A brainstorming lunch with the Bluhm Clinic’s Geraghty, who’d done plenty of work in Africa, led to his mid-lunch realization that Nzelibe might be just the person to fill in for the clinic’s immigration attorney, who was about to take maternity leave. Nzelibe was barely five years out of law school, and here was Geraghty asking if she’d ever thought of teaching.
“I didn’t realize this is exactly what I should be doing, but it is exactly what I should be doing,” Nzelibe recalls, in a recent interview.
That realization came as no surprise to Geraghty. “From the beginning, the work Uzo was focusing on was so compelling — children essentially trafficked to the U.S. and held in detention centers without access to counsel or, in many cases, family members. These were kids with no status, about to be deported.”
He goes on: “Our students needed to know about these issues, and we knew they’d be immersed in this work because of the compelling nature of the cases. Most recently, with Trump’s stands on immigration and children at the border, Uzo’s work has come front and center in terms of the juvenile justice work we’re doing at the center. She’s taken on a leadership role locally and nationally. Her work has afforded our students cutting-edge practice in the most compelling issues of the day.”
Her students concur.
“She’s an absolute game changer,” in an immigration quest “where the rules are always changing and the goal posts always moving,” says Lindsey Blum ’18 JD, now a first-year associate at Kirkland & Ellis in Chicago, who spent a year in Nzelibe’s immigration law clinic. “I’d walk into her office all the time, saying, ‘The world’s ending. I don’t know what we’re going to do. This case is impossible.’ And she’d say every time, ‘Let’s reframe it, because we’re going to make it work.’
“It got to the point that none of the cases kept me awake at night, because Professor Nzelibe would always say, ‘We’re going to solve this. No time to wring your hands.’ ”
It’s that same sense of unshakability that you hear echoed by Nzelibe’s clients, some of whom she’s worked with for more than a decade.
“She’s the best, best, best,” says Fredy, a Honduran-born former client, now 32, whose asylum case — Nzelibe’s longest to date — took 11 years before he was granted asylum and his green card.
When Nzelibe and her students realized Fredy had never celebrated a birthday, they set out to fix that, with instructions to pick the restaurant of his dreams. He settled on a $5 all-you-can-eat pizza joint in a far-flung suburb, and in classic Nzelibe fashion, professor and students drove an hour — with piñata and cake — to make for him an unforgettable first birthday celebration, some 19 years after he was born.
“She treated me like a mother [would], not like I was just another number,” says Fredy, who, since being detained at the southern border and coming to Chicago in 2004, has learned English, earned his GED, now drives a big rig and can’t wait to become a U.S. citizen in 2020. “I was scared every time in court. My past is my past, Uzo always told me,” he says of a history riddled with horrors he doesn’t like to dwell on. “She never gave up on me.”
The complexity of asylum cases and changing views on who should be able to apply present challenges to immigration lawyers like Nzelibe.
“I don’t think anyone contemplated children and women, especially, getting asylum,” she says. “I don’t think these were the folks people were thinking of post–World War II who would be our asylum seekers. But they are now, and our asylum law doesn’t fit.
“These women and children, fleeing persecution in the form of gang or domestic violence, don’t fit neatly into the asylum box, so oftentimes it’s trying to figure out a way to get them relief, trying to massage the law, to find a way the law can encapsulate their case. What they’re afraid of, what they’re fleeing is real: They will die. So our job is trying to figure out a way that the law would make it possible for them to stay safely in America.”
Nzelibe, the long-ago child immigrant, frames it like this: “When I read the Declaration of Independence, when I read the Constitution, I know my clients are the embodiment of those ideals. I see that in them. We need not fear that America is going to change because of immigrants. What I’m concerned with is that in our desperation to keep immigrants out, we actually change who we are. We lose the values, we become our worst nightmare. Our country can absorb these people, and the forefathers’ experiment, started centuries ago, it’s still working; we need not fear that it’s not going to work.”
Barbara Mahany ’82 MS is a Chicago journalist and author.
Wow! Incredible! What determination! What a passion!
The passion for justice for humanity is oh so strong and apparent in every line of your story, Professor Nzelibe. You inspire me, give me hope to keep believing that nothing is impossible, when we believe. Talk about "he who feels it, knows it"! You are indeed born to do what you are doing for the "least and the voiceless of the world." Immigration law practice needs more people like you who know and understand the crux of the immigration matter in our nation, and globally. I believe in your mission big time and would like to help in any way possible.
Keep up the great work, sis. He will always be the Wind beneath your wings!
I'm so proud of you!
—Maureen Okoli Aurora, Ill., via Northwestern Magazine
There was a lot to like about the spring issue of the Northwestern Magazine. The “Caravans of Gold” article was especially interesting. And the article on Uzoamaka Emeka Nzelibe [“A Beacon of Hope for Asylum Seekers"] was fabulous! What an inspiring woman she is! Not only is she doing such good, important and difficult work, she is leading a crew of young lawyers who are greatly magnifying her impact. I hope some of them will follow in her footsteps. Thank you for telling us about her. I have a new hero! And thank you, Northwestern Law School, for recognizing Nzelibe’s talents and supporting her work with this neglected and vulnerable population.
—Mary Jo Deysach ’68 Evanston, via Northwestern Magazine
Thank you, Professor Nzelibe. I am a Northwestern law grad just returned from a week volunteering at the Dilley Pro Bono Project in Texas. There are many ways that nonimmigration attorneys can volunteer to help. We will continue to spread the word.
—Julie Sommers Neuman ’86 JD, Indianapolis, via Northwestern Magazine