At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary for Families is honoring an extraordinary team of attorneys from Latham & Watkins LLP who worked with a number of pro se LGBTQ+ asylum applicants in a clinic over the past summer. The Latham & Watkins team includes partners Michèle O. Penzer, George A. Davis, and Brittany Ruiz; and associates Prudence Ng, Jaclyn Newman, Abhinaya Swaminathan, Matt Carmody, Layan K. Charara, and Jacob Watts.
Clients in terrible danger
Recently, Sanctuary for Families’ immigration team became aware of a troubling trend: numerous asylum applicants have been directed to removal proceedings with no legal representation due to a staggeringly high demand for legal assistance in this area. Asylum cases can often take years to be fully processed, a fact that sometimes makes pro bono representation challenging for firms to take on. Latham & Watkins joined forces with Sanctuary staff to brainstorm a possible solution to this pressing problem and ultimately arrived at the idea of an asylum pro se clinic, whereby Latham pro bono attorneys would sit down with clients who were in removal proceedings to draft their affidavits and other application materials and give them extremely detailed, step-by-step guidance on how to continue their asylum applications pro se.
The pilot pro se clinic, which took place in summer 2022, worked with 4 clients, all of whom had experienced LGBTQ+-based persecution in their home countries. They all had a very specific and straightforward legal need, yet one that can be quite daunting for anyone, and especially for trauma-impacted clients. The Latham attorneys immediately set to creating compelling affidavits and filling out the requisite forms so as to help these survivors to attain the asylum they deserved.
At the outset, the Latham & Watkins team knew that their objective was to file with USCIS as quickly as possible, given the fact that their clients had already been called into immigration court. Their work consisted of preparing a I-589 Application for Asylum and for Withholding of Removal, which includes copious supporting materials. In this case, the applications centered around the LGBGTQ+-based persecution that clients had faced in their home countries. An application for asylum must be based on a number of factors, including past persecution and/or a well-founded fear of future persecution in the applicant’s home country and evidence that their home country’s government is unwilling or unable to protect them. Though legal representation is not required to file such applications, the administrative process is extremely difficult, even before the added complications of trauma and potential language barriers. “Nothing about the process is intuitive for survivors,” Associate Abhinaya Swaminathan told us.
When she signed up to participate in the asylum pro se project, Prudence Ng, a third year corporate associate, had already worked on immigration cases. For the first time, however, Prudence found herself with a client who had survived a decade of homelessness and violence, and whose manifold experiences of trauma had to be sensitively parsed out and arranged into a cohesive application narrative. “I realized the application needed to be based on themes instead of chronology,” said Prudence. When the process of information collection was less straightforward than expected, “I had to craft a cohesive narrative, which involved making sense of a complex story.”
The most challenging part of this work for the Latham & Watkins team – as well as for their clients – was distilling a long trauma history and “making it fit into the USCIS boxes.” While it was clear from the outset that these clients had compelling needs for asylum, telling their stories was nonetheless not a simple task, and was one that necessitated trauma-informed questioning and empathy. Prudence will be bringing those lessons into her practice. “I learned a lot of lessons about connecting with a client and telling their story from their perspective.”
She also noted that the summer associates she worked with were engaged, demonstrated compassion and sensitivity, and were skilled at parsing out relevant details. “Our team was impressive at handling strong emotions and keeping their lawyer hats on to put forward a very strong case for our clients.”
All of Latham’s lawyers underlined how Sanctuary for Families’ mission is important to them and helps shape their pro bono work by assisting different people with a common need. Abhinaya strikingly noted that “SFF’s focus on gender-based violence is particularly important right now because people from all over the world come to get help with gender and or sexuality based problems, even though we are also facing these problems here in the US.”
Latham’s four clients have strong claims filed now and await a response from USCIS while remaining in the United States. They are empowered not only to proceed with their own applications, but with the knowledge to inform their friends and family of their rights and the resources they could use.
“The asylum system in the United States is a stressful, opaque, and deeply bureaucratic process for all those who flee their home countries in hopes of creating lives free from violence. Through their advocacy this summer, Latham protected the rights of four LGBTQ+ asylum seekers and helped them take that first step toward building a safe and stable life in the U.S. We are so grateful for the work of the Latham attorneys and summer associates and hope this is only the beginning of our continued work together.”
Co-Deputy Director of Sanctuary’s Immigration Intervention Project
Join us at our Above & Beyond Awards Ceremony on November 2, 2022, as we honor Latham & Watkins’ outstanding pro bono work.
If you can’t join us, but would like to support Sanctuary’s work, please consider making an Above & Beyond donation here.
Francesca L. Fulchignoni is a practice area associate in Sullivan & Cromwell’s Criminal Defense and Investigations Group.