At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary will honor a Gibson Dunn team for their dedication to representing “Ms. N” in a defensive asylum case.
At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary for Families will be honoring a team from Gibson Dunn for their dedication to representing “Ms. N” from El Salvador in a defensive asylum case. The outstanding team representing Ms. N included associates Alexandra Perloff-Giles and Ana Lopez, and former Gibson Dunn associate Philip Shapiro.
Ms. N is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. As a young teenager, her mother sold her to a MS-13 gang member and she was forced to become his girlfriend. During the course of their “relationship,” the man verbally, physically, and sexually abused Ms. N. She had one child with him. When Ms. N bravely reported the abuse to the authorities in El Salvador, a judge ruled that it was not rape since Ms. N had become pregnant. Ms. N attempted to escape this relationship multiple times. Finally, after six years, she was able to flee El Salvador in 2015 and entered the United States after being detained for three months.
The Gibson team began working on the case in 2016, meeting with Ms. N dozens of times in preparation for the Individual Hearing, which was scheduled for 2019. All of the materials—including affidavits, certified translations, expert reports, and a legal brief—had been submitted. But just days before the scheduled hearing, it was adjourned nearly four years, to January 2023, ostensibly because a Spanish interpreter was not available. On the new date, the Immigration Judge realized she did not have a copy of Ms. N’s file and the case was further adjourned by one month.
While the significant delays presented certain challenges, they also proved fortuitous in certain respects. The Matter of A-B- decision by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in June 2018—also involving a Salvadoran woman impregnated by her abuser—made asylum claims by survivors of domestic violence significantly more challenging. But in June 2021, Attorney General Merrick Garland vacated the prior Matter of A-B- decision, permitting victims of sexual violence to show, as they previously had, that they had suffered harm at the hands of a private actor whom the government was unable or unwilling to control.
In the lead-up to the new hearing date, the Gibson team once again kicked into gear, updating affidavits, obtaining additional evidence, and preparing Ms. N to testify at trial. Given how young she had been when the events took place and the extent of her trauma, it was difficult for Ms. N to relive her experiences and recall the timeline of events; as a therapist who met with Ms.N explained, her trauma manifests as avoidance, complicating the process of drafting her affidavit and preparing her to testify. Throughout this lengthy process, the Gibson team remained patient and understanding, balancing sensitivity to Ms. N’s unique struggles with a commitment to readying her for trial.
Philip, who had worked with Ms. N since the very beginning, led the pre-hearing conferencing with the DHS attorney and delivered opening and closing arguments during the trial. Alexandra led the briefing efforts. Ana conducted the direct examination of Ms. N—a relatively late change in strategy after the team saw during prep sessions that Ms. N appeared more open and comfortable being questioned by a female attorney. Ultimately, after seven years and a four-hour trial, Ms. N was finally granted asylum in early 2023.
In addition to the team’s stellar legal work, what motivated Deirdre Stradone, Co-Deputy Director of the Immigration Intervention Project, to nominate Gibson Dunn for recognition was their trauma-informed lawyering. Like the majority of Sanctuary’s clients, Ms. N has suffered severe and sustained violence in her home country and continues to struggle today. An asylum case is always difficult for a client, who has to relive their trauma and spend hours retelling their story to practice for direct and cross-examination for trial. But Ms. N essentially had to undergo this process three times—each time her trial was scheduled and then cancelled on short notice. Because Ms. N’s trauma manifests as avoidance, she avoided meetings with her attorneys; she regularly cancelled at the last minute, or showed up late, or couldn’t come in person and would take calls from her home.
Deirdre was so impressed with the Gibson team’s tireless, sympathetic, and trauma-informed approach:
“When Ms. N cancelled or was late, the team did everything they could to work around her schedule and make themselves available at her convenience, and never questioned her reasons for cancelling or made her feel guilty about it. They just asked if she was okay and safe. They were always so respectful of her and really allowed for her to feel empowered and understand what was happening in her legal case.”
When Ms. N was finally granted asylum, the joy and relief was palpable on everyone’s faces. Deirdre could see the happiness that the team felt to know that Ms. N was safe, she could remain in the U.S., and we could finally work to bring her son to the U.S. to join her.
Join us at our Above & Beyond Awards Ceremony on October 25, 2023, as we honor Gibson Dunn’s outstanding pro bono work.
Naina Rasheed is a Corporate Governance Specialist in the Office of the Corporate Secretary at American International Group, Inc. Naina is also a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council and Co-Chair of this year’s Above and Beyond Pro Bono Awards and Benefit.