Maria M. Odom, ’97, looks back and feels honored at what she has been able to accomplish, personally and professionally, because of her upbringing and what she gained from her legal education from Mercer Law School. Her parents’ kindness towards others and their views on social justice and fairness have guided and inspired her 19 years career of service in government and the private and charitable sectors.
Appointed in 2012, Odom leads the Office of the Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman, an impartial, independent, and confidential resource at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Under her leadership as Ombudsman, Odom’s team works with community leaders and immigration professionals to discuss and find solutions to problems faced by individuals and employers seeking immigration benefits. The Ombudsman serves as an office of last resort. “We work on problem cases which are often delayed or which reflect issues in the agency’s application of law and/or policy. Though we are not an appellate body, we are often able to impartially intervene in cases that present quality of adjudications issue,” Odom explains.
Prior to her current appointment, Odom was the Executive Director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc., representing the country’s largest network of charitable legal immigration programs. She was in private practice for a decade, representing individuals and families facing removal from the United States. Her career started at the U.S. Department of Justice where she clerked for the Immigration Courts and also represented the U.S. Government in removal proceedings.
Immigration Law is what she always wanted to practice. Odom considered herself fortunate to serve as a student-intern with Ayuda (Assistance) in Washington, DC after her 2L year. Ayuda provides legal and social services, and training to vulnerable and low-income immigrants in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area on immigration and domestic violence/family law issues. Her experience with abused and persecuted individuals fostered her commitment to continue this important work.
Odom’s work takes her into the heart of communities across the U.S., where she helps ensure that immigrants experience a fair and just immigration system. As Ombudsman, she is able to use her expertise to evaluate the functioning of a large agency where law, policy, and operations intersect. Odom is honored to serve the public and says, “I really enjoy being part of improving immigration policy and seeing the widespread impact of policy and operational changes across the country. Making systemic changes serves the greater good.”
In 2013, Odom was appointed Chair of the Department of Homeland Security Blue Campaign to Combat Human Trafficking, advancing President Barack Obama’s directive to develop federal policy, deploy training tools, conduct outreach and public education initiatives about indicators of human trafficking, and develop programs for victims.
Odom gives back to the Law School by serving as a member of the Board of Visitors and returns to the school to serve as a guest lecturer. “I will always be grateful for the opportunity to attend Mercer Law School,” she says. “I not only received an excellent education there, but I was also supported in ways that gave me confidence and the utmost respect for the legal profession and the incredible impact we can have in the life of others.” She encourages others to give back time, talent and other resources to ensure that the Law School remains open and accessible for other students to experience the same.
Odom advises students and young alumni to work hard to define the personal values that guide their work. “Before you decide what type of law you want to practice, think about the kind of lawyer you want to be and the values that you are unwilling to compromise,” she remarks. She also notes that networking is more than making connections, it is about building relationships and demonstrating your worth by doing excellent work; being known not just for your knowledge and skills but also for your integrity and work ethic.
She recalls her professors truly cared for her and her success. She fondly remembers all the times spent with the “amazing” class of 1997. She left Mercer Law with a lifelong network of friends and hopes to see them at their 20th year reunion!