The “Champion of the Year Award” honors a single advocate who has gone above and beyond to provide pro bono services to survivors. Jenner & Block Partner Cynthia “Cindy” J. Robertson and her team successfully handled two complex immigration cases for trafficking survivors, winning T-visas for both of the clients around the Fourth of July holiday this year. The cases – one involving forced labor, the second involving sex trafficking – represented significant challenges. Both cases demanded creativity, tenacity, attention to detail, and excellent legal research to prevail. Through it all, Ms. Robertson supported the clients, providing trauma-informed legal guidance. The award will be presented on November 18, 2020.
Our Pro Bono Commitment
A team of Los Angeles Jenner & Block associates secured the release of a pro bono client who had been detained by ICE at a privately run, for-profit detention facility.
The client is a Cameroonian national who was repeatedly tortured by his government for his involvement with a peaceful political organization. In 2019, fearing further torture and possible execution by the Cameroonian government, the client fled to the United States to seek asylum and/or protection under the U.N. Convention Against Torture. Upon entry into the United States, the client declared himself to immigration authorities and was sent to a remote desert detention facility, where he had not received a hearing in over six months.
Working in conjunction with the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, Associates Wesley M. Griffith, Sati Harutyunyan and Kristen Green secured the client’s release from detention pending a final ruling on his asylum and Convention Against Torture claims. They were supervised and supported by Partner Todd C. Toral. The team also included legal assistants Christal Oropeza and Elizabeth Visick.
Pro bono service is a core value of Jenner & Block. Jenner & Block lawyers provided over 85,000 hours of pro bono services in 2019.
A Jenner & Block team won an important asylum victory for pro bono client Oscar, an effeminate gay man from rural Guatemala who suffered multiple rapes as a teenager before fleeing his country in 2015 in fear of his life. That same year, Discovery Attorney Pedro Fernandez, former partner Reena Bajowala and former associate Ben Halbig partnered with the National Immigrant Justice Center to represent Oscar in his application for asylum while he was still detained. They worked to get Oscar released on bond, prepared his asylum materials and helped him obtain a work permit.
In April 2016, during Oscar’s final merits hearing, the team was unable to finish Oscar’s testimony. The immigration court cut off the testimony, citing time limitations and continued the hearing until a future date. That date was then changed three more times. During this time frame, Partner Megan B. Poetzel and Associates Alexis E. Bates and Sara Kim joined the team. They worked to update Oscar’s materials, prepare his testimony, retain and prepare a country conditions expert report, and prepare expert testimony.
The final merits hearing finally happened on May 9, 2019. Relying almost entirely on the filed submissions, the immigration judge granted Oscar asylum, and the government waived its appeal, making the decision final. Oscar was overjoyed.
Over the past four years, many others have assisted with Oscar’s case, including Partners Rachel S. Morse and Wade A. Thomson, Associate Gabriel K. Gillett, Staff Attorney Leonardo Morales and Paralegal Cat Carraci.
Jenner & Block Partner D. Joe Smith and Associate Grant B. Schweikert, along with Evelyn Miller, a Senior Vice President at National Geographic Partners (a firm client), won an important asylum victory for their client Victor de Jesus Chavez Cruz, who arrived in the United States in 2014 as a 13-year old unaccompanied minor from San Miguel, El Salvador. The firm was introduced to Victor in the summer of 2017, learning that Victor had fled his hometown due to repeated threats against his life and his family because of Victor’s sexual orientation. This pro bono case was particularly challenging because several months prior to Jenner’s engagement an immigration Judge had issued Victor a removal order due to a prior missed hearing. As a result, the team had to utilize a multi-pronged approach to maximize Victor’s chances of success, first applying for asylum and then immediately seeking a legal determination of special immigrant juvenile status (SIJS). Specifically, the team obtained a professional psychological evaluation for Victor, filed Victor’s asylum application, accompanied Victor through the in-person asylum interview process, obtained the requisite custody and SIJS findings from the DC Family Court, and filed a lengthy and complex motion to reopen Victor’s immigration proceedings despite the removal order. Throughout this process and in the face of constant uncertainty, Victor persevered with a focus on his education and improving his English. Victor graduated high school in January 2019. Victor and the team were preparing for a May 14th Master Calendar Hearing in the Arlington Immigration Court when Victor’s asylum approval arrived. Thanks to this significant team effort, Victor can now focus on his career aspirations—he wants to be a teacher or a nurse—and begin his new life without the constant fear of possible deportation.
Mr. Smith, Mr. Schweikert and Ms. Miller were assisted by the DC office of KIND (Kids in Need of Defense).
Client Jean B., a high school history and geography teacher in the Republic of Congo, was part of the leadership of a teacher’s union in the country. Known for its long history of grievances between the teachers and Congolese government, Mr. B. and several union teachers went on strike in 2013 in an effort to create change. “We were living in a country where teachers were paid poorly and teaching in miserable conditions,” said Mr. B.
After several interrogations, beatings and threats to his life from the Congolese government, Mr. B. fled to the United states. The National Immigrant Justice Center then referred his asylum case to a team including Jenner & Block Partner Wade A. Thomson and Senior Counsel at McDonald’s Corporation Pauline Levy for pro bono legal services.
Learn more about Mr. B’s courageous story in the video below and in our 2018 Heart of the Matter Pro Bono Report.
Every year, minors in need of protection and support seek asylum in the United States. In this video, Partner Michael W. Ross discusses one of his pro bono clients who came to the United States as a minor after fleeing an unsafe living situation in Ecuador.
Interested in learning more about Jenner & Block’s pro bono advocacy? Visit Jenner & Block’s annual pro bono report, The Heart of the Matter.
In 2015, former associate Emily Deininger, former partner Jared Manes, and Partners David C. Lachman and Michael W. Ross obtained a grant of asylum for Marcos, a seventeen-year-old Honduran boy who had fled to the United States because he was being persistently abused by his grandmother and the other family members with whom he had been living. Marcos’s case was referred to Jenner by Kids in Need of Defense (“KIND”), a not-for-profit organization that identifies pro bono attorneys for unaccompanied alien children, in October 2014.
Ms. Deininger and Mr. Manes filed an affirmative asylum application on Marcos’s behalf in April 2015, contending that he had been persecuted because he was a member of a “particular social group” of children living in Honduras without the benefit of parental protection, , and that the Honduran government has been systematically unable or unwilling to protect such children from child abuse. Marcos had never met his father, and his mother had moved to the United States when he was only two years old. Marcos is also Garifuna, an indigenous ethnic group, which exposed him to widespread racism and caused him to be ostracized at school.
After submitting Marcos’s asylum application, Ms. Deininger and Mr. Lachman worked to prepare supplemental briefing and demonstrated through three expert reports that Marcos had physical scars consistent with long-term abuse, that he was suffering psychological symptoms of severe emotional and physical abuse, and that the government of Honduras was unable or unwilling to protect children who are without parental protection. Ms. Deininger and Mr. Lachman then represented Marcos at his successful asylum interview with the Newark Asylum Office.
In 2017, Ms.Deininger , Mr. Manes and Associate Melissa T. Fedornak then filed a green card application on Marcos’s behalf. In July 2018, Marcos received legal permanent resident status, making him eligible to naturalize as a US citizen in 2022. Marcos is now living happily with his mother in the Bronx, where he is attending high school and enjoying spending his free time playing soccer with friends.
Partner Wade A. Thomson led a firm team that secured asylum for a pro bono client who was arrested, detained and tortured by members of the federal police force in Congo at the Direction Générale de Surveillance du Territoire (DGST) three times between May 2013 and June 2014. Our client held a leadership position in a teachers union that planned and coordinated nationwide teachers’ strikes in 2013. Our client refused government bribes to frustrate the strikes and instead published a newspaper article that was critical of the government and supportive of the strike. Because of these acts, our client was accused of being a member of an opposition political party and was brutally tortured and threatened with death by Congolese forces.
In 2015, in-house counsel at McDonalds Corporation reached out to Wade to take the case. In October 2017, the team appeared with our client at the Chicago Asylum Office and represented him in his asylum interview. On June 29, 2018, he was granted asylum. This victory comes through the collaborative efforts of the firm and McDonalds. Other members of the firm team included former associates Yasmine Kurukgy and Ashley Waddell Tingstad, Case Assistant Jocelyn C. Carreon-Crawford and Legal Secretary Brenda Carey.
In October of 2017 and in January of 2018, about 20 young people facing deportation from the United States – legally called “unaccompanied minors” – came to Jenner & Block’s New York office for day-long clinics aimed at screening them for immigration relief.
The firm partnered with KIND, or Kids In Need of Defense, to run the clinic. KIND’s mission is to protect children who enter the US immigration system alone and strives to ensure that no such child appears in immigration court without representation. The firm has a longstanding relationship with KIND and has handled many immigration cases referred to the firm from them.
The clinics held last fall and this year represented the first time that Jenner & Block and KIND joined forces to screen young clients on-site and direct them to their next steps in the immigration process.
The firm participants – including lawyers, staff and others – first underwent a training session and then jumped into the work, interviewing one or two clients each. At the end of the screening process, the interviewers would guide the clients toward the appropriate next step, such as applying for a visa or asylum and set them up to find lawyers to seek that immigration relief.
On August 7, 2017, Associate Irene Ten Cate, Staff Attorney Danielle Nicholson and Partners Matthew D. Cipolla, Marc Hankin and Matthew E. Price secured asylum for pro bono client Abdul K. in immigration court in Harlingen, Texas. The grant of asylum eventually turned on a legal issue on which no clear precedent exists: whether the statutory firm resettlement bar, which excludes from asylum applicants who found refuge in a third country before arriving in the United States, applies to individuals who face persecution in the country of resettlement.
Abdul had settled in South Africa after escaping clan-based violence in his native country Somalia. He resided in South Africa for more than a decade and was granted a refugee permit, but was forced to flee after being subjected to severe attacks by South Africans who were targeting Somali immigrants. Abdul arrived in the United States in 2015 and was placed in detention. After his individual hearing, the immigration judge denied Abdul’s applications for asylum and withholding of removal and ordered him deported to South Africa or Somalia.
Retained to appeal from this ruling, the firm won a partial reversal from the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA). Specifically, the BIA held that Abdul established that he had been persecuted in Somalia and in South Africa, and remanded the case to the immigration judge for a new hearing on whether Abdul was entitled to withholding of removal. The BIA affirmed, however, the immigration judge’s ruling that Abdul’s stay in South Africa rendered him ineligible for asylum under the firm resettlement bar. The team represented Abdul on remand, and obtained a ruling granting his application for withholding of removal. After one and a half years in detention, Abdul was released.
The firm then filed a petition for review in the Fifth Circuit, seeking reversal of the BIA’s ruling on firm resettlement. In its opening brief, the team argued that the firm resettlement bar does not apply to applicants like Abdul who were persecuted in the country in which they resettled. This is apparent from the plain meaning of the words “firmly resettled” and also flows from the bar’s purpose, which is to discourage “country shopping” by one-time refugees who have found safety in another country. The Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic filed an amicus brief arguing that the interpretation advanced by the firm rendered the statutory firm resettlement bar consistent with the Refugee Convention and Protocol.
Instead of filing a responsive brief, the government requested a remand to the BIA and then sought another remand to the immigration court. Eventually, the government agreed to stipulate that Abdul was not firmly resettled in South Africa. The immigration judge accepted the stipulation shortly thereafter and granted Abdul asylum.
Since his release from detention a little over a year ago, Abdul has begun to make a life for himself in the United States. He found a job, signed a lease on an apartment and enrolled in community college. The asylum status, which offers greater security than withholding of removal and provides a path to permanent residency and citizenship, gives him tremendous peace of mind.
A team of Jenner & Block lawyers recently won a grant of asylum for a pro bono client who was forced to flee Eritrea because of persecution by its military regime. Born in Ethiopia to an Eritrean family, the client and her family were deported to Eritrea when a border war broke out between the countries in the late 1990s. But because they had lived in Ethiopia, the Eritrean military regime viewed them with hostility and suspicion. The regime killed our client’s father and when her two brothers raised questions about his death, they were arrested in the middle of the night. She has not seen them since and suspects they are dead.
The military also harassed our client, including making many attempts to conscript her into military service, where sexual abuse of young women is rampant. She ultimately fled to a monastery that helped smuggle her into Sudan. From there, she went to Brazil, eventually arriving in the United States.
Because our client left Eritrea without any identification documents or other paperwork and was no longer in contact with any witnesses who could identify her, questioning by the court and opposing counsel focused on whether she was actually from Eritrea or from a less oppressive country such as Ethiopia. An expert witness on Eritrean country conditions convinced the judge that she was from Eritrea, and a forensic medical expert testified to her physical and psychological trauma.
After weighing the evidence presented by Partner Casey T. Grabenstein and Associates Leah K. Casto and Henry H. Cornillie, the Immigration Court judge handed down his decision immediately upon the conclusion of the case, and the government waived any appeal rights.
Jenner & Block Associate Nayiri K. Pilikyan recently won asylum for pro bono client Souraya “Sam” Semaan who fled to the United States from Lebanon to escape persecution.
Ms. Semaan, a lesbian, experienced police harassment in her native country, which has laws that are used to discriminate against the LGBT community. Several of her friends were arrested and subjected to physical abuse as a result of their sexual orientations. Ms. Semaan fled to relatives in California and sought asylum in 2014 with the assistance of Public Counsel, which enlisted the support of Jenner & Block’s on her case.
Ms. Pilikyan represented Ms. Semaan throughout the entire asylum process, which included spending several years on a waiting list. In February 2017, Ms. Pilikyan received a call asking her and Ms. Semaan to come in to the immigration office the next day for an administrative hearing. Although Ms. Pilikyan and her client had only one night to prepare, they were successful, and three months later, Ms. Semaan’s asylum application was granted. She is looking forward to her new life in the US, where she hopes to start her own business and continue writing for her blog.
Other Jenner & Block lawyers contributing to the case included Partner Andrew J. Thomas and Associates Christina Avedissian Aryafar and Max T. Selfridge.
On November 4, Jenner & Block’s New York office hosted a half-day pro bono immigration / naturalization clinic for the Legal Department of client Synchrony Financial. The clinic was organized with the assistance of the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) and brought more than 30 members of the Synchrony Legal Department into the New York office for a half-day of training and legal service. The attorneys were trained on assisting with naturalization paperwork for green card holders, and then spent the rest of the morning paired up with clinic participants who they helped fill out the paperwork needed to apply for U.S. citizenship. The clinic was organized in New York by Partners Joseph L. Noga and Michael W. Ross, with the capable assistance of New York’s Legal Assistance Group’s support staff.
Moments in History: Jenner & Block's 100-Year StoryJean Marc Nken Asylum Case Anniversary
October marks the fifth anniversary of the granting of asylum for pro bono client Jean Marc Nken. Mr. Nken fled Cameroon in 2001 after having been jailed and tortured by the government for his participation in pro-democracy protests. He lost his initial asylum case and several unsuccessful appeals and was set to be deported when Jenner & Block Partner Lindsay C. Harrison took on his case.