Mary Beth Leeper once thought she would go into the Lutheran ministry. Through her immersion in Spanish and work in Latin America, she discovered a different calling: working with and representing immigrants in legalizing their status in the United States.
“When I can intervene in the case of a family that’s going through something as horrific as seeing a family member murdered and fleeing that violence, it’s very rewarding,” said Leeper ’10. “My practice combines everything I dreamed of doing someday: legal research and writing, a bit of social work, advocacy, policy work, defense of human rights, and even lets me use my knowledge of Latin America and my Spanish skills.”
Leeper is an immigration attorney at the well-known firm of Hanis Irvine Prothero in Kent, Washington, and pro bono chair for the Washington chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. She spoke at AILA’s recent CLE held at the law school.
About half her clients are going through removal proceedings, and she has several cases pending before the Ninth Circuit. In her “spare” time, she volunteers to help find attorneys to represent youth in deportation proceedings – a high priority after the surge in undocumented children last year and the Obama administration’s desire to move the cases quickly through the system.
But her path to the law was not a straight one. She majored in Spanish and global studies at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, and studied abroad in Ecuador and Spain. After PLU, she spent three years working with the Mennonite Central Committee in Bolivia, in a program aimed at keeping kids off the streets and in school.
“Once I got to SU, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I am so thankful for the multifaceted approach at SU in helping me not only earn my degree but achieve my dream career.”
With those formative years complete, she returned to her family in Auburn, and worked for the city in an outreach program to Latino families. During that time, she met Robert Pauw, a successful immigration lawyer who served as an adjunct professor at the law school, when she provided interpretation services for a friend who was seeking Pauw’s legal advice.
“Law was far from my head. It was not on my radar at all,” she said. “But that experience interpreting during that one-hour consultation opened my eyes to this whole other world of advocacy.”
She met with an admissions counselor at Seattle University School of Law who showed her the array of opportunities available to her and connected her with alumni and faculty in the immigration area.
“I was so impressed with SU’s program, it was the only school I applied to,” she said.
Leeper worked for 10 hours a week at an immigration firm throughout law school. She served as editor-in-chief of the Seattle Journal for Social Justice, for which she wrote an article about immigration, and completed an externship with the Washington Defender Association’s Immigration Project.
She won a CALI award for the highest grade in her advanced immigration course and was one of the women students who got to have a private lunch with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. The picture of the group with the justice sits on her desk. A shelf above her desk holds issues of SJSJ.
“Once I got to SU, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I am so thankful for the multifaceted approach at SU in helping me not only earn my degree but achieve my dream career,” she said. “Every door that I wanted to peek through, there was someone on the other side saying, ‘Come on in. I want to help you.’ I don’t think I would have gotten that anywhere else.”
In 2012, Leeper was honored for her commitment to social justice with the Recent Alumnus Award from Pacific Lutheran University, and last year she was a keynote speaker at a PLU event called “Meant to Live” designed to help students find their passion. Featuring her was fitting.
“My very soul yearns for this work,” Leeper said. “I believe our government has the responsibility to do right by the people who live here, no matter where they came from. Every human being, regardless of where you came from, deserves protection.”
After law school she worked with a Seattle nonprofit serving immigrant youth before she landed at her dream firm. She always wanted to work at Hanis Irvine Prothero because of her commitment to serving the South King County community and the firm’s focus on immigration law. The firm has three full-time immigration attorneys, including Florian D. Purganan ’04.
As part of her job, she speaks to churches and community groups, even on the radio, to increase awareness about U.S. immigration law and policy. She is also an active member of Kiwanis International and Messiah Lutheran Church in Auburn, where she lives.
“Mary Beth is passionate about immigrant justice,” said Cynthia Irvine, a partner at the firm.
Leeper admits the work is emotionally draining and not all the stories have happy endings.
“I love my clients, and I’ve been given these gifts of education and language to help them. Right now we’re on the cusp of broad-based immigration reform. The happy cases keep me going,” she said. “I admit that I often tear up over the cases that don’t go the way I want. I’m learning to balance my emotional attachment, because burnout is high in this field. But I am so passionate about this work that I hope to be here for the rest of my career. I don’t see myself doing anything else.”