Abrams Wins Faculty McFarland Award for Scholarship in Family Law


Professor Kerry Abrams received the Carl McFarland Prize, awarded biennially to a junior faculty member for outstanding research.

May 24, 2012

University of Virginia law professor Kerry Abrams, an expert in issues where family and immigration law intersect, has won the Law School's Carl McFarland Prize, a biennial award given to a junior faculty member for outstanding research.

"Kerry's work breaks down the boundaries between family law and other disciplines, examining how adjacent areas of the law affect how we think about families and therefore how law treats families," Law School Dean Paul G. Mahoney said when he announced the award on Friday.

Mahoney pointed to Abrams' work analyzing how federal immigration statutes have shaped family law, her study of how state laws regulated internal U.S. migration during the 19th century and its relationship to the marriage market, and her recent work on marriage fraud, in which she reveals how laws regarding sham marriages — designed around contract-like claims — no longer make sense when the public's finances are at stake.

"Kerry navigates carefully the doctrinal anomalies this creates and adds to the growing number of arguments identifying the perils of tying benefits to marital status," Mahoney said.

Abrams said she was honored to receive the award.

"It is a rare privilege to have your cumulative efforts carefully read and appreciated and to receive recognition for an entire body of scholarly work," she said. "The award is particularly gratifying because the UVA faculty is full of brilliant scholars and teachers. So many of my colleagues have taken the time to read and offer comments on my work over the years. This award reflects our vibrant intellectual community — one that nurtures and rewards thoughtful and careful engagement with difficult legal problems."

Abrams said she aims to create a new field of legal inquiry at the intersection of family law and immigration law.

"Immigration law, which we tend to think of as quintessentially 'federal' because it deals with national identity and national borders, nevertheless shapes the most private aspects of people's lives, including what kinds of family relationships they can create and sustain," she said. "In turn, courts' and legislatures' often unspoken ideas about the family affect immigration law and policy."

Abrams also has written about the mid-19th century migration of white women to "civilize" the American West and the late-19th century exclusion of Chinese women immigrants as presumptive prostitutes.

"All of my articles have shared the common theme of showing that regulation of the family is not limited to the law of marriage and divorce," she said. "It's been an exciting area of scholarship. When I wrote my first couple of articles, there were very few people writing across the immigration/family law divide. Now, there are many, and I hope that my work has contributed to the development of this field."

Abrams is working on a number of projects that will continue to expand the field. In "Citizen Spouse," which will be published next year in the California Law Review, she explores how marriage can function as a form of citizenship, both by giving people access to rights and by taking precedence over other allegiances. In the forthcoming "A Legal Home: Derivative Domicile and Women's Citizenship," she tells the legal history of marriage as citizenship, focusing on the common law rule that a woman's state citizenship followed her husband's and showing how the rule could divest women of civil and political rights. She is also presenting an essay at a Chicago Law Review symposium in June.

"It explores why the United States would want to privilege family ties in immigration admissions," she said.

Abrams is co-authoring pieces with UVA law professor Anne Coughlin, on an article about how the state might recognize polygamy and the consequences of doing so, and with Kent Piacenti '12 (former editor-in-chief of the Virginia Law Review), on an article about how the law determines who is a parent.

"We show that the law of parentage in the immigration and citizenship contexts is very different than it is in the family law context, and argue that the differences can be accounted for through an understanding of the interests at stake in these different areas of law," Abrams said.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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