When an earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010, gender-based violence became more frequent as women living in tent camps had few physical barriers to protect them. Jayne Fleming, pro bono counsel at the international law firm Reed Smith, had the unique idea that she would try to help these women secure humanitarian parole in the United States. The alternative, to do nothing, was not really an option. The likelihood of survival for these women—the ones who she and teams of attorneys eventually represented in applying for humanitarian parole—was bleak, as the conditions in Haiti and their physical and/or emotional conditions made them vulnerable to further gender-based violence or even death.

Humanitarian parole is not typically used to relocate victims of gender-based violence. According to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services website, “humanitarian parole is used sparingly to bring someone who is otherwise inadmissible into the United States for a temporary period of time due to a compelling emergency.” The gender-based violence victims are not eligible for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) because this temporary immigration benefit can be extended only to individuals who are already in the United States.

Humanitarian parole is typically granted to individuals who have severe medical problems that cannot be treated in their country of residence. Even then, humanitarian parole applications are sparingly granted, and require meticulous records from medical professionals and detailed information regarding host sponsor and resettlement support efforts for each applicant.

Despite the difficulty of obtaining humanitarian parole, several attorneys invested their time and energy to attempt to use this tool to assist Haitian victims of gender-based violence. In May 2010, a team of attorneys, mostly from international corporate law firms, traveled to Haiti under Fleming’s leadership. The attorneys largely came from the Federal Bar Council’s Public Service Committee, supported by some of the nation’s top firms—Hogan Lovells; Morrison & Foerster; O’Melveny & Myers; Reed Smith; Shearman & Sterling; and Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr.

Initially, some of these attorneys committed to go on this trip regardless of whether they would receive firm support or if they would have to use their own vacation time. Most of these volunteer attorneys had little experience in human rights law. Other attorneys on the project, who were seasoned human rights lawyers, came from the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and the University of California-Davis immigration clinic.

The daily work involved interviewing long lines of women and children to determine their eligibility for parole, and listening to dark, harrowing stories of rape, torture and suicidal ideation. Through the help of local nongovernmental organizations, the team identified 52 candidates for humanitarian parole, documented human rights violations in tent cities, developed expert reports on gender-based violence and medical care, took rape survivors to medical clinics, brought infants and children in for pediatric care, found shelter for several high-risk families, and lined up emergency care for elders in critical condition. Although taking a rape victim to a clinic was not exactly legal work, the overburdened medical clinics, run by organizations such as Doctors without Borders, provided more immediate attention when the victims were accompanied by the lawyers.

Fleming’s humanitarian parole project has brought about the successful relocation of some of Haiti’s most vulnerable women. Several earthquake victims have been granted humanitarian parole, others have been resettled in Canada, and others are awaiting decisions on asylum. These success stories would not have happened but for the efforts of numerous attorneys from Fleming’s law firm, Reed Smith, amounting to more than $3.1 million in legal services, as well as the volunteer efforts of numerous other attorneys who believed in this project.

The project is an example of the life-changing work that attorneys and their law firms can do. We hope that the story inspires attorneys and law firms not only to donate their services pro bono but also to commit themselves and their resources to pro bono projects regardless of their area of expertise. •