Pro Bono Rank Firm
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Williams & Connolly (114)


The practice of female genital mutilation is patently offensive to most people. But it wasn’t offensive enough to allow victims of this barbaric practice to gain asylum in the United States. That is, until Ana Reyes and other attorneys at Williams & Connolly got involved.

The Am Law Pro Bono 100In spring 2008, Williams & Connolly was approached by the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies. They were looking for attorneys to help draft an amicus curiae brief for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Three women from Guinea, all victims of genital mutilation in their home country, were about to be deported. The Board of Immigration Appeals had ruled that genital mutilation–the practice of often-forced slicing of the female sex organs, usually with rudimentary tools and no anesthetic–wasn’t enough to stay an immigrant’s expulsion.

“The immigration judge had ruled that genital mutilation was terrible, but that it wasn’t enough for asylum,” remembers Ana. “The rationale was: Once the act has occurred, the victim can’t show that she’ll face further danger in her home country, something that U.S. law requires to be granted asylum.”

In fact, when she was a fourth-year associate (Reyes is entering her eighth year and has been made a partner), she worked with a team of Williams & Connolly lawyers who tried, and won, a successful asylum claim for another victim of genital mutilation. But filing an amicus brief with a circuit court was an even bigger chance to affect policy. If successful, the case could help all asylum-seeking victims of genital mutilation—instead of just a single victim of the practice.

A three-judge panel, including future U.S. Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor, asked both sides to submit papers presenting their arguments. They even invited Reyes to present an oral argument, a rare occurrence for an attorney submitting an amicus brief. On June 11, 2008, the judges issued their ruling, all concurring that the Board of Immigrant Appeals had erred in assuming that a victim of genital mutilation would not face future persecution back home.

The judges directly referred to one of Reyes’s metaphors in their opinion.

“As amicus argues,” wrote Second Circuit judge Straub, “the fact that an [asylum] applicant’s tongue was severed because he spoke out against the government does not mean that his life or freedom would not be threatened in the future simply because his tongue could not be cut off again.” The decision adopted portions of Reyes’s brief in whole.

Ultimately, the Second Circuit’s decision led to an order from the U.S. attorney general, the final arbiter in immigration cases. On September 22, 2008, he ordered that, going forward, if a victim of genital mutilation applies for asylum, immigration judges should assume that she will face further persecution if sent back home. 
Reyes and Williams & Connolly spent nearly 500 hours on the brief, and on another similar brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit arguing that victims of forced sterilization should be assumed to face further peril if deported. But it was all worth it.

“Listen, we’re lawyers, we like a big win,” Reyes says, laughing. “But when the order from the attorney general came down, that was absolutely one of the most rewarding moments of my career. In asylum cases, the look that appears on an applicant’s face when she finds out that she’s allowed to stay is absolutely amazing. It’s pure joy.”

—Matt Straquadine | July 1, 2009

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