NEW YORK (May 27, 2009) — McDermott Will & Emery LLP was one of five law firms to receive the annual "Safe Haven Award" from Immigration Equality, a national organization that works to advance equality under U.S. immigration law for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) and HIV-positive individuals. The Award was presented by Immigration Equality at a special Presentation Gala held May 19, 2009 in New York City, the location of the organization's national headquarters.
The Safe Haven Award specifically recognizes McDermott's work on a case in 2008 to secure asylum for a gay man from Uzbekistan. The client faced the prospect of horrific discrimination, torture and even death in his home country because of his sexual orientation. He faced a forced return to Uzbekistan after residing in the United States for seven years, when his student visa expired. A team of McDermott lawyers led by a current member of the Trial Department in the Firm's New York City office, partner Lisa A. Linsky, worked on the case for 14 months and successfully overcame numerous obstacles to secure a rare reversal of the original government decision to deny asylum by trying the case in U.S. Immigration Court.
McDermott's Safe Haven Award also recognized the Firm's overall excellence in securing asylum in the United States during 2008 for two other clients who otherwise faced violence or imprisonment in their home countries because of their sexual orientation, or HIV status: a 22-year old, HIV-positive gay man from Russia, and a gay and HIV-positive Jamaican man. McDermott undertook all three cases on a pro bono basis after referral of the cases by Immigration Equality. The Firm continues its commitment to its pro bono program and the broader LGBT Community by working on several new cases in 2009.
"We are proud of our recognition from Immigration Equality, not only because of our Firm's strong commitment to pro bono service, but also because of McDermott's outstanding record as a leader for equality for all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender expression and identity," Linsky stated. Linsky is the Firm's first partner-in-charge of Firm-Wide Diversity, and she created and chairs the Firm-wide Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Diversity Committee. She also serves on the Firm's Pro Bono and Community Service Committee.
"We are committed to our Immigration Equality clients for the long haul," Linsky added. "In each case, McDermott has pledged to represent each pro bono asylum client until all appeals and avenues of relief are exhausted. We believe in our clients and we believe in this work, and are pleased to celebrate our partnership with Immigration Equality."
McDermott's success in representing its Uzbek client is particularly noteworthy because of the urgency for securing asylum, as well as because of the legal and procedural difficulties that the Firm overcame. Uzbekistan is a conservative country in which homosexuality is punishable by imprisonment, and gay men and lesbians, as well as their families, risk harassment, discrimination, blackmail and physical attacks, including rape and murder, by civilians and members of the government.
Because of the conditions gay men in particular face in Uzbekistan, the Firm's client did not disclose his sexual orientation until he came to the United States in 2001. Prior to his arrival in the United States, the client had survived a brutal attack by a group of men who suspected that the client was gay. That attack went unpunished in the client’s home country, as is often the case, for gay individuals who are not afforded police protection. The client was severely injured during the attack and later hospitalized.
When financial difficulties forced the client to discontinue his schooling in the United States, he lost his student status and faced having to return to Uzbekistan, where his family had been subjected to ongoing violence and harassment. To remain in the United States, the client sought assistance from Immigration Equality who referred the case to McDermott. The Firm, in turn, filed for asylum and vigorously pursued the matter.
The Firm's pro bono team assembled and filed the asylum application, with extensive supporting documentation, but, notwithstanding a compelling application and lengthy interview of the client by the Asylum Officer of the Department of Homeland Security, the client was initially denied asylum. It was later learned that the Asylum Officer had failed to consider critical documentation establishing that the client was legally in the United States on a student visa between 2002 and 2006. After a thorough investigation, the Firm's lawyers secured agreement from the federal government's attorneys not to pursue the filing technicality on which the Asylum Officer had based the initial denial of asylum. The case proceeded to trial before an Immigration Judge, where the trial team presented testimony from an expert witness who had studied conditions for gays in Uzbekistan. The McDermott trial team also presented additional country conditions materials and an exhaustive legal brief in support of the client's application for asylum. After hearing testimony from the client, his brother, and the expert witness, the Immigration Judge granted asylum.
In another 2008 case referred from Immigration Equality, McDermott obtained asylum for a 22-year-old homosexual Russian national, who twice suffered abuse at the hands of Russian police officers and was threatened with blackmail and sexual abuse. Shortly after arriving in the United States, the man was diagnosed as HIV-positive, which heightened his fear of being forced to return to Russia. Just 10 days before the one-year deadline for filing for asylum was set to expire, McDermott quickly assembled the necessary documents, found expert witnesses and supporting documentation, and drafted the supporting brief and affidavits. As a result of McDermott's efforts, asylum was granted only two weeks after the asylum interview.
McDermott's third 2008 success working with Immigration Equity was in securing asylum for a Jamaican national, who had been routinely persecuted in his home country for his sexual orientation and status as an HIV-positive male. After a beating in 2007 he fled Jamaica and arrived in New York City, Immigration Equality referred the case to McDermott. For 10 months the Firm's pro bono team conducted detailed research on the abhorrent treatment of homosexuals in Jamaica and drafted numerous affidavits detailing the client's past struggles and likely dangers if he were forced to return to his home country. Two weeks after his interview with the Department of Homeland Security official in 2008, the client was informed that his asylum application had been granted.
"McDermott lawyers devote more than 90,000 hours each year to providing pro bono legal services to those who otherwise would not be able to afford them," Linsky added. "Working with Immigration Equality is part of that effort. This also reflects the Firm's 100 percent rating from the Human Rights Campaign, recognizing our commitment to workplace equality and inclusion for LGBT individuals. Our efforts, in conjunction with those of Immigration Equality, have validated fundamental principles of law and human rights for all people."
McDermott Will & Emery is a premier international law firm with a diversified business practice. Numbering more than 1,100 lawyers, the firm has offices in Boston, Brussels, Chicago, Düsseldorf, Houston, London, Los Angeles, Miami, Milan, Munich, New York, Orange County, Rome, San Diego, Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C. and also has a strategic alliance with MWE China Law Offices in Shanghai.