An Asylum Case Built on Trust

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DLA Piper Pro Bono

Shanai T. Watson, Associate, DLA Piper

Esther (not her real name) fled her West African home country in 2008 after being forced to marry a polygamous older man who raped and beat her repeatedly in the days following their marriage, and threatened to kill her if she did not accept the marriage. After being hospitalized for her injuries, she went to the police, who slapped her and sent her away. The next day they came to arrest her under false charges of theft. She escaped by jumping out a window just as the police broke down her door.

Esther found her way to New York City. In 2009 she was admitted to the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture, a treatment center that provides medical, mental health and social services to victims of trauma and abuse. Bellevue referred her to NYLAG’s clinic for asylum seekers, run by attorney Cecelia Volk, who immediately confirmed that Esther was a good candidate for pro bono representation.

DLA Piper took on the case in November 2010 under the supervision of partner Gail Rodgers, who has represented numerous asylum clients and supervises many teams of associates in asylum cases. In 2012, Shanai Watson, then a first-year associate, was tapped to join Esther’s team. It was Shanai’s first taste of asylum work, but not of pro bono representation. At the time she was a DLA Piper Krantz Pro Bono Fellow; by the end of the year she had logged more than 2,100 hours of pro bono work.

“I came to DLA Piper aware of the fact that too many people cannot afford an attorney. During the fellowship year I did nothing but pro bono – all types of work. And that really launched me,” said Shanai. “As one of the lucky ones who got to become a lawyer, I want to help people fight back. Pro bono will always be part of my practice.”
Esther’s case was particularly challenging. In her initial interview, which she attended on her own, an asylum officer had determined that her story lacked credibility. This was due to an interpreter who did not speak French in her native dialect. Also, not realizing when she entered the US that she was eligible, it appeared she had missed the one-year deadline for applying for asylum. But even more important, Esther found it extremely difficult to talk about the persecution she had suffered, even to her lawyer.

“She did not want to tell her story – to provide the detailed information that I needed to submit a brief and to prepare her to testify in immigration court,” said Shanai. “Because she was so traumatized, she just wanted to gloss over the details. My biggest challenge was to help her to get comfortable enough to talk about what had happened.”
Over the next year and a half, the two women and other members of the team would spend countless hours together, often meeting several times a week. In addition, Esther met regularly with a psychologist to help her deal with the emotions – including thoughts of suicide – that came with reliving her ordeal. Gradually, she began to open up and talk about what she had endured, and what she feared would happen if she were forced to go home.

Shanai’s legal brief included research on the background and cultural conditions in Esther’s home country, where women and girls are victims of discrimination, forced marriage, torture and female genital mutilation. She secured medical records and affidavits from Esther’s friends, attesting to her mistreatment. Shanai prepped her for cross examination, a daunting experience for anyone but especially for someone who does not speak English fluently and must speak of very private and painful matters.

The enormous investment of time paid off. In June 2013 Esther testified in court. She was composed and confident. Under cross examination she told her story – her way. If the interpreter’s words were not what she intended to communicate, she used the English skills she developed over the course of the case to speak up and correct them. Shanai remembers realizing early on that the government attorney could see how genuine her client was.

“After listening for a while he said, ‘I believe her,’ and shortly thereafter the judge granted Esther asylum. It was a beautiful moment.”