Michelle Miao is a corporate associate in the New York office of Kirkland & Ellis LLP, and a member of Sanctuary for Families Pro Bono Council.
At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring two Wachtell attorneys, John Savarese and Courtney Heavey, for their tireless representation of Michael, a green card holder from Liberia who battled removal proceedings for four years. John and Courtney successfully secured cancellation of removal for Michael, enabling him to return to the life he had built prior to his nightmarish ordeal.
Facing deportation to a country he barely knew
Born in Liberia right before the outbreak of the First Liberian Civil War, Michael lived through some of the war’s worst atrocities before his family fled to a refugee camp in Ghana when Michael was just four years old. After six years living in and around the refugee camp, Michael immigrated to the United States with his father and siblings as derivative asylees under his mother’s asylum status.
In the summer of 2012, Michael left the United States briefly to attend the funeral of a family friend in West Africa. Upon his return to the United States, immigration authorities took his green card and placed him in deportation proceedings. Thus began four long years wherein Michael faced the possibility of being deported from the United States, where he had lived with his family and friends for 16 years, and of being returned to a country where he had last lived when he was little more than a toddler.
Wachtell took on the case two years after removal proceedings were originally initiated against Michael, not knowing their client’s ordeal would drag on for another two years, that scheduled hearings would not materialize, or that immigration authorities would decide along the way that their client should be detained. When Courtney first became involved in the case, a hearing for the Immigration Court to consider cancelling Michael’s deportation was on the horizon. When the hearing was pushed back, the Wachtell team delved into further preparations and collected additional statements of support from Michael’s family members and friends.
The stakes get even higher
In the midst of case preparation, and less than a month before the rescheduled date of the cancellation of removal proceedings hearing, Michael was picked up by ICE and taken to a detention facility in Buffalo, NY. ICE simultaneously proposed to transfer Michael’s case from New York City to Buffalo, NY, a Court where there was little chance Michael would be granted clemency. John and Courtney leapt to submit emergency papers to oppose the transfer and, against all odds, won the motion.
John and Courtney then worked on getting Michael transferred from the detention facility in Buffalo, NY, where ICE had warehoused their client, to a facility closer to New York City and Michael’s family. They ultimately succeeded in securing Michael’s transfer to a detention center in New Jersey. The relationship of trust that John and Courtney had built with Michael and his family remained unassailable in the face of these dire unanticipated events. Courtney, who spoke to her client each week throughout the case and visited him countless times while in detention, recalls how grateful she was that throughout this nightmare situation Michael remained positive, calm, and full of faith in his legal team. Over the course of seven months of inhumane detention, during which Michael was never allowed even a bond hearing, Michael’s confidence in John and Courtney never wavered.
Michael’s confidence was well-placed. After two years of motion practice and a long and arduous merits hearing, which included calling numerous witnesses, John and Courtney won a ruling from the bench granting their client relief: Michael was reissued lawful permanent residence. The next morning, after Courtney received a call confirming that the government would not appeal the ruling, Michael was allowed to go home. Upon receiving the good news, Courtney raced to the detention center to pick up her client and finally bring him home to his family.
Reflecting on a successful outcome
In describing his experience, Michael said,
“words cannot express my gratitude of what Courtney did for me. She went above and beyond what many attorneys would do. I spent 8 stressful months in ICE custody not knowing my fate. There were many sleepless nights worrying about potentially being deported, to a place I barely knew-a place I had left at the age of 5 in fear for my life. During this difficult time, Courtney visited me often, providing emotional support to lift my spirits, as well as, provide essential legal assistance . . . I will forever be grateful for the diligent work that she, and the law firm have done for my family and me.”
Fortunately for Michael, he had many people in his life who supported him throughout his multi-year ordeal. His close-knit family helped maintain his apartment during his months in detention and his former boss welcomed him back as well. Thus, on the day Courtney escorted Michael out from the New Jersey detention center, Michael was not only able to recover his legal status, but also resume his life much as it had been before the immigration authorities had upended it. Reflecting on the case, Courtney stated,
“helping Michael remain in this country where he worked so hard to build a life for himself and keeping him united with his family was an incredibly rewarding experience and I am so thankful to have been a part of this case.”
John and Courtney are enormously grateful to Carmen Rey from Sanctuary for Families, whose tireless dedication to this case played a critical role in the successful outcome.
Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on October 17, 2017 at the Highline Ballroom as we honor John and Courtney’s outstanding pro bono work. You can buy tickets here.
If you can’t join us, but would like to support Sanctuary for Family’s work, please consider making an Above & Beyond donation here.