Estrella Sanchez (left), and Jeff Fisher, her pro bono lawyer from Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton. (Courtesy photo) Estrella Sanchez (left) and Jeff Fisher, her pro bono lawyer from Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton. (Photo: Michael Turton)

Estrella Sanchez, a transgender immigrant who claimed she suffered repeated rapes and abuse while growing up in Mexico—and then endured harassment in a U.S. immigration prison—has finally won asylum with the help of her pro bono lawyers from Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton.

After denying Sanchez’s petition three times, U.S. Immigration Court Judge Dan Trimble granted Sanchez asylum last week, three years after a Kilpatrick team led by Jeff Fisher and Michael Turton first took on her case.

“I think she didn’t believe it until the judge said the words,” Fisher said. “Then she smiled and cried.”

Sanchez had been fighting for asylum since 2012, including three appeals to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) and a trip to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

“We were thrilled that we were able to get justice for her, even though it took six years,” Fisher said.

The BIA in April vacated Trimble’s third asylum denial, saying the Department of Homeland Security, which opposed Sanchez’s petition, did not show that conditions had improved enough in Mexico that Sanchez would no longer face persecution there. Trimble had “inappropriately placed the burden of proof on the respondent,” the board found.

Based at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin County, Trimble is one of the toughest judges on the U.S. Immigration Court. He denied asylum to immigrants in 95.8 percent of the hundreds of asylum cases he heard from 2012 to 2017, according to statistics from the Transactional Records Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

Federal immigration courts and the government do not comment on individual asylum cases.

Four Appeals

After fleeing Mexico at age 19, Sanchez, now 31, sought help from an American woman who offered her work as a caregiver. Instead, she was held against her will in a Texas brothel for a year until she escaped. A few years later, police turned her over to immigration authorities after she was picked up for driving without a license, driving under the influence and drug possession—which her lawyers attributed to post-traumatic stress disorder from her history of abuse.

Starting in 2012, Sanchez was imprisoned for almost a year at Stewart Detention Center, where she experienced harassment for being transgender from other inmates and guards.

Trimble in early 2013 turned down Sanchez’s initial pro se petition for asylum. The order said he found her credible and accepted that she was abused in Mexico, but he questioned that the abuse was because she is transgender. Instead, he wrote, her repeated rapes by four different men, including a government official, which Sanchez has testified started when she was 8 years old, were to “satisfy the sexual desires of the perpetrators.”

That order also said that conditions in Mexico had improved for LGBT people, citing new anti-discrimination laws.

Sanchez was set to be deported back to Mexico, when she found a phone number for Immigration Equality, a New York legal nonprofit. Immigration Equality lawyers appealed to the BIA, then the Eleventh Circuit, and the case was remanded back to Trimble for a new evidentiary hearing.

At that point the group connected Sanchez with the Georgia Asylum and Immigration Network, which in 2015 enlisted the Kilpatrick lawyers just two months before her new hearing. Fisher, a business litigator, was a fourth-year associate at the time.

Kilpatrick briefed the case from scratch and supplied plenty of new evidence. Fisher spent hours interviewing Sanchez and researching conditions in Mexico. The firm flew two experts to the Stewart Detention Center to testify to the dangers for transgender women in Mexico and Sanchez’s post-traumatic stress disorder as the result of her abuse.

Sociology professor Nielan Barnes of California State University Long Beach testified that transgender people are now actually at more risk of persecution in Mexico—especially by police and the military—because of a widespread backlash from the conservative Catholic population against the new anti-discrimination laws.

Even so, Trimble again denied asylum. The BIA in 2016 reversed Trimble’s finding that there was no “nexus” or connection between Sanchez’s transgender status and her persecution, calling it “clearly erroneous,” and remanded the case. The board instructed the judge to consider only whether Sanchez could return to Mexico without fear of persecution, noting that one of her persecutors was a government official.

Trimble denied asylum for the third time last November, again deciding country conditions had improved. The BIA in April finally vacated Trimble’s order, saying DHS “has not met its burden to rebut the respondent’s well-founded fear of persecution” in Mexico and that Trimble had improperly placed that burden on Sanchez. It instructed him to grant Sanchez asylum.

Trimble signed off on her asylum petition on May 22.

Hundreds of Hours

Fisher, Turton, other Kilpatrick lawyers and staff have spent about 800 hours on Sanchez’s case over the past three years, said Tamara Caldas, the firm’s pro bono partner.

“We briefed two appeals and three merit hearings, so there was a lot of briefing,” Fisher said.

While Sanchez’s case has been time-consuming, Fisher said, plenty of other lawyers at the firm have taken on commensurate challenges. “At Kilpatrick and in our litigation group, pro bono isn’t something the firm merely supports, it’s something they encourage and expect,” he said.

Kilpatrick has about 100 open pro bono immigration cases right now, according to Caldas, in the wake of the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigrants. 

Now that Sanchez has asylum, she can apply for a green card, and then, after another five years, for citizenship. She has become a visible advocate in Atlanta for transgender immigrants, helping others in her situation find lawyers and even serving as a marshall in last year’s Pride parade.

She is currently finishing her GED studies, Fisher said, and she’s told her legal team she may even become an immigration lawyer.

Sanchez “has devoted her life to working with nonprofits that support transgender and immigrant rights,” Fisher said. “It’s why the firm and I are so proud to represent her and get her relief.”