In honor of National Celebrate Pro Bono Week, Pro Bono Net has lined up a variety of guest bloggers from law firms, legal aid organizations and elsewhere to share their pro bono ideas and experiences. Check back each day between Oct. 22-26 for new posts, and visit the Celebrate Pro Bono site to learn how you can get involved in events near you.
Below, we are pleased to present a guest post from Amanda C. Croushore, an associate at Kaye Scholer LLP. This article was first published in the New York State Bar Association’s Pro Bono Newsletter, and we thank both the NYSBA and Kaye Scholer for allowing us to share this on our blog.
Shortly after I began my second year as an associate at Kaye Scholer LLP, a few other associates and I took on a case in which we represented a 36-year-old woman who sought political asylum in the United States after fleeing her home country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Our client was the niece of a prominent politician in the DRC who founded his own political party. She became involved in his party and eventually worked as her uncle’s executive assistant for some time. When her uncle died suddenly during a business trip in France, our client suspected that the DRC government was involved in his murder. Shortly thereafter, she was summoned by the national police and was interrogated and threatened. She and her family were put under surveillance and received additional threats. Her half-sister, with whom she lived, was raped and a short time later, disappeared. Our client felt that she was in danger too, and that she needed to flee.
This was a challenging asylum case for several reasons. First, the political party that our client’s uncle established was allied with the governing party – not an opposition party – making political persecution a more difficult argument to advance. Second, our client did not suffer any physical harm directly and much of the intimidation she felt was implied or perceived, but not explicitly articulated. Finally, and most significantly, our client had no proof that the government was involved in her uncle’s death or that she would have been in danger even if her suspicions to that effect were confirmed. However, our client was consistent in recounting her story each time we met to develop her asylum application, she was able to obtain at least one affidavit from a friend that confirmed parts of her story, and it was clear from talking to her that she was genuinely afraid of what might happen to her if she were forced to return to the DRC.
We hired an expert on the DRC to help us work through the weakest aspects of the case, and he turned out to be invaluable. The expert was able to confirm the objective parts of our client’s story – e.g. that her uncle was indeed a political figure who died in Paris – in addition to helping us develop one of our strongest arguments. Namely, he explained to us that whether or not our client was actually in danger before she began suspecting the government of involvement in her uncle’s death, the fact of her suspicion put her in danger.
Our client was denied asylum at the administrative interview, likely because she had misrepresented her employment title on a form she submitted to obtain a visa to come to the United States – a minor inconsistency but one that may have called into question her credibility in the asylum officer’s mind. We were then referred to Immigration Court and assigned a judge who is notorious for granting very few asylum applications. Even though I was just a second year associate at the time, I was given the opportunity to lead our case – I asked our client questions on direct examination, interacted with the judge, and objected when the cross-examiner misstated testimony. The hearing went extremely well and our client came across as credible. The judge explicitly stated that he found persuasive our argument that our client was put into danger by suspecting the government of having been involved in the death of her uncle, whether or not her fear before that point was justified. He granted our client’s asylum application from the bench.
This asylum case is the most rewarding matter I have worked on as a lawyer. I can imagine little more satisfying than knowing that you helped an individual obtain some level of stability after a traumatic experience and enabled them to start a new life in a country that is safe and full of opportunities. However, it came with its own challenges that I did not anticipate. Our client continues to face insecurity: she struggles to communicate in English, making many daily tasks difficult, she has not been able to hold down a job, she has no steady source of income, she has suffered from psychological issues, and she has not been able to find a stable place to live or a support group she trusts. Realizing that getting asylum was not the end of our client’s struggles was upsetting to me. I had worked so hard on preparing her asylum application that I naively believed that everything would be “fixed” after we won. Learning that was not the case was disappointing. And although I would love to be able to help our client with her personal issues, I have learned that it is important to keep my relationship with her professional and limited to immigration matters. Because, as much as I would like to, I cannot resolve all of our client’s problems, and it is important for her to understand that. I continue to help our client with immigration matters – most recently by preparing her permanent residency application – and my hope is that by just being a reliable person in her life who picks up the phone when she calls and can periodically report on progress in her case, I am providing some small part of the support she needs.
I also feel a need to move on from this case so that I can use the skills and knowledge I obtained to help others seeking asylum in the United States. I have recently taken on a new asylum case, representing a transgendered woman from Mexico who suffered horrible harassment and abuse because of her sexual orientation. This time I am the supervising attorney on the case, which has provided me with a new level of personal and professional satisfaction: witnessing young associates gain important legal skills and understand how they can be applied to help those in need.