Alumni Profiles

From Haitian Immigrant to Federal Judgeship

Nancy Joseph

Nancy Joseph was eight years old when she immigrated from Haiti to New Jersey. She took the United States oath of citizenship when she was a 19-year-old college student. Now a federal magistrate judge since 2010 with almost three decades of legal experience, Joseph, a 1993 Rutgers Law School in Camden graduate, finds herself on the other side of the equation, conducting the ceremonies that establish American citizenship for immigrants. “In no way would I have dreamed at the time of taking the oath that I would be in the position to one day administer the oath to others,” she said.

Joseph’s journey from Haiti to a federal judgeship is one she recalls happily each time she welcomes new American citizens. “Every naturalization ceremony is an anniversary for me,” she said. “It’s the anniversary of my own path to citizenship where I get to celebrate with the new citizens. I am celebrating my own path, but also my parents’ journey to the United States to become citizens and make a home in America, which in turn has opened up all sorts of opportunities that we never would have dreamed of. The ceremonies give us a chance to celebrate what this country is about—we are a country of immigrants, and each ceremony gives us a chance to celebrate that.”

Joseph’s parents left Haiti for the United States when she was only one year old, leaving her in the care of a dear family friend Joseph considers as a second mother. After getting established in America, her parents brought her and seven older siblings to Elizabeth, New Jersey, in 1976. Joseph finished high school there and went on to graduate from Howard University in spring 1990. She started at Rutgers Law in Camden, where she was awarded a scholarship, the following fall. “I received a wonderful foundation at Rutgers Law School,” Joseph said. “I also had wonderful support from faculty who took an interest in me and encouraged me and fed my intellectual curiosity. Rutgers has a very special place in my heart for those reasons.”

Joseph, who interned with the Camden County Public Defenders’ Office while she was at Rutgers, was recruited out of law school in 1993 to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to become a state public defender working with juveniles. In 2000, she moved to a newly-established federal public defender’s office in Milwaukee, and ten years later was appointed federal magistrate judge in the Eastern District of Wisconsin. In addition to overseeing naturalization ceremonies, she handles a wide range of civil cases and pretrial proceedings in criminal cases. “There is never a dull day,” she said. “Just name a federal statute and we will see it in federal court.”

Joseph, who was a first-generation college student and the only member of her family to go to law school, is very civically involved in Milwaukee. She has established programs connecting with youth to open their eyes to the potential of legal careers. “I try to reach out and show kids the possibilities and plant seeds—hopefully, the same way that teachers in my life planted seeds for me,” she said.

Story originally appeared in Rutgers-Camden Magazine.