As public defenders nationwide scrambled to deal with the aftermath of a major court ruling on immigration in 2010, Kathleen Moccio was ready to help Hennepin County take it head-on.

That year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that noncitizens have the right to legal advice on immigration consequences. Moccio immediately developed a plan for her office to ensure that her clients would get help in holding onto the American dream.

Now, with five years under her belt as a Hennepin County assistant public defender, Moccio has been honored for her efforts by the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, which chooses one lawyer a year for the award. Moccio, 58, of Minneapolis, was presented with her award at a benefit in Maryland last Friday.

Her colleagues couldn’t be prouder.

“She educates our lawyers, the prosecutors and defense about who our clients are,” said Mary Moriarty, the county’s chief public defender. “She cares deeply for our clients.”

After graduating from Indiana University in 1987, Moccio launched her immigration law career at the Borene Law Firm in Minneapolis. She then went on to lead Dorsey & Whitney’s political asylum team. In 2005, Moccio left the firm and started working pro bono with unaccompanied minors who had illegally arrived in the United States. She traveled to Texas to meet with the children in detention centers.

Later, she began conducting research on immigrants being detained in Minnesota. During her research, Moccio witnessed the difficulties public defenders had in providing information to their clients who had crossed the border illegally. In 2009, she decided that she needed to get involved. She first volunteered for the Hennepin County public defender’s office, and was hired a year later. She also works as an adjunct professor of immigration law at the University of St. Thomas School of Law.

The work, Moccio said, can be heartbreaking and rewarding.

“A lot of immigration law is dehumanizing,” she said. “This person is a member of our community. They are human beings, and they deserve to be treated as such.”

At the Hennepin County office, Moccio takes on her clients’ immigration issues and decides how to best help them. Sometimes, she refers her clients to Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid and the University of Minnesota’s Center for New Americans.

Linus Chan, clinical professor at the Center for New Americans, said Moccio is full of ideas to help her clients and passionate about resolving their issues.

“Clients who almost never regularly open up about their lives do so with Kathy,” he said. “And they do so for a good reason — they trust her, and they know very quickly that she cares a lot.”

Moccio feels a strong obligation to stand by her clients and ensure their rights are respected and granted.

“There has to be somebody there to protect and advocate for those rights,” she said.