When Maryann Tharappel ’11, Catholic Charities’ first-ever Director of Special Projects for Immigrants and Refugees, started law school she thought she’d made a big mistake. Then she walked into the Civil Procedure class taught by Professor Maryellen Fullerton and everything changed.

“I can say without any hesitation she is the reason that I am an attorney,” said Tharappel. With Fullerton’s help and mentorship, Tharappel graduated and has excelled in her career, innovating the delivery of legal services to immigrant communities and changing many lives.

Tharappel joined the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) in 2012 as a deportation defense attorney. She was frustrated by the volume of cases and lack of attorneys to take them. “We were turning people away,” she said. “There was a gap and people were falling into it.”

Legal service nonprofits typically are strapped for resources, but instead of accepting the status quo, Tharappel changed the system. Through her work with NYLAG, she worked closely with local elected officials, community organizations, and parishes to bring legal services to communities at risk.

“The clinic model breaks down barriers for immigrants who are isolated,” explained Tharappel. “When we bring a clinic to a school, a mosque, or a parish, they feel safe.”

The community legal clinics allow three or four volunteers to do intake for one attorney. These pro-bono volunteers, who are trained by Tharappel and her staff do not need to be lawyers or paralegals.They work with immigrants to fill out a screening tool Tharappel developed to determine a client’s immigration options, serving up to 100 immigrants per location.

In the wake of the Trump Administration’s immigration ban, Tharappel partnered with Professors Fullerton and Stacy Caplow to train a group of students, alumni, and faculty to create a Know Your Rights (KYR) project. The Law School hosted its first free community-wide KYR Workshop in April, and Caplow and Fullerton have hosted KYRs at other local public schools and for restaurant employees.

This model has defined Tharappel’s remarkable career and has led to her speedy advancement through the ranks of NYLAG, where she was promoted to Clinic Program Coordinator by 2014 and Assistant Director of the Immigrant Protection Unit a year later.

At Catholic Charities, where Tharappel became the first special project attorney at the end of 2015, she has expanded community based legal service delivery to severely under-served communities throughout the Lower Hudson Valley. She also developed and runs Catholic Charities ActionNYC programs, initiated by the Mayor’s Office for Immigrant Affairs, an initiative in which Catholic Charities is the exclusive provider of legal services in New York City public schools.

Tharappel is currently developing, implementing, and managing all the agency’s legal special projects programs, including the New York State Liberty Defense Pro Bono Representation Project, a new statewide immigration legal defense and pro bono legal services delivery project introduced by Governor Andrew Cuomo. “The goal is that the pro bono volunteer will eventually be trained well enough to take cases without any hand holding,” said Tharappel. “When that happens, we have changed a community’s capacity to provide immigrant legal services.”

— Andrea Strong ’94