By the time he was 14, José had experienced a lifetime of hardship. He had been targeted by criminals in his native Guatemala and witnessed friends being shot. As an indigenous Quiché, José was also a member of a population that has historically been mistreated in his homeland. He knew he would never be safe if he stayed there.
He escaped alone one day, three years ago, ultimately crossing the border into San Antonio, Texas. Once there, José immediately became subject to a grueling deportation process. He managed to make his way to New York, where his urgent case made its way to the Legal Aid Society. Realizing that José’s case would move quickly and be very time intensive, Legal Aid enlisted Sidley to handle his complicated application.
“He really had a tough story to tell,” recalls Rob Auray, an M&A and private equity associate in Sidley’s New York office, who responded to a firmwide call seeking lawyers who were interested in helping with the pro bono case. Auray, together with associates Steve Ahn and Andrew Dwyer, also of the M&A and Private Equity practices, and Elvis Soriano, a paralegal who, among other things, helped with translation, met José numerous times to learn about his life and put together a carefully tailored application for asylum.
Auray recalls the occasions José visited Sidley’s New York office in preparation for assembling the case’s paperwork. “He’d come to the 23rd floor, and it’s an impressive setting for a young teenager. He’d be wearing a Pokémon backpack, with all his legal documents in it. He had two friends who would come with him to all the meetings and wait in the lobby, just basically for emotional support. We’d ask, ‘Do you want anything to drink?’ and he’d say ‘No, but if you could please bring something for my friends, that would be great.’ He’s just a selfless, really kind-hearted kid, and we saw that more and more throughout the process,” Auray said.
Ahn, who grew up in Texas and speaks fluent Spanish, communicated often with José by text message. Juggling being a full-time high school student while working to financially support himself on his own, José found it difficult to schedule times to meet in person. “Before I met him for the first time, I had an expectation of how a teenager is going to act. But for a kid who was 17, he was much more mature than his peers. I could tell he’d seen a lot—experienced a lot emotionally,” Ahn said.
Dwyer agreed: “Working with José was extremely rewarding. Over time, the team gained his trust, but from the outset it was evident that he is a thoughtful and intelligent young man.”
The lawyers, with the help of Margaret Garrett, an attorney from Legal Aid, rushed to cull together the components of José’s application, which painstakingly constructed his history, including that he had been targeted by criminals and that he arrived as an unaccompanied minor. They also prepared a detailed legal brief that laid out all of the particular social groups that made José eligible for asylum. Auray, Ahn, Dwyer and Soriano, documents in hand, then accompanied José for a long interview with an asylum officer, in which he was required to detail all the suffering he had experienced in Guatemala. José advocated fiercely for himself in the interview. At the close of the proceedings, they were told they’d hear word about whether he had been granted asylum within two to three weeks.
When those weeks stretched into months, everyone grew tense. But an elated Garrett finally called to say José’s application for asylum had been granted. “When he came to my office and I handed him his work permit, he just couldn’t stop looking at it. Throughout the process, he had spent many hours reliving the trauma he experienced and was often visibly upset. He was staring at that card and grinning and laughing, overcome with joy. I will never forget that moment. It was magic,” Garrett said.
To learn more about Sidley’s pro bono efforts in 2017, click here.
From left to right: Elvis Soriano, paralegal; associates Steve Ahn and Rob Auray; José; Margaret Garrett, immigration attorney, The Legal Aid Society; and associate Andrew Dwyer.