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Sunday, October 1, 2023


Immigration Law Clinic founder dies

Joseph Vail, a lifetime advocate of immigrant rights and founder of the UH Law Center’s Immigration Law Clinic, died June 17 at his family home near Philadelphia at age 56.

During his lifetime, Vail served as a Houston immigration attorney, a judge and professor.

Vail came to UH in 1999 as a visiting professor to start and build the UH Law Center’s Immigration Law Clinic, stepping down as a federal immigration judge and taking a significant pay cut.

"He came on with a commitment of doing it part time and ended up being here a hundred hours a week," Diana Velardo, Immigration Clinic supervising attorney said.

He built the UH Law Center’s Immigration Law Clinic from scratch, into an operation that would grow to become a reputable source for immigrants seeking citizenship – one of the largest of its kind in the nation. The clinic deals with a complex array of immigration cases, including serving women of illegal status who suffer from domestic abuse, while giving students the opportunity to work directly with people struggling to receive residential status.

With the help of federal grants, the clinic grew to encompass adult immigration issues as the only one of its kind in the nation. The clinic also offered a juvenile program for a short period of time.

For nearly three decades, Vail was an advocate for immigrant rights, dedicated to running his private immigration practice and providing legal assistant to immigrant advocacy groups. Vail was nominated by 108 lawyers in Houston and across the state for a National Lawyers Guild immigration award before the time of his death.

He was noted not only for his expertise in the field of immigration but for his dedication to the people he served.

"He would be working here as late as 11 o’clock at night and he would get a call about somebody being deported or somebody who had just been detained and he would rush up with you, try and find where the person was detained and try to figure out how to actually get the person out." Velardo said.

Vail went to great lengths to ensure the safety of his clients, Velardo said.

"When my ex-husband was being detained and on his way to being deported back to Europe and I called Professor Vail and he rushed and got out there and met him and tried to do whatever he could," Velardo said. "He fought with me for four years and got my husband back in."

As a former federal immigration judge in Houston, Vail became an expert in the field of immigration and an asset to many students seeking his guidance. While serving as a clinical associate professor at UH he became a role model for UH students who worked with the clinic to help immigrants struggling toward citizenship.

"He gave them the hope and he gave them the love to do something with the law when they felt pretty disheartened by the whole profession," Velardo said.

After he was diagnosed with cancer in early March 2007, Vail continued to lecture through April classes and serve as a mentor to his students.

"Sometimes he would be out because he was sick with the chemo, but as soon he was absolutely able to get out of bed he would be in here," Janet Heppard, UH associate clinic professor, said.

Before he left to seek treatment at the Cancer Center of Chicago in April, a year and three months after his diagnosis, Vail continued to work on cases.

"Even as the doctors gave him the news that it was time for him to get his affairs in order, he was in here talking to me trying to push back his treatment for another week to do a trial," Velardo said.

Vail is survived by two daughters, Tanya Clark and Aleyda Alearenga; brothers James Vail, Harry Vail and Michael Vail; and sisters Bernice Liberato, Francina Miley and Ann Garrison.

His funeral was held at the Sacred Heart Church in Havertown on Saturday.

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