Linklaters and Covington & Burling Win Asylum Case for LGBTQ+ Couple

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary for Families will honor teams from Linklaters LLP and Covington & Burling LLP for representing “Jonah” and “James” in obtaining asylum status. The teams consisted of Associates Nina Hrushko and Rebecca Zeldin of Linklaters, and Associate Lauren Shor and former Associates Jack Nelson, Katherine Onyshko, and Elisa Solomon of Covington.

Jonah and James are Russian gay men and LGBTQIA+ activists. As openly gay men in an incredibly homophobic country, James and Jonah consistently experienced threats and violence. James’s family in particular was hostile to his sexuality and put both James and Jonah in danger. However, none of this deterred them from their work as LGBTQIA+ activists. . After the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016, James and Jonah brought flowers and a sign to the American embassy in Moscow to show their support for the victims, only to be arrested and harassed by Russian police. After they were arrested, they decided to flee Russia together and arrived in New York in 2017. Once in the U.S., they were finally able to marry and began their years-long affirmative asylum process, with the support of Sanctuary for Families and a team of lawyers for each of Jonah and James’s individual cases. Jonah was represented by the Linklaters team and James was represented by the Covington team. In 2023, after six years of teamwork, creativity, and patience, both James and Jonah were finally granted asylum. Jonah and James celebrated by inviting the legal teams to their apartment for dinner, highlighting how close the relationships they formed throughout the asylum process had become.

James and the Covington team filed his application and listed Jonah as a derivative spouse on the application. Jack Nelson, formerly with Covington, and now with Sive Pagel Riesel, describes James as an incredible person. Jack was impressed that despite their traumatic personal history, James and Jonah have kept an optimistic outlook throughout the asylum process, continuing their political activism in New York and volunteering with the Russian LGBTQIA+ community.

Jonah and the Linklaters team filed a separate asylum application for Jonah, because he had experienced the same hostility and was eligible for asylum in his own right, while also listing James as Jonah’s derivative spouse on the application. Nina Hrushko at Linklaters describes Jonah as outgoing and easy to work with, and a positive person, despite going through so much.

When James and Jonah first filed their asylum applications, they were just beginning to learn English and used an interpreter for meetings with their legal teams. Over the course of the six years of their asylum cases, both Jonah and James became fluent in English, so much so that they could help the attorneys catch errors made early on, when some stories got lost in translation. By the end of the case, Jack described working with James and Jonah as just like working with partner counsel.

James and Jonah’s cases also presented a unique opportunity for two law firms to work closely together, with the support of Sanctuary for Families. Each firm reported a great experience working together. Nina speaks Russian and Ukrainian, so she was able to help both litigation teams with interviews and affidavits and to communicate with James and Jonah’s friends and other witnesses.

Although Jonah and James presented very strong cases for asylum, some logistical complications arose with their cases. After many years of waiting for their interviews with the Asylum Office, James was granted asylum on February 8, 2023, but through a clerical error, Jonah was not granted asylum as James’s derivative. Not to be deterred, Jonah and the Linklaters team advocated to Senator Gillibrand, the USCIS ombudsman, and the USCIS Liaison at the Immigrant Advocates Response Collaborative. Finally, in July 2023, Jonah was also granted asylum.

Even after James’s application was granted, the Covington team stayed involved and worked collaboratively with the Linklaters team to support Jonah in his asylum application. Both litigation teams also spoke highly of the support from Sanctuary for Families and especially appreciated help from Deirdre Stradone, Co-Deputy Director of the Immigration Intervention Project. Deirdre, likewise, was incredibly impressed with both teams and their tireless dedication to James and Jonah over the course of six years.

Jonah and James came to New York as refugees six years ago. Now, James is attending a prominent university on a scholarship and Jonah is a filmmaker. To their legal teams, James and Jonah are inspiring. And, after six years of working together, they are also good friends.

Sanctuary is incredibly grateful for the compassionate pro bono work that Covington and Linklaters dedicated to assisting Jonah and James in their journey to safety and security in the United States.

Join us at our Above & Beyond Awards Ceremony on October 25, 2023, as we honor Linklaters LLP and Covington & Burling LLP ‘s outstanding pro bono work.



Lucy Wolf is an Assistant Attorney General at the Washington State Attorney General’s Office and a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council.