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Reed Smith (16)


Anderson H. came to this country from Honduras at age seven, in 2006, after seeing two uncles and an aunt slain in retaliation for his grandfather’s opposition to gang activity. Paradoxically, hostility to gangs in this country made asylum a long shot for Anderson.The Am Law Pro Bono 100

Undeterred, Reed Smith took his case to immigration court in San Francisco and flew in an antigang specialist from a Honduran nonprofit. The expert testified that 600 Hondurans had died in gang violence the prior year. Anderson won his case for asylum. “There’s nothing like hearing a Central American witness describe the horrors he witnesses in daily life to persuade a judge,” says Anderson’s lawyer Jayne Fleming.

Since 2007 Reed Smith has a perfect record in its advocacy for refugees from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala–winning asylum for seven people, as well as visas for two victims of domestic violence and special immigrant status for four abandoned children. According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, the average asylum grant rate for those nationalities in 2007 and 2008 was a mere 2.3 percent.

Reed Smith “takes cases that are unwinnable and they win them,” says Lisa Frydman, managing attorney of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies in San Francisco.

Fleming filed her first Central American asylum case about eight years ago as a young associate at Oakland’s Crosby, Heafey, Roach & May, which later merged into Reed Smith. She helped form the firm’s human rights practice group and then its Central American project in 2006-2007. Last year she became the firm’s third full-time pro bono counsel. Reed Smith has more than 50 lawyers handling asylum at any one time, reinforced by students from Boalt Hall and University of Pennsylvania. “The resources and time that Jayne puts into these cases is nothing short of heroic,” says Frydman.

Such resources are needed, Frydman says, because American immigration courts are toughening their standards in a way that diverges from international and domestic precedent–requiring that asylum-seekers claiming social group discrimination make additional showings that they belong to a group that is socially visible and well-defined. Last summer, the first two published asylum decisions in gang cases were both restrictionist, holding that Central American youth resisting gang recruitment did not consitute a particular social group. It should come as no surprise that the 2.3 percent asylum grant rate for Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala was exactly one-tenth of the 23 percent rate for all nationalities in 2007-08. “We really see the door closing more and more in gang and social group cases,” Frydman says.

Fleming says that Reed Smith has been able to win these tough cases because of the close bonds that it has forged with about a half-dozen Central American nonprofit groups. This has been crucial in educating the American judiciary–and it also gives their isolated clients a sense of connection to home. Reed Smith has raised funds for a group that teaches literacy to displaced Mayans who live in the Guatemala city dump. It sponsors a modest but meaningful annual grant for indigenous Honduran women who are the victims of gender-based violence, in honor of another client, Evelinda, who won asylum in 2007. “Evelinda had low self-esteem and felt responsible for the violence committed against her in an orphanage,” says Fleming. “Now she feels like she made a contribution to fighting for indigenous rights in her country of origin.” Says Frydman: “Jayne affirms the humanity that asylum-seekers have sometimes lost.”

Fleming visited Anderson H.’s grandparents in Honduras and brought back photos of the family. That makes Anderson feel special–but he is still seeking affirmance in the legal sense of the word. Fleming has asked the Board of Immigration Appeals to accept Anderson’s family as a persecuted social group because it has been targeted for its antigang views. If the odds of victory are long, that hasn’t stopped her before.

—Michael D. Goldhaber | July 1, 2009

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