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With not a shred of experience in the dodgy arena of immigration law, two young lawyers and two legal assistants at Shearman & Sterling took on the matter of a Venezuelan asylum seeker about six months ago, a case legal service groups and veterans of the private bar variously rejected as chock-full of time and trouble — or little hope of a good payday. Perhaps it was na�vet� that won the day last month for Shearman associates Beau W. Buffier and Brett S. Phillips, along with assistants Andrea A. Trujillo and Katherine Currie. The foot-high stack of research papers they brought to U.S. Immigration Court in Manhattan certainly helped. They documented the story of a client who was certifiably “tired, poor and yearning to breathe free” — just as it is written in a verse by Emma Lazarus affixed to the base of the Statue of Liberty. “Maybe we didn’t know what we were doing when we took on the case, but our attitude became, Let’s go in with a bullet-proof case; let’s document everything we can,” said Buffier, 29, an antitrust attorney who graduated from the Sydney University School of Law in Australia. When the pro bono matter came to Shearman, Buffier said, “We were prepared to take the case to appeal, so we wanted absolutely everything on the record.” The record is a horrific list of abuses suffered by 35-year-old Hector Viera (not his real name), both in Venezuela and in the United States. At age 9, Viera was raped by a family member. His relatives later shunned him when it became apparent he was homosexual. In 1994, he fled Caracas for Miami after police arrested him in a gay bar and turned him over to the Venezuelan army, where soldiers forced him to wear a pink dress and routinely abused him. In 1996, he was diagnosed as HIV-positive. In New York, sick and unable to work, Viera became involved in a violent relationship and was literally thrown into the streets. Homeless and penniless, he beseeched private attorneys and legal agencies. Finally, Sanctuary for Families referred him to Shearman. Twenty minutes into the court hearing, Manhattan Judge Douglas B. Schoppert stopped reading the record. Despite the lawyers’ acknowledgement that Viera had overstayed a tourist visa and failed to petition for asylum within the one-year time requirement, the judge had a private word with Brian Kennedy, counsel for the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration, U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Then, Judge Schoppert turned to Viera and issued his decision. “Welcome to America,” he said. “You ought to thank your lawyers.” There was thanks, to be sure, when Viera and the Shearman team celebrated with a luncheon the next day. “It was a wonderful experience, especially when you’re just starting out as a lawyer,” said Phillips, 26, a corporate associate who earned his J.D. at New York University School of Law. “Injustice is out there, and there are real people walking around impacted by that.” Trujillo, who will soon leave Shearman to pursue a law degree at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C., said she and her colleagues helped Viera with a number of ancillary legal and emotional matters. “To me, the most rewarding part of this experience was seeing how much the client developed as a person over the six months,” said Trujillo, 24, a graduate of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. HUMAN ASPECTS OF LAW After the lawyers secured stable housing for Viera, she said, the Shearman team then enrolled him in psychological counseling. “He’s finally coming to terms with some of the traumatic experiences he’s gone through,” said Trujillo. “When you work for a firm like Shearman, where you have these tremendous resources, it’s important to get involved in pro bono. It reminds you of the human aspect of law.” Neither Trujillo nor the associates had ever done pro bono work before. But Katherine Currie, 24, had worked on a previous asylum case. “These cases have a tendency to take over your life,” said Currie, who earned a degree in social studies at Harvard University. “There’s an urgency. You’re dealing with someone’s life. “When it’s over, and when you get the results we did, there’s a great sense of relief,” she added. “There’s the same rush of emotions for us as there is for the client.” There is regret, too, on the part of lawyers who had to turn down Viera’s cry for help. Among the agencies he contacted was the New York-based Lambda Legal Defense, the civil rights advocate for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered individuals. “We receive more than 4,000 requests for assistance each year. Unfortunately, we can accept only a small percentage of those,” said Jon Davidson, senior counsel for the western region of Lambda in Los Angeles. “We try to do impact litigation, so we look for cases that will have the greatest likelihood for creating positive changes in the law.” Gay men have long been persecuted in Venezuela, said Davidson, “especially if they’re perceived as effeminate.” But proving nationwide, systemic persecution in U.S. Immigration Court is difficult, he said. Immigration attorney Nancy Morowitz, who is currently representing another gay Venezuelan man in an appeal of asylum denial, agreed. “The situation for gay people in Latin America is difficult, and there’s certainly a great deal of police bias against gay people in Venezuela,” said Morowitz, 39, an associate at Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy and a graduate of Tulane Law School in New Orleans. “It’s a big job to educate [U.S. courts] about what’s happening, and how these acts rise to the level of persecution.” In the Viera case, the Shearman team compiled a report on homosexual bias in Venezuela, interviewed and took affidavits from numerous witnesses to such bias incidents, and buttressed their findings with analysis from professors and specialists in trauma counseling. A ‘BULLET-PROOF’ CASE Coming to court well-prepared — bullet-proof, as Buffier put it — was the easy part. “The hard thing, compared to my ordinary work, was that the stakes were so much more personal and immediate,” he said. “We all believed [our client] faced pretty grim prospects for survival if he was deported.” Viera, an aspiring writer who plans to attend college, said he will never forget his day in court and his friends at Shearman. “In two words, I can tell you what this means to me — incredible decision,” he said. “My case was complicated, I know. But I finally made it. The lawyers and the assistants were so dedicated. Their work was so impeccable. “And they provided me with basic needs as a human person,” he added. “Thanks to them, this has changed my life forever.”

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