Immigration Equality Honors Five National Law Firms with Annual Safe Haven Awards

Mar 21, 2011, 10:21 ET from Immigration Equality

NEW YORK, March 21, 2011 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Immigration Equality, a national not-for-profit organization, announced today that it will honor five national law firms for their pro bono work on behalf of the organization's clients, who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people seeking political asylum in the United States. The firms will be honored at the organization's annual Safe Haven Awards in New York City on Tuesday, May 31st.

"Nearly forty top law firms belong to our pro bono program, and together they won asylum for more than one hundred Immigration Equality clients last year.  In a very impressive field, these five firms stand out," said Rachel B. Tiven, the group's executive director.  "Each firm went above and beyond to provide top-notch legal counsel to people fleeing for their lives.  This is literally lifesaving work, and on behalf of all of our clients, we are proud to honor these law firms."

The five firms being honored this year are:

Dechert LLP

Dechert has represented nine Immigration Equality clients since 2005.  The firm is being recognized with a Safe Haven Award this year because of its willingness to accept particularly difficult cases.  As a part of that commitment, Dechert successfully represented a gay, HIV-positive man who had been discharged from the U.S. military for being gay and was now facing removal proceedings.  The client was detained throughout the year-long case.  Dechert defended the man's right to remain safely in the United States under the very high standard of the Convention Against Torture.

In another case, Dechert has appealed to the Third Circuit on behalf of a gay, HIV-positive man from Jamaica whose claim was denied because he missed the one-year filing deadline.  Dechert's team is arguing that severe depression and post traumatic stress disorder incapacitated him to such a degree that he was not able to file a timely asylum application. The appeal is pending.

Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP

Kramer Levin has long been a mainstay of Immigration Equality's Pro Bono Asylum Project, successfully obtaining asylum for 24 clients.  Due to its depth of experience with LGBT claims, Kramer Levin typically takes difficult cases, including many with one year deadline or criminal history challenges.  The firm's asylum program is run by Aaron Frankel and Michael Sternhell; Aaron is a longtime board member of Immigration Equality.

Of note among the seven cases handled in 2010, Kramer Levin won asylum for an HIV-positive gay man from Grenada with a minor criminal record who had missed his one year filing deadline. Because the culture of homophobia and persecution is not well-documented in Grenada, attorneys Matthew Abbott and Carmel Gabbay Legault performed extensive research into country conditions there, including contacting and obtaining first-hand affidavits from non-governmental organizations on the ground in Grenada. Their efforts paid off and the client won asylum.

O'Melveny & Myers LLP

O'Melveny & Myers has participated in Immigration Equality's pro bono program since 2005.  When the organization asked firms to consider more cases – and to accept clients for representation outside of New York City – O'Melveny rose to the challenge, representing seven asylum seekers in 2010 alone, including one in their Newport Beach, California office.

In one case, the firm successfully represented a gay Egyptian man who had suffered repeated abuse from the police and the community due to his sexual orientation. While living in Dubai, where homosexuality is a crime under both civil and religious law, he was arrested on five separate occasions because police suspected that he was gay. During one arrest, police officers interrogated him for over 12 hours while splashing him with ice-water, groping him, and threatening to perform abusive medical examinations that could "prove" his sexuality.  O'Melveny prevailed, and the client was granted asylum in June, 2010.

Ropes & Gray LLP

In one of Immigration Equality's most complicated cases to date, Ropes & Gray represented a bisexual, married HIV-positive man from Ghana, who found himself in immigration court after federal prosecutors extradited him to the U.S. as part of an alleged international criminal conspiracy.  More than one year later, prosecutors dropped all charges against the man and turned him over to immigration custody. Without a lawyer, he was brought before one of the most conservative immigration judges in New York.  At the time, the client was so sick due to complications from AIDS that he could not understand the removal proceedings and asked to be returned to Ghana so that he could die in peace. The judge ordered him deported.  While awaiting deportation, he was cared for at St. Vincent's Hospital, and a hospital social worker contacted Immigration Equality for help.  The organization was able to reopen his case; then Ann Lewis, Amy Albro, and Michael Rueckheim at Ropes & Gray secured his release on bond and found him housing.  After he was released from immigration detention his health improved dramatically, and his attorneys proved that he was eligible for asylum.

In addition to prevailing on this extremely challenging case, Ropes & Gray accepted a dozen new asylum cases in 2010.  Lauren Macioce, a Ropes & Gray attorney who spent four months working as a full-time member of Immigration Equality's legal team, provides invaluable mentoring to her colleagues at the firm.

Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP

Skadden won asylum for 16 Immigration Equality clients in 2010.  Among these many victories, four cases stand out.  Ari Selman and Nizan Geslevich Packin represented a gay man from Jamaica who was so fearful of his hearing that he became ill and eventually stopped returning his attorneys' calls.  Ari and Nizan first sent chicken soup, then showed up on his doorstep in person two days before the hearing to persuade him not to withdraw.  The next day, they took him to the movies to help him relax.  The client appeared at his hearing and won asylum in June.  

Skadden demonstrated its commitment to asylum seekers in a case it took on administrative appeal for a gay Uzbeki man detained in Texas.  After winning the appeal, attorney Michael Buchwald continued to represent the man at his new hearing, even though he was detained five hours away from Skadden's closest office in Houston.  They won, and though the government intends to appeal, the client has finally been released from detention.  

Lastly, attorneys Doug Dunham and Kristina Kallas did a masterful job representing both halves of a couple who fled the Former Soviet Union together.  The couple, both talented professionals, was severely beaten – one of them by skinheads, the other by government agents in Uzbekistan, where homosexuality is a crime.  When they lived together in Russia, they told people they were cousins. The greatest challenge in helping both men was that while they faced adversity together and fled to the United States together, they were not recognized as a family and had to file separate asylum petitions, unlike a straight couple. Doug and Kristina did a masterful job representing them both; the couple celebrated their anniversary with their attorneys while preparing for their hearings.  They were granted asylum at the end of the year.

For more information on Immigration Equality's asylum program, visit

Immigration Equality is a national organization that works to end discrimination in U.S. immigration law, to reduce the negative impact of that law on the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and HIV-positive people, and to help obtain asylum for those persecuted in their home country based on their sexual orientation, transgender identity or HIV-status. Through education, outreach, advocacy, and the maintenance of a nationwide network of resources, we provide information and support to advocates, attorneys, politicians and those who are threatened by persecution or the discriminatory impact of the law.

SOURCE Immigration Equality