Jenner & Block Partner Tassity Johnson Named Rising Star by National Immigrant Justice Center
Our Pro Bono Commitment
The National Immigrant Justice Center recognized Partner Tassity S. Johnson among its 2022 Rising Stars. The annual award honors lawyers who have demonstrated extraordinary commitment to ensuring access to justice for immigrants. She is one of nine lawyers recognized this year.
Ms. Johnson has represented asylum seekers pro bono through the NIJC for nearly five years, litigating several complex cases before the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit during that time.
In a case before the Tenth Circuit, Ms. Johnson and Partner Matthew Price represented a political activist, who fled from the Democratic Republic of Congo to escape persecution by state security forces, in seeking asylum in the US. After Ms. Johnson and Mr. Price filed a brief in the Tenth Circuit on the Board of Immigration Appeals’ erroneous conclusion that their client had firmly resettled in Angola, among other errors, the government voluntarily moved to remand. When the Board denied their client’s asylum application for a second time, Ms. Johnson and Mr. Price again represented their client in the Tenth Circuit and obtained another remand, this time from the Court.
Ms. Johnson, along with Mr. Price and Associate Urja R. Mittal, represented another asylum seeker, who fled Mexico after being kidnapped and violently assaulted for being a transgender woman, before the Board of Immigration Appeals and the Tenth Circuit. Ms. Johnson, Mr. Price, and Ms. Mittal filed a brief in the Tenth Circuit explaining that the Board, in denying their client asylum, had, among other errors, applied a wrongly heightened standard for whether the Mexican government could protect their client from further assault. The government again voluntarily moved to remand. Ms. Johnson is currently representing their client before the Board, where their client’s claim is still pending.
Learn more about this recognition here.
Appeal Successfully Reversed for Kosovan Refugee
Jenner & Block represented a man who had entered the United States from Kosovo as a refugee when he was very young, with no memory of living there; nor does he speak the language. Unfortunately, our client later developed a substance abuse problem and was arrested for some minor crimes, including a drug charge – which is a removable offense – that made him inadmissible for legal permanent residence.
Asylum Granted for Nicaraguan Mother and Daughter
At his hearing before the Immigration Judge (IJ), our client sought a waiver of inadmissibility on humanitarian grounds and petitioned for an adjustment of status to legal permanent resident. He arranged to have family members testify about his importance to them and also prepared to introduce evidence about the poor conditions in Kosovo.
After our client’s own testimony and cross-examination, however, the IJ said that he did not need to hear anything else and was prepared to rule. The IJ then asked the U.S. government whether it had anything else to say, and the government lawyer said no. The IJ granted our client a waiver and adjustment of status; the government appealed the decision.
On appeal, the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) held that our client’s negative equities outweighed the positive and reversed the waiver. At that point Jenner & Block became involved, on referral from the National Immigrant Justice Center, and the firm appealed to the Seventh Circuit.
In cases such as this, the BIA has unreviewable discretion to reweigh positive and negative equities. No deference is owed to the IJ. Thus, the firm team had to argue that the BIA had committed a legal error not just that it mis-weighed the evidence.
Jenner & Block Associate Illyana A. Green provided critical advocacy, ultimately arguing that our client had been whipsawed by the government, which had not filed a prehearing statement, and although it vigorously cross-examined our client about his criminal record, the government had made no argument at the hearing. Ms. Green argued that the government had preserved no issue for appeal, and our client was prejudiced because of the unusual posture of the case before the IJ: Had the government made any argument at the hearing, our client could have insisted on presenting his evidence to make a full record. The court agreed with the argument and reversed the BIA’s decision.
Although the court attempted to write the decision narrowly, it may have a significant impact on how immigration hearings are conducted. The government rarely files pre-hearing statements due to the volume of immigration cases on their docket. To protect its ability to appeal, the government will be forced by this decision to spend more time getting ready for hearings.
In the meantime, our client was deported to Kosovo, where he has faced homelessness and other challenges. We are hopeful that this positive decision will enable our client to return to the United States. The government will need to bring him back, and on remand, it will be difficult for the government to maintain an appeal, given the Seventh Circuit’s holding.
Others on the firm team for this matter included Partner Matthew E. Price who supervised Ms. Green, with support from paralegal Mary Frances Patston.
A Jenner & Block team secured a life-saving result in a pro bono asylum case before the Chicago Immigration Court. The team included Partner Thomas S. O’Neill; Associates Jonathan A. Enfield and Brian B. Druchniak; Staff Attorney Edmundo Cuevas; Paralegals Charlotte M. Stretch and Sharlean T. Perez; and GCM Grosvenor’s Managing Director Girish Kashyap as co-counsel. The clients were a Nicaraguan political activist and local opposition party official and her 14-year-old daughter. In retaliation for our adult client’s leadership within her community in support of a national movement protesting the authoritarian regime of President Daniel Ortega, she and her family were subject to a series of escalating threats by police and other government agents.
Those threats culminated with a group of heavily armed parapolice coming to our clients’ home with warrants for the arrest of our adult client and her husband. She escaped detention – and the near certainty of violent abuse, torture, death, or disappearance – only because one member of the parapolice took pity on her other infant daughter, who was home alone with our adult client.
Despite that miraculous reprieve, our adult client knew that arrest would follow and inevitably lead to torment, possibly death. Our clients and their family decided to go into hiding elsewhere in Nicaragua. But when the government continued to hunt them, it became clear that hiding would not work, and they had no choice but to flee to the United States. Our clients went first, followed by other family members. Because the journey to the United States was so dangerous, our adult client had to make the heart-rending decision to leave her infant daughter with family in Nicaragua.
The team obtained affidavits from several witnesses after conducting multiple interviews with each, including the client’s former neighbor who is currently in hiding after surviving a brutal machete attack from a pro-government paramilitary fighter. Mr. Enfield was the primary point of client contact, and Mr. Cuevas and Ms. Stretch provided invaluable help as interpreters and translators.
With support from Mr. Enfield, Mr. Druchniak prepared a well-written and comprehensive legal brief that earned praise from the judge and the government attorney. Ms. Perez offered crucial last-minute assistance, putting in long nights to get the brief’s copious exhibits organized and annotated.
The team overcame tremendous obstacles when, two days before the hearing, the court announced that the hearing would be remote rather than in-person. To make matters more complicated, both clients and another key witness fell seriously ill just before the filing deadline.
Despite these obstacles, Mr. Druchniak delivered a compelling direct examination of our adult client – so much so that, during a recess, the government attorney volunteered that the client was clearly credible. The judge agreed, granting both clients asylum, with the government waiving appeal.
Third Circuit Supports Pro Bono Client’s Request for Protection from Deportation
Yemeni client Adel Ghanem presented evidence that “overwhelmingly demonstrates” his prior persecution on account of his political opinion, and that if he were returned to Yemen he would likely be tortured, a Third Circuit panel said in September.
In the opinion, the court vacated a Board of Immigration Appeals' decision that denied Mr. Ghanem’s request for protection from deportation, saying the board “ignore[d] overwhelming evidence" that he had been persecuted and would likely be tortured for his political beliefs if returned to Yemen.
News of the decision was reported by Bloomberg and Law360.
Associate William R. Weaver represented Mr. Ghanem. He was supervised by Partners Ian Heath Gershengorn and Matthew E. Price.
Partner Cindy Robertson Honored with the “Champion of the Year” award from The Human Trafficking Legal Center
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.
Jenner & Block Associates Secure Release of Client Detained by ICE at Privately Run Prison
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.
Firm Team Partners with the National Immigrant Justice Center to Secure Asylum for Pro Bono Client
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.
Firm Wins Asylum Victory for Client
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).
A Story of Courage: Asylum for Teacher and Congolese Immigrant Jean B.
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.
Pro Bono Stories: Jean B. from Jenner & Block LLP on Vimeo.
Asylum for Children in Need
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.
Team's Client Receives Permanent Resident Status
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.
Firm Team Partners with McDonalds to Secure Asylum for Pro Bono Client
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.
Helping Unaccompanied Minors
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.
The firm team that organized the clinics with KIND included Partner Michael W. Ross, Associates Jacob D. Alderdice and Thomas D. Garza and Legal Assistant Azza Khalifa.
Firm Team Secures Asylum for Pro Bono Client
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.
Jenner & Block Lawyers Win Asylum for Eritrean Woman
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.