June 2011 Volunteer Feature: Attorneys from Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP Successfully Reopen 14-Year Old Removal Order for Clients
HIV Law Project recognizes Weil, Gotshal & Manges, LLP for their zealous representation of marginalized immigrants living with HIV/AIDS who are threatened with deportation. A team of dedicated attorneys recently obtained rescission of a nearly 14-year old removal order so that two West African immigrants living with HIV/AIDS could pursue asylum. The extraordinary Weil team includes partner Adam Hemlock and associates Michael Firestone, Matthew Howatt, and Melanie Conroy.
Mr. and Mrs. K are from The Gambia, a nation known for its leader's vocal hostility towards people living with HIV/AIDS. In 1996, the Ks missed an immigration hearing because of health complications requiring extensive treatment, and were ordered removed in absentia. Since then, the Ks have raised 7 healthy US-born children who are not HIV positive, but have been unable to access necessary benefits and medical care for themselves because of the removal order. In 2006, the Ks sought reopening of their removal proceedings, citing Mrs. K's experience of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and their fear that their healthy US-born daughters would be forced to undergo the procedure if they returned to The Gambia. They did not, however, reveal their HIV status or their reason for missing the hearing to the lawyer who filed the motion, out of fear that the stigma of HIV would cause their attorney to withdraw and that their HIV status would be revealed to others in their community. The motion was denied by the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), which reasoned that past FGM could not form the basis of an asylum claim and that in any case, the Ks had failed to prove that exceptional circumstances caused them to miss their 1996 removal hearing.
In 2008, new case law holding that FGM represents ongoing persecution prompted HIV Law Project to take another look at the case. Armed with new precedent and medical records establishing the severity of Mr. K's health problems at the time of their hearing, the a pro bono team from Weil jumped at the opportunity to prepare a new Motion to Reopen and obtain asylum for the couple.
Over the course of more than a year, the Weil team interviewed the clients using interpreters (the Ks' best language is Soninke, which is an oral, not written language), toiled over the clients' old immigration files, prepared medical evidence and sworn testimony to explain their absence from the hearing, and drafted an extensive application for asylum to demonstrate their eligibility for relief. With guidance from Cristina Velez, the Supervising Attorney of Immigration at HIV Law Project, Weil drafted a persuasive Motion to Reopen and obtained the extraordinary - a statement of non-opposition from the Chief Counsel of Immigration & Customs Enforcement. On March 7, 2011, the BIA granted the Weil team's Motion to Reopen and remanded the Ks' proceedings for a new hearing. After more than 14 years of waiting, struggling with illness and poverty, and raising their growing family with the ever-present fear of deportation hanging over them, the Ks finally have the opportunity to present their bona fide application for asylum.
The Weil team will surely bring their exceptional dedication and work product to bear on the Immigration Court. HIV Law Project is extremely grateful for volunteer lawyers like the Weil team, who are dedicated to obtaining justice for immigrants living with HIV/AIDS.
HIV Law Project is the only free standing legal office that provides legal advocacy on behalf of low-income New Yorkers living with HIV/AIDS. HIV Law Project believes that all people deserve the same rights, including the right to live with dignity and respect, the right to be treated as equal members of society, and the right to have their basic human needs fulfilled. These fundamental rights are elusive for many people living with HIV/AIDS. Through innovative legal services and advocacy programs, HIV Law Project fights for the rights of the most underserved people living with HIV/AIDS.