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Not so long ago, Latham & Watkins associates Karen Barnett and Jeffrey Whyte could hardly have imagined themselves as the lawyers for a Tibetan monk seeking asylum after his harrowing escape from the Chinese police. But earlier this month, they appeared before immigration officials on behalf of Lortsel Gyamtso, a young man who rebelled against the Beijing rule of Tibet, and whose father was one of many Tibetans imprisoned and tortured after an unsuccessful uprising against the Chinese government in 1959. Recently, Gyamtso — who entered a Buddhist monastery after being expelled from school for his anti-China activities — was imprisoned for protesting Chinese environmental policy in Tibet. His release from jail, Barnett contended, did not end Gyamtso’s difficulties. “They searched his home, they threatened him with death,” said Barnett, 28, a graduate of the University of Victoria Faculty of Law in British Columbia, and a first-year associate at Latham. “He fled to Nepal.” After which, Gyamtso was spirited out of the Nepali capital of Kathmandu, arriving at John F. Kennedy International Airport with a visitor’s visa. “Everyone who lands in the U.S. tells the same story: I thought America would just take me in,” said Whyte, 32, a sixth-year Latham associate who earned his J.D. at the University of Connecticut School of Law. “But in this [post-Sept. 11 anti-immigrant] climate, the things you would automatically assume would get you through an interview just aren’t there anymore. They’re pouring down to a level of detail you just wouldn’t see in the past,” Whyte said of Immigration and Naturalization Service hearing officers. Gyamtso’s fate, pinned on a two-hour interview Jan. 3, will not be known for two weeks. The INS, given broad new discretionary power under the U.S. Patriot Act, will either grant or deny asylum based on Gyamtso’s written application for political asylum. In applying, Gyamtso was aided by the Song Tsen Tibetan Community Outreach Inc., a New York-based refugee group sponsored by Latham through the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. Song Tsen was founded by Amchok Thubten, 35, shortly after arriving as a refugee in the U.S. in 2000. His father, a prominent Tibetan politician, had been executed for opposing Chinese rule, and Thubten himself had been under arrest. With his wrists in handcuffs, he literally outran his Chinese jailers in a desperate rush across a mountain pass to temporary sanctuary in Nepal. Mark Beckett, 44, a litigation partner at Latham, helped Thubten set up Song Tsen as a not-for-profit organization. He said about 10 Latham attorneys are involved in Song Tsen cases at any one time, and that the firm has won asylum for more than 20 Tibetans thus far. “This connects the firm more closely with a community that has a tremendous need, and which at the same time has an ability to make a unique contribution to New York and to our country,” said Beckett. “It’s also given a lot of [associates] an opportunity to develop their litigation skills, an opportunity they may not have had otherwise.” Thubten said he eventually hopes to become a lawyer “In the cause of international human rights. It has become my life work.” In addition to Latham, Thubten’s organization has used pro bono attorneys in asylum cases from Debevoise & Plimpton, Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel, and Simpson Thacher & Bartlett. Another of Barnett’s and Whyte’s Tibetan clients, Tsering Yudon, is seeking asylum for her two children after gaining it for herself. Her husband was tortured and jailed for celebrating the 1989 decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dali Lama. Yudon, her husband and children fled to Nepal, where Yudon died. While Yudon was granted U.S. asylum last year, Barnett explained, the INS has insisted on birth certificates in order for her children to follow, but the Chinese government does not provide them for Tibetan births. “They’ve put up this obstacle,” said Barnett. “Six months ago, it wouldn’t have happened.” Another hearing is scheduled for March, when Barnett and Whyte will appeal the INS ruling against Yudon’s children. By way of response for this article, the INS referred to congressional testimony last month before the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims. “The average daily population of criminal aliens in detention between [fiscal years] 1994 and 2001 more than tripled, from approximately 3,300 to 13,210,” according to testimony by Joseph Greene, acting deputy executive associate commissioner for INS field operations, and Edward McElroy, the New York district INS director. “In September 2000, the General Accounting Office issued a report on the expedited removal process. As part of that report, GAO determined that 42 percent of aliens who claimed credible fear and were released subsequently failed to appear at their immigration hearing,” according to testimony. “The results from the GAO study are disturbing.” (Throughout their asylum process, however, neither Yudon nor Gyamtso were detained.) “The effect that Sept. 11 has had on immigration law is huge,” said Barnett. “By my own anecdotal evidence, the net has been cast very, very broadly in terms of cracking down.” Before joining Latham, Barnett worked as an attorney for Canada’s federal agencies, the Human Rights Commission and the Law Reform Commission, the latter of which provides government reparations to native peoples. Her activities now on behalf of Song Tsen coincide with her interest in Tibet, where she and her husband honeymooned last year, returning to New York just days before the attack on the World Trade Center. Only a few weeks after, Barnett began her new job at Latham, where she works in rotating practice areas. “My first week of work, there was an e-mail sent around about assignments through Song Tsen,” Barnett said. “I volunteered right away.” Whyte’s involvement with Song Tsen came about in steps. “At the start, I was interested philosophically,” he said. “I do corporate work, and this [pro bono project] appealed to my more selfish side, in that it seemed a little more exciting … . And it never really struck me how important my work as an attorney could be until [Yudon's] hearing.” He added: “It was the first time I knew that I was doing something that affected someone I know. For the first time, I could say, ‘Here’s why I became a lawyer.’”

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