After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 2015, Esperanza Franco headed south to the border, where she worked defending immigrants who faced deportation.

Now she's the one who might get kicked out of the country.

Franco says her former employer's mishandling of a work-visa application — she came here from Spain five years ago  — has put her in danger of losing her legal status. She fears that in less than a month, she could end up being jailed in the same Arizona detention center where she has gone to visit clients.

"I'm going through so much stress," Franco said. "I'm waking up in the middle of night, with back pain."

The paradox of her situation is not lost on Franco, 28, who put her legal knowledge and Spanish-language skills to work in Tucson at the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, a nonprofit advocacy group.

The project director said that, far from fumbling Franco's visa, the agency did all it could to find a way to legally retain someone it saw as a smart, solid staff lawyer.

"We were all disappointed, but the organization wasn't at fault," said executive director Lauren Dasse, who questioned whether Franco was making "false accusations" to hurt the agency.

"It's really bizarre," said Domenic Powell, a second-year Penn Law student and friend of Franco's. "She's really worried she's going to be pulled away from the place where she can practice law, and from the mission she's been on to get people out of detention."

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Franco came to the United States in 2013 from the Canary Islands, an Atlantic Ocean territory of Spain, after graduating from ICADE, an acclaimed, business-oriented law school.

She worked as a legal intern for a midsize law firm in Michigan, then applied to Penn Law, drawn by its intellectual challenges. She was accepted into the selective LLM program, a one-year, full-time, master's-level course of study designed primarily for lawyers who were trained outside the U.S.

Esperanza Franco, near the Eloy Detention Center in Pinal County, Arizona.
Courtesy Esperanza Franco
Esperanza Franco, near the Eloy Detention Center in Pinal County, Arizona.

She loved Penn — and Philadelphia, she said. Government regulations let students stay in the U.S. as long as they are pursuing full-time study or another type of practical, follow-up training.

When Franco wasn't studying, she strolled South Street or took a seat at Rittenhouse Square to watch the world go by.

She became LLM class president. And when Penn Law held its 2015 graduation ceremony at the Kimmel Center, Franco was one of the speakers.

With her Penn degree in hand, Franco moved to the University of Arizona law school, graduating with a juris doctorate in May 2017. She signed on with the Florence Project, which provides free legal and social services to detained men, women and children who face deportation.

That help is crucial, because people in deportation proceedings do not have the right to a public defender.

Franco said she put her heart into the work, driving to isolated detention centers and connecting with clients as only a fellow immigrant could do.

In December, Franco said, she asked the Florence Project to sponsor her for a work visa. And soon, she said, things began to go askew, as application and visa deadlines neared. The work permit attached to her student visa was set to expire in July.

Each year, U.S. employers can seek to hire highly skilled foreign professionals, often in fields of mathematics, engineering and technology, through the H-1B visa program. Congress limits those visas to 65,000, with 20,000 more  set aside for workers who have master's degrees or doctorates.

Employers submit petitions in April for jobs that begin Oct. 1.

Typically, the demand for visas is more than double the supply, so the government holds a lottery to distribute the precious documents. At the same time, certain classes of employers are exempt from the cap and from the lottery, allowed to submit H-1B petitions all year long.

Among those special employers are nonprofits that have an affiliation with a college or university. Employers must prove that connection, however.

Franco said she asked her bosses to sponsor her that way, because the Florence Project shares interns and externs, and sometimes reviews cases, with staff at the University of Arizona.

Instead, she said, she was told the project would seek her visa through the lottery. If that failed, she said she was told, the agency would then file for her visa through a cap-exempt status.

Two things happened, Franco said.

She wasn't selected in the lottery. And her bosses didn't have the other application ready. Worse, she said, a supervisor told her there was not enough time to prepare and file an application before her student visa expired.

Project director Dasse said that is not what occurred.

She said the agency actively investigated and pursued that cap-exempt option, but concluded that its relationship with the university did not meet the government's legal standard of affiliation.

"We did all we could have to help her," including hiring an immigration lawyer for Franco, Dasse said. "Unfortunately, it didn't work out."

Students who fall out of compliance get an additional 60 days to prepare to leave the country or to enroll in another school.

Franco's student-visa work permit expired in July, she said, which meant she would become deportable 60 days later. That's Sept. 10.

She plans to go back to college, as permitted by her student visa, but even that carries pressures and deadlines.

To enroll, Franco must prove she can pay. She has mounted a GoFundMe campaign to try to raise $18,000 to attend an Arizona community college and to cover lawyers' fees connected to her situation.

So far, she has raised $7,944. The financial affidavit has to be filed Monday, she said.

"If I can't [file], I have until Sept. 10 to leave the country," Franco said. "The minute I lose status, I'm deportable."