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Mike Karim was desperate. After living in the U.S. for nearly 15 years, the former financial accountant was only days away from being deported earlier this year to a life of dread and fear in his native Lebanon. An openly gay man living in San Diego, Karim � whose birth name is Mohamad Abdul-Karim � anticipated beatings, imprisonment and possibly death if forced to return to a society in which homosexuality is considered a mortal sin. “It was a pretty grave situation,” Karim said recently. “[Homosexuality's] not only a taboo, it’s a shameful subject. It’s not physically or emotionally safe for someone to come out.” That’s when lawyers at Holland & Knight stepped in pro bono. The international firm has earned a reputation as a safe haven for gays and lesbians in danger of being shipped back home to countries hostile to homosexuals. “It’s a cutting edge area of law with respect to civil rights, and it’s an area where we’ve seen a lot of variation in the decision-making process among the immigration courts,” said Lawrence Conlan, a San Francisco-based Holland & Knight partner who represents Karim. “Our experience has shown that a concerted effort on behalf of our clients has proven very successful even in circumstances where our clients have been unsuccessful in the past.” That was true for Karim, whose pleas for asylum already had been denied by an immigration judge, the Board of Immigration Appeals and the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. In April, three months after taking the case, Holland & Knight persuaded the BIA to reopen Karim’s case, and a month later got him released on a $3,000 bond from a detention center in which he had been held for five months. Then, last month, the same immigration judge who had denied Karim asylum seven years ago changed his mind, saying new evidence presented by Holland & Knight convinced him that gays and lesbians in Lebanon do face severe persecution. “I feel very lucky and grateful,” the 38-year-old Karim said. “The facts that the staff at Holland & Knight gathered were very strong.” Previously, he said, “judges and government lawyers and staff and so forth wouldn’t acknowledge or believe or see that being openly gay in the Middle East is not the easiest thing to be.” Besides Karim, the 1,000-plus lawyer firm has come to the rescue of individuals facing deportation to Gambia, Iran, Egypt, Colombia, Mexico and Cuba. Other cases, such as one involving a Ugandan lesbian who claims to have been gang raped by strangers at her family’s urging, are under review. Rachel Tiven, executive director of New York-based Immigration Equality � an organization that tries to find attorneys for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender asylum seekers around the country � said she’s always pleased when Holland & Knight takes a case. “We have certainly found that Holland & Knight is really a particularly wonderful partner,” she said. “They are really committed to the work and they put high-level firm resources into doing it.” Holland & Knight announced last week that it will lay off 41 attorneys and 45 staff as it closes nine offices and consolidates operations, though that’s not expected to affect the firm’s pro bono work. In fact, Holland & Knight, ranked 27th in terms of gross revenue on the Am Law 100 in 2004, has 10 full-time pro bono attorneys and is committed to completing 60,000 hours of pro bono work a year, the firm says. Jon Davidson, executive director of New York’s Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, said he was amazed by the outcome for Karim. The case, he said, was “one of these situations where you think, ‘Oh God, nobody’s ever going to be able to win this.’ And I was just so impressed by the result. It was really one of those that seemed like an impossible situation.” Christopher Nugent, a Washington, D.C.-based senior counsel with Holland & Knight’s community services team, said the firm has embraced gay asylum cases as a way “to help people in dire circumstances.” About 40 attorneys � gay and straight � have gotten involved. “Gays and lesbians are particularly vulnerable in the immigration system, and these cases are challenging and compelling,” he said. “You’re learning about egregious human rights violations in country after country, and how difficult it is to be gay and lesbian in other countries outside the United States. Imagine facing execution in Iran.” LAW ON THEIR SIDE Gays and lesbians seeking asylum got a major boost in 1990, when the BIA upheld an immigration judge’s determination that a Cuban applicant had established membership in a particular social group � specifically homosexual � deserving asylum protection. Four years later, then-Attorney General Janet Reno designated that decision � , 20 I&N Dec. 819 � as a precedent for all to follow. “That opened the door for gays and lesbians to be able to seek asylum based on sexual orientation,” Nugent said. Since then, applications by gays and lesbians have increased. Although the government doesn’t keep statistics, Nugent said one human rights group has estimated that as many as 4,000 gays and lesbians have applied for asylum in the past decade. Holland & Knight attorneys have so far this year logged more than 1,000 pro bono hours on seven gay asylum cases. And it’s not cheap: Conlan estimates that the firm has invested about $70,000 so far in Karim’s case. Among their other clients are:

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