigrant Rights

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Soon after landing her first job as a lawyer, Julie Mao ’11 found herself working to protect more than 300 students hailing from Turkey, China, Ukraine, and elsewhere from labor exploitation—just the type of injustice that inspired her to pursue law. The students had each paid thousands of dollars to come to the US as part of the State Department’s J-1 cultural exchange program, only to find themselves working in a Pennsylvania factory, packing chocolates for subcontractors of the Hershey Company in grueling conditions and under threat of deportation.

“I remember one student showing me her first paycheck for 6 cents. They were trying to figure out, ‘How do I survive? How do I leave?’” says Mao, an Equal Justice Works Fellow at the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice who was named to Forbes’ 2014 list of “30 Under 30” in law and policy. The Department of Labor ultimately awarded the students more than $200,000 collectively in back wages, and the State Department banned the recruiter from the program.

At NYU Law, Mao, a Root-Tilden-Kern Scholar, served as a Center for Human Rights and Global Justice Fellow and landed an internship with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Malaysia the summer after her 1L year. Working on the cases of individuals seeking refugee status, Mao developed an interest in addressing human trafficking, refugee rights, and state criminalization of migration.

She also learned to navigate what she calls a Kafkaesque immigration system when she was a student in the Immigrant Rights Clinic. “The training and mentorship [by Professors Nancy Morawetz ’81 and Alina Das ’05] was foundational to my career as an immigrant rights advocate,” Mao says. As part of the clinic, she and fellow students spent two years helping a civil rights activist in deportation proceedings win the right to remain with family and community.

Mao’s deep interest in immigration reform is both professional and personal. Her father came to the US from China under a guest worker program. She grew up witnessing the separation of immigrant families by visas and borders, and the destabilizing effect of rigid immigration policies. “My family was very fortunate to have emigrated to the US with the opportunity to achieve full citizenship,” she says, “but many of our family and friends were not that lucky.”

Editor’s Note: After publication of this piece, Julie Mao was interviewed in the Nation about immigration enforcement practices in New Orleans.

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