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Protecting Clients from around the Globe

As a leader in pro bono advocacy, Jenner & Block is committed to cases involving asylum and immigration. Our steadfast efforts, along with our established partnerships with organizations such as the National Immigrant Justice Center, DKT Liberty Project, and Kids In Need of Defense (KIND), put us at the forefront of these engaging issues that affect millions of people in the United States and abroad. Below are highlights of our most significant asylum and immigration cases in 2017.



escaping An Insidious Tribal Network

The family fled far from their home—they had no choice in the matter if they were to avoid the dangers looming within their ancestral village in West Africa. Even though the family had traveled hundreds of miles to escape scrutiny and possible death, there was no avoiding the constant threatening phone calls from village elders demanding that they return. It seemed as though, as long as they remained in the country, there was nowhere the family could hide where the village elders couldn’t reach them.

The elders had first set eyes on the family at a funeral several months earlier. An earlier rumor that their eldest son was homosexual was already causing them trouble, and after the entire family was seen in their ancestral village, it was known that their two daughters were of marital age. What was anticipated to be an innocuous journey to pay their respects to a relative led to imminent danger for the entire family.

The first attack on the family occurred shortly after they returned from the funeral. A mob of men from the village came to their home early in the morning, demanding that their son be persecuted for his presumed homosexuality and that their daughters be forced into marriage with men of the elders’ choosing. When the parents refused their demands, violence erupted.

The family screamed as the villagers attempted to drag the son and daughters from their home. Hearing the commotion, surrounding neighbors came to help and managed to fend off the mob. Luckily, the family sustained only minor injuries.

Under the threat of another attack, the family decided to abandon their home and take refuge with their uncle in a neighboring city. The children were forced to leave school (all were enrolled in University), and the family was essentially housebound for fear of another attack. Once there, they did their best to stay inside, but despite their efforts to keep a low profile, the villagers ultimately found them again and continued to bombard them with threatening phone calls.

In an effort to flush the family out, the villagers threatened to burn the family’s belongings and destroy their house. To make matters worse, all of the materials that the children would need to re-enroll in University were left behind at the old house. When two of the family members snuck back to the old house to try and recover their belongings, they found villagers waiting for them in the remains of their home. A second attacked ensued—this time, their injuries put them in the hospital for over a month.

Prior to this second attack, the rest of the family had decided to seek temporary refuge in the United States with relatives and came over on a tourist visa. After they heard of the second attack on their remaining family members, they made the agonizing choice to try and permanently escape the country because they realized returning could be a death sentence. At the urging of friends and family, the West African family originally tried to seek asylum in Canada but did not have proper visas for Canada and were detained at the border. They were ultimately returned to the United States, and sent to a county jail in Michigan that also served as an immigration detention center.

The only way to get in touch with them was to contact the deputy in charge of immigration at the detention center and request that our clients call us—on recorded lines.
— Associate Katie Johnson

Unable to afford bond, and with nowhere to live, the family members had to stay in a county jail for over three months until their hearing date. Since the jail was retrofitted to house immigrant detainees, as well as patients of a recently closed mental health facility, the family had to share common areas with unstable, sometimes dangerous individuals—offenders accused of DUI and aggravated assault, among others—even though they themselves hadn’t committed any crimes. Deportation seemed inevitable—in order to qualify for asylum in the United States the family had to prove there was nowhere in their home country where they could lead a normal life without fear of persecution and violence.

With their immigration hearing quickly approaching, and with no money for legal representation, the family was in dire need of help. That’s when Jenner & Block took on their case, having met them in the detention center through the Representation Project: a joint initiative of Jenner & Block and the DKT Liberty Project to find pro bono counsel for detained immigrants.

“There were a lot of logistical challenges associated with them being detained,” said Associate Katie Johnson, who, along with Partner Jerome Epstein, served as lead counsel on the family’s case. “The only way to get in touch with them was to contact the deputy in charge of immigration at the detention center and request that our clients call us—on recorded lines. This meant that we had to physically go to the detention facility to have any substantial conversations with our clients.”

“Legally, it was not a very cut-and-dry case,” said attorney Ross Jeambey. “Because the son was not gay, and because we were seeking protections that would be afforded to homosexuals, we had to explain that he was subject to a significant risk of violence because of his imputed homosexuality.”

In addition, the main challenge was establishing the legal standard prevalent in all asylum cases: that it would be unreasonable to relocate and lead a normal life elsewhere within the country of origin. “Establishing that it wasn’t reasonable for them to move back—proving that was factually challenging; we had to rely on our expert for that,” Katie said.

Katie and Ross knew that hiring an expert could be a linchpin in the case, and when the firm approved the expense, they knew the chances of granting asylum for the family would increase. “The expert was really able to establish how extensive family tribal connections are throughout the country and that, if they were to relocate to another town or city, they would eventually figure out where they were because of these extended tribal networks,” Katie explained. 

“He’s also an expert on gender and sexuality in West Africa,” Ross added. And in a country with some of the strictest anti-gay laws in the world, providing an expert opinion on the matter really helped their case. “He was instrumental in helping persuade the judge that, in this country, somebody believed to be gay is persecuted to the same degree as someone who is actually gay.”

With a 70-page brief, in-person expert testimony and Katie’s persuasive closing argument, the judge granted asylum to the family. He noted Katie and Ross’ top-notch advocacy, as well as the firm’s willingness to go above and beyond for these types of cases.

Ross has since kept in touch with the family, secured housing for them and assisted them in finding employment. The Jenner & Block team devoted more than 500 pro bono hours to the matter. Other team members included Partners Emily Chapuis, Lindsay Harrison and Wade Thomson, as well as Staff Attorney Alexander Ghantous and Associate Daniel Epstein, with assistance from Paralegal Casey Yi.

“Being able to do direct services work with such an amazing team was important and valuable to me, and I really appreciated the opportunity to take this on—especially to take on such a senior role in the case,” Katie added after the verdict was handed down.

“After the verdict, the judge said that he’s only allowed to rule on what’s in front of him,” Ross explained, “and if people don’t have the ability to package the case like Katie did, this would’ve been one of those cases where, if it was different representation, they would’ve been deported.”



Clan-Based Violence

Our client 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. Our client arrived in the United States in 2015 and was placed in detention. The immigration judge denied his applications for asylum and ordered his deportation to South Africa or Somalia. The case turned on a legal issue on which no clear precedent exists: whether the statutory firm resettlement bar, which excludes 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. Jenner & Block argued that the firm resettlement bar does not apply to applicants like our client, who were persecuted in the country in which they resettled. This is apparent from the plain meaning of the words “firmly resettled.” Eventually, the government agreed to stipulate that our client was not firmly resettled in South Africa. The immigration judge accepted the stipulation and granted asylum in August 2017. The team included Associate Irene Ten Cate and Staff Attorney Danielle Nicholson, with Partners Matthew Cipolla, Marc Hankin and Matthew Price.



domestic violence

A Honduran woman and her 13-year-old son needed to escape her husband and the boy’s father, who had been beating her and sexually assaulting her for many years in Honduras. She fled to the United States when her husband told her that he had bought a gun to kill her. The firm team tracked down witnesses in Honduras, convincing one witness to testify despite the risk to her own life because she is a relative of the client’s husband. The Jenner & Block team submitted extensive fact and expert materials in writing. In May 2017, immediately following the submission of live testimony, the immigration judge granted asylum to both mother and son, with an opinion issued that day from the bench. The team included Associate Jonathan Enfield and Discovery Attorney Pedro Fernandez, with supervision by Partner Gabrielle Sigel.



political party activist

We represented a Bangladeshi client who was active in a political opposition party. There was no dispute that he suffered persecution on account of his political activities, but the government nevertheless denied our client asylum on the ground that he was affiliated with a terrorist group. The basis for the government’s conclusion was that other members of the political opposition party had committed acts of violence. Our client did not know these individuals, and there was no evidence that they were acting on behalf of the political opposition party. We successfully persuaded the Board of Immigration Appeals that an asylum applicant could not be deemed to be a member of a terrorist organization merely because other people who happened to be members of the same political party committed acts of violence. On remand, the government stipulated to asylum. The team included Associate Benjamin Eidelson and Partner Matthew Price.



persecuted by pro-government groups

We represented a Venezuelan client who suffered persecution by pro-government paramilitary groups on account of his involvement with a political party opposed to Chavez and Maduro. He proceeded pro se before the immigration judge and his application for asylum was denied on the ground that he had not disproven the possibility that the harm he had suffered – including the murder of his wife – were simply random acts of violence. We persuaded the Board of Immigration Appeals that the immigration judge had overlooked several key pieces of evidence. The Board remanded the case, and we are now proceeding to represent the client on remand. Partner Matthew Price handled the administrative appeal, and on remand he is joined by Associate Michelle Singer.



Fled from Gangs

We represented a Honduran client who fled persecution from gangs, who targeted our client and his family because a brother had served in an anti-gang unit in the Honduran military. The gangs murdered four of our client’s other brothers and a cousin, shot our client and his father, and continued to threaten the entire family. Our client was pro se before the immigration judge and was denied asylum, a decision that the Board of Immigration Appeals affirmed. We took the case on appeal to the Eleventh Circuit, and the government agreed to a remand after we filed a motion for stay of removal. The Board of Immigration Appeals then remanded to the immigration judge. After one and a half years in detention, we managed to obtain our client’s release on bond. On remand, our client was granted asylum pending the completion of a background check. Partner Matthew Price handled the Eleventh Circuit appeal and was joined by Associate Samuel Birnbaum on remand.

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persecuted for lgbt status

We represented a Mexican transgender asylum applicant who suffered persecution by gangs on account of her transgender status. She was denied asylum, and the Board of Immigration Appeals affirmed, on the ground that the gang members did not persecute her for her transgender status, but instead simply extorted her for money. On appeal to the Ninth Circuit, we argued that the Board’s analysis was overly simplistic, because it failed to appreciate that our client’s transgender status made her particularly susceptible to extortion. Moreover, gang members had physically harmed her in a sexualized manner. The combination of these factors showed that her transgender status was at least one central reason, even if not the only or primary reason, for persecution, and that sufficed to meet the legal standard. The government agreed to voluntarily remand the case after being served with our opening brief. The team included Associate Benjamin Eidelson and Partner Matthew Price.