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Thelen Reid Celebrates Success in 15 Year-Old Asylum Case

Thursday, October 23, 2003

  • Organization: Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights
  • Source: National > Asylum Law

Pro Bono Team Saves a Life

Miranda Petrillo and Michael Hughes, associates at Thelen, Reid & Priest, LLP, had good reason to celebrate this past summer. So did their client Rene, a political refugee who fled his native El Salvador in 1981 after a government death squad raided his family home, terrorized its occupants and killed a friend whom they had mistaken for Rene.

After 15 years of advocacy, the Thelen team -- with assistance from many colleagues over the years (see insert) as well as wise counsel from mentor Zachary Nightingale of Van Der Hout, Brigagliano & Nightingale, LLP -- successfully closed the books on this pro bono asylum case allowing Rene to stay in the US.

Miranda, a former high school teacher who worked full-time at Lexis-Nexis while going to law school, joined Thelen in September 2000 and was assigned Rene's case the following month! "I was able to spend the time a partner cannot afford to, and get a feeling of what being a criminal defense attorney is like. The asylum client looks at you like you are their savior and you feel like their life is in your hands," said Miranda.

Miranda soon reached out to her colleagues for assistance: "I knew early on that I was going to need help and I made the right choice in asking Michael Hughes," she said. Michael, a second-year labor and employment associate and a graduate of Harvard and Duke University School of Law, estimated that he put in at least 200 hours on the case over the last year. "The most difficult part," he said, "was figuring out its history -- there were 10 red wells full of materials and over 1,000 pages in the government files."

"Zach, our mentor attorney, was a tremendous help," Mike continued. "He was very generous with his time, reading all our briefs and providing thoughtful and well-written e-mail answers directing us to key cases."

The case survived many starts and stops since its inception in 1988 including an appeal to the Ninth Circuit after it reversed an earlier Board of Immigration Affairs finding, followed by the BIA' "loss" of Rene's case file for over six years, and over one year of detention for Rene in a Nevada jail that culminated with a lengthy evidentiary hearing in June of this year.

Considering the circumstances surrounding his earlier marijuana conviction, as well as the many positive changes in Rene's life over the past decade, the judge denied asylum but granted permanent withholding of deportation. The judge expressly commented on the record about the exceptional pro bono services rendered by the Thelen attorneys.

Thelen, Reid & Priest was extremely supportive throughout the case, emphasized Miranda. "They provided 100% of the resources we needed to do the job, including flying the translator Sergio Almaguer and I down to Los Angeles on more than one occasion to interview witnesses."

She added that the firm counted the attorneys' work on the case as billable time, and took care of Rene's family as if they were paying clients. "This expression of support was very heartening to the family as they were utilizing all of their limited resources to help Rene, including maxing out credit card advances," she said.

Today Rene has a work authorization card, lives with his mother, and is very active in his church. He looks forward to someday having a family of his own.

"When I was in college I was very strongly against the U.S. policy toward El Salvador," said Miranda. "My experience on this case made me feel good about being a lawyer in America -- that we could provide a safe harbor for Rene. As the firm's Chairman Tom Igoe said when he came to my office to personally congratulate me: 'This is one of those successes that the firm can be most proud of!'"

Mike agreed. "Arguing the case in court was rewarding," he explained. "Younger associates don't often get to represent an individual client, or present opening arguments. I remember my wake-up call -- when I was thanked in person by Rene's 80-year old mother -- and realized that we weren't just doing something for our client, but for the whole family."

"In fact," Mike continued, "Immigration law has become tighter in recent years, more draconian, representing a need in sharp volunteer attorneys to handle these cases and set precedent now."

"What a wonderful victory and well-deserved vindication," exalted Robert Rubin, Lawyers' Committee Interim Executive Director. "The tenacity of the lawyering is a marvel and we are extraordinarily proud of our incredibly hard-working volunteers. They have saved a life!"

Thelen Reid Team

Michael and Miranda received some outstanding help along the way.

-- Justin Suhr in Los Angeles and Bill Butler in San Francisco both researched the criminal conviction to determine if there was a defect that could be challenged.

-- Bethani Jackson, a summer associate at Thelen in 2000, provided a substantial amount of legal research.

-- Sergio Almaguer has gone the extra mile over the years as the team's translator and, in his absence, Carlos Vazquez and Lucy Gerace pitched in very ably.

-- Teresa Kim in the San Francisco Library did a substantial amount of research regarding current conditions in El Salvador.

-- Thelen's Legal Support Team spent many hours transcribing witness testimony from prior hearings and interviews.

-- Phyllis Roehr and Marianne Vega in Los Angeles provided exceptional service when Rene's family and witnesses had to appear in that office.

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