In 2006, an East Harlem high school’s upset victory in a New York City-wide robot-building contest proved to be bittersweet for Amadou Ly, a member of the winning team. Not only couldn’t he board a plane to Atlanta for the national finals with the rest of his team because he lacked any government identification, but he was also facing deportation as an illegal immigrant.
Mr. Ly (pronounced Lee) had immigrated from Senegal, West Africa, with his mother in 2001. A year later, after his visitor’s visa expired, she abandoned him.
In 2004, when a car he was riding in got into an accident, the police reported him to immigration authorities, an encounter that, after a series of frustrating court appearances, fortuitously delivered him to Amy Meselson, a Yale-educated Legal Aid Society lawyer in New York.
Ms. Meselson had dedicated her career to defending hundreds of vulnerable immigrants from deportation and helping them navigate the gaps between the child welfare and national security bureaucracies. She recruited volunteers from corporate law firms to represent foster children in immigration cases and successfully lobbied for a special juvenile section in immigration court.
Mr. Ly had been pinning his hopes on a bill known as the Dream Act, which would have granted a path to citizenship to undocumented immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children through no fault of their own.
When that legislation stalled in Congress, though, Ms. Meselson suggested that Mr. Ly’s impressive performance on the Central Park East High School robotics team might elicit public support for his case.
“I was very scared at that time,” he recalled, “but I knew I could trust her.”
Ms. Meselson helped bring Mr. Ly’s plight to public attention, namely providing information for a front-page profile in The New York Times, which produced an outpouring of legal, public and political support.
Federal officials were persuaded to drop the deportation proceedings and grant him a foreign student visa. He graduated from Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, became a citizen, embarked on an acting career and moved to Hollywood.
Ms. Meselson died on July 22 at her home in Manhattan. She was 46. The cause was suicide, her mother, Sarah Meselson, said.
“I was able to stay in this country, I was able to live my dream and grow up and feed my family and help out others because she helped me and she did it with open arms,” Mr. Ly, now 30, said in a recorded tribute that he sent Ms. Meselson’s family. “She was my hero.”
Ms. Meselson worked in the immigration law unit of the Legal Aid Society in New York from 2002 until 2016, focusing on unaccompanied migrant children. She recently became the managing attorney of the Immigrant Justice Corps, a volunteer program to provide free counsel.
Chief Judge Robert Katzmann of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, who was instrumental in founding the Immigrant Justice Corps, described Ms. Meselson as “a life saver and life giver.”
“What Amy did was to give hope to immigrants and their families, to make it possible for dreams for a better life to be realized, for despair to be transformed into hope,” Judge Katzmann said.
Amy Valor Meselson was born on Dec. 4, 1971, in Boston to Matthew Meselson, a molecular biology professor at Harvard, and Sarah Page Meselson, who researched human rights conditions in Latin America and the Caribbean for the political asylum division of the United States immigration service.
She earned a bachelor’s from Brown and a master’s from Harvard, both in philosophy (her senior thesis at Brown was about free will and determinism) and a law degree from Yale.
In addition to her mother, she is survived by her father; her sister, Zoe Forbes; her stepmother, Jeanne Guillemin Meselson; her stepfather, Arthur Podaras; her stepsisters, Paola and Isabel Emerson; and her stepbrothers, Rob and John Guillemin and William Emerson IV.
Ms. Meselson earned her middle name by surviving a life-threatening respiratory disease. Since she was a teenager, she struggled with depression and only recently was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and extreme anxiety — all aggravated when she traveled to Greece two years ago to volunteer at a camp for Syrian refugees, Sarah Meselson said at a memorial service last month.
At the service, she said she wanted to recount her daughter’s maladies for two reasons.
“One,” she said, “is to emphasize what everyone already knows — that it is not always possible to comprehend the level of suffering that others may be experiencing especially when they appear to be successful and to excel to the extent that Amy did.
“The other,” she added, “is to applaud my daughter for all that she accomplished despite her mental illness.”