L-R David West and Rene Ruiz, Dykema Cox Smith, San Antonio.

Four lawyers from Dykema Cox Smith in San Antonio who had never before done immigration work spent a total of 555 pro bono hours valued at about $200,000 to successfully secure asylum for members of an Afghan family who entered the United States illegally in December 2016.

The lawyers represented Samira Hakimi and her two children, and Hakimi’s sister-in-law Nazifa Nabizada and her son. The women alleged they were in danger in Afghanistan because their family opened three co-ed, secular schools in Afghanistan that were threatened by the Taliban.

Beginning in 2013, Hakimi’s father, who started the schools, received numerous threatening telephone calls from the Taliban. Later, in 2016, two of the schools were attacked by the Taliban, including one at the university in Kabul where their extended family lives.

On May 30, U.S. Immigration Judge Craig Harlow of San Antonio granted asylum to Hakimi and her two children, after finding that Hakimi is statutorily eligible for asylum and an “excellent candidate” for asylum.

“Additionally, respondent has persuaded the court that she is deserving of the protection she seeks. Respondent has established that she and her family members have taken serious personal risks in order to provide access to education for women in Afghanistan,” Harlow wrote in an order on May 30.

On June 1, Harlow also granted asylum to Nabizada and her son, finding that she is also statutorily eligible for asylum.

He granted the children derivative asylum because of their mothers’ approved applications. Hakima’s husband and her brother, who is married to Nazifa Nabizada, had been held in the Port Isabel Service Detention Center in Cameron County in Texas, but have been paroled and are seeking derivative asylum because the lawyers successfully secured asylum for the women.

The families have moved to California, where a cousin lives.

Rene Ruiz, who does public policy work, and litigator James “Marty” Truss, both members in Dykema Cox in San Antonio, represented the Hakima family, while David West, a financial services litigation member, and Josue Galvan, a commercial litigation associate, represented the Nabizada family.

Ruiz said the 555 hours the lawyers spent on the asylum cases is equal to about $200,345 based on the collection rate for the lawyers involved, which he said shows the firm’s deep commitment to pro bono.

“We approached it as for a full-paying client,” Ruiz said.

The case was referred to Dykema Cox Smith by RAICES, a nonprofit in San Antonio that helps undocumented immigrants who want to stay in the United States. Manoj Govindaiah, director of family detention services for RAICES, said it’s very difficult to win asylum from immigration judges in San Antonio.

“In Samira and Nazifa’s situation, it really was they had great lawyers who took a lot of time and a lot of care to plan and prepare their case and got expert testimony and a lot of evidence from their home country,” Govindaiah said.

The cases were further complicated, Govindaiah said, by the fact that the women spoke Dari and also were held in a detention center in Karnes County, which is about 60 miles from downtown San Antonio.

In the orders, Harlow wrote that the Taliban threatened to punish Hakimi’s father, Ghulam Rasool Nabizada, because he refused to shut down three co-ed, secular schools he had founded in Afghanistan, including a high school and university in Kabul, and another university in Khost Province. Harlow found that Nabizada’s extended family, who live together in Kabul, is at risk and that Hakimi and Nazifa Nabizada each established that their fear of future persecution by the Taliban is well-founded.

According to the Judge’s orders, the Taliban told Ghulam Rasool Nabizada in phone calls that “if he did not shut down the university, he would ‘pay the price’ with his life and the lives of his children, their spouses, and their children.”

LEARNING IMMIGRATION LAW AND DEFYING THE ODDS

Ruiz said the lawyers agreed to take on the work in January. He said the first thing he did was travel to the Karnes County Detention Facility, where Hakimi and Nabizada had been held in custody since they turned themselves in and sought asylum after crossing the U.S. border in December 2016. The women, their children and husbands had left Afghanistan in 2016, flew to South America, and traveled overland to the United States.

Ruiz said that after he met with Hakimi and heard her story, he had to learn immigration law, since he’s board certified in administrative law and works in the electric/water/utility space.

“It was completely foreign to me. I had to learn everything from scratch,” he said.

Ruiz said the judge held two four-hour hearings in April on the asylum cases, where Hakimi and Nabizada testified, along with Hakimi’s brother, Mohammad Sami Nabizada, and expert witness Marvin Weinbaum, who is director of Pakistan Studies at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C.

According to a report by TRACImmigration, asylum denials by immigration judges increased by 57 percent during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2016.

West, who said associate Galvan did much of the work on the case, said he would definitely work on another asylum case but “not this year” due to the time commitment.

“The firm encourages pro bono work and I thought this would be interesting compared to the regular divorce cases,” West said, noting that he was also driven by his Christian faith to take on the pro bono assignment.