Q&A: Nixon Lawyer Wins Asylum for Salvadoran Teen Tormented by Gangs

Over the past three years, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, more than 52,000 unaccompanied minors have been caught trying to enter this country illegally. In many instances, those apprehended are sent back to the country they fled. This year, Los Angeles–based Nixon Peabody associate Kelly Kress helped one such child win asylum.

In the spring of 2009, Kress—who works in Nixon's white-collar defense and government investigations group—took on a pro bono case representing an undocumented teenage immigrant from El Salvador. (The firm frequently takes such cases and is currently representing 28 so-called unacccompanied alien children facing the prospect of deportation.)
Kress's client, whom she identifies only as John, was 14 when he fled his Central American homeland alone in 2008 to escape regular beatings by gang members angry over his father's antigang activities. Her work paid off in September when immigration officials granted John asylum. The Am Law Daily spoke with Kress recently about how she came to take the case, what her teenage client endured on his way to making a new home in the United States, and what was involved in helping him stay here.

How did you come to meet John and become involved in his case?
I became involved through KIND (Kids in Need of Defense), an organization spearheaded by Angelina Jolie and Microsoft that partners with law firms to provide [pro bono] legal counsel to unaccompanied immigrant children in the U.S. I attended a KIND presentation in 2009 and was blown away by the plight of these children. Some are abandoned by their parents. Some are victims of abuse. I attended KIND training and was assigned a case in the spring of 2009.

How dangerous was John's situation in El Salvador?
His father had to flee the country after leading a revolt against gang shakedowns in the family's San Salvador neighborhood. Gang members would wait for John after school and ask him where his father was. They used my client as a way to get back at his father and force him out of hiding. John would be beaten on the way home from school, and his teachers and the police refused to help him. He stopped going to school, but the gangs would come to his mother's house. He would hide on the roof.

How did he find his way from San Salvador to a U.S. courtroom?
First, he went to stay with extended family in another part of El Salvador, but the gangs tracked him down. He fled again. This time he traveled with other young people who were headed north. He crossed the border in Texas and was immediately apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol. He was taken into custody and placed in a detention facility.

What were your first tasks in working to keep him in the U.S.?
My initial task was to investigate his background and file Freedom of Information Act requests. I needed to know what was in his government file. I needed to know every statement he made to government officials beginning with the Border Patrol agent who first detained him. From the beginning, he informed the Border Patrol that he was afraid to be sent back to his home country because a gang was persecuting him. There were status hearings before the immigration court, and we had to file an application in support of an asylum request. And, most importantly, there was an interview in August 2010 with an asylum officer during which John was [essentially] cross-examined [about his story].

Did the violence he faced at home make it an easy case to argue?
Gang persecution is not alone a basis for asylum. The standard categories for asylum seekers involve persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, and social group. We interviewed John's father, who spoke about the specific gang-initiated persecution the family had faced over the years. One uncle was shot seven times during an encounter with gang members. We interviewed experts knowledgeable about gangs in Central America. Our defense to the government’s efforts to remove John from the U.S. was that he should be granted asylum because of the persecution he would face if forced to return to his home country.
Is John excited at his prospects for a new life in the U.S.?
He is a pretty shy kid, but he bonded with a number of people at the firm, including a paralegal who served as the interpreter during my meetings with him. Asylum provides the opportunity for legal permanent status, but the asylum grantee has to wait a year to begin that process. He is very interested in art. He is a very sensitive and sweet kid, and I think that would be a wonderful career for him.(amlawdaily.typepad.com)
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