Immigration Advocate Takes Winding Path to Law Degree

Posted April 23, 2021, 8:11AM
Law student Kimberly Jinorio Swanson will go to work as an immigration attorney after graduation.

Kimberly Jinorio Swanson was on the verge of choking up as she placed the order for her graduation gown in early spring. She was just so happy that her six-year goal was finally within sight: she had earned her juris doctor degree and was ready to become an immigration attorney.

Jinorio Swanson, whose grandparents are Cuban American, grew up in South Florida before relocating with her family to Hickory, N.C., as a teen. After high school, she attended Wingate College near Charlotte, earning a degree in human service, with a minor in Spanish. 

After serving as a volunteer for AmeriCorps in a shelter for immigrant families, Swanson returned to school at UNC Chapel Hill and earned a Master of Social Work degree in 2012.   

Working with nonprofits in central North Carolina, Jinorio Swanson was surprised to see how many vulnerable individuals, immigrant families, and others with disadvantaged lifestyles were falling prey to scams, unfair treatment and underhanded tactics. 

“I realized my social work skills would only get me so far; they needed lawyers who could advocate for them in court,” said Jinorio Swanson, whose husband, David, works for University of North Carolina Hospitals.

In 2015, shortly after daughter Marley was born, Jinorio Swanson began taking classes in NCCU School of Law’s evening program. She also became pregnant with their second child, Sammy, who was born the following summer. 

Upon returning to classes, she threw her energy into the NCCU Innocence Project, helping to evaluate claims of innocence from incarcerated men and women; the American Constitution Society that brings together progressive law students and lawyers; and the Hispanic Law Student Association.

Another sort of diversion took place in 2018, when Jinorio Swanson’s church, CityWell in Durham, extended sanctuary to  Samuel Oliver-Bruno, a Mexican citizen who was attempting to join his sick wife and teen-age son in the U.S. 

Because Jinorio Swanson was among the few church members who could speak Spanish, she grew close to Oliver-Bruno and his family, despite increasing tensions in the standoff between the church and immigration officials.

“We were very connected,” she said of their relationship. “I brought him meals and ate with him, and he became part of our family.”

U.S. Immigration officers arrested Oliver-Bruno in late 2018, as his family and church members watched in horror. 

“My husband was arrested with others who surrounded the van to take him away,” Jinorio Swanson said. “I was a complete mess.”

Not long after this event, Jinorio Swanson suffered a miscarriage – a devastating loss for the family that also brought on health complications requiring surgery, a blood transfusion and a lengthy recuperation. 

Taking a semester off to recover, Swanson returned to NCCU in August 2019. She also found work as a law clerk a local firm that specializes in immigration cases. The work inspired her to recommit to her law degree, which was still several credits shy of completion.

In January 2020, after welcoming a third child, Lydia, Jinorio Swanson began the spring semester.

“I knew I couldn’t take more time off because I was approaching the six-year time limit,” she said. Students who can’t finish the required coursework in that amount of time at NCCU School of Law are required to retake certain classes.

Swanson’s fellow students may remember tiny Lydia cradled in a sling or asleep in a stroller beside her mom during the spring 2020 semester. As mid-terms approached, Swanson decided to ask her professor, April Dawson, about lending a hand. And, of course, she said yes.

“The best part of it all was seeing my constitutional law professor holding my baby while I took my exams,” Jinorio Swanson said. 

In fact, she thanks many people at the School of Law for helping her make it through her final courses.

“While I was there with Lydia in the law school, so many staff and faculty pitched in. It was so helpful, the type of support they showed.”

After graduation, Jinorio Swanson will take the North Carolina Bar Exam and, if successful, will become a full-fledged associate attorney of the Barbarin Law Group, where she has been clerking for the past 18 months. 

“It’s the best thing I could have imagined,” she said of earning her legal degree. “Now I’ll get to spend every day working to keep families together.”

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