Jan. 29, 2020 - Threatened by the prospects of forced marriage, domestic violence and even death, Anne, a 24-year-old woman from an African country, sought help to stay in the U.S. after family members interfered with her studies and safety.
After a nearly two-year effort, University of Houston Law Center alumni Michael Gray ‘05 and Barbara Light ‘18 secured asylum for Anne, paving the way for a new life in the United States.
“It’s great,” Anne said. “It is a relief. It’s like I have a second chance to live, and they really helped. Without them, I don’t know what my life would be.”
It was the first asylum case for Gray, a patent litigation lawyer at Shook Hardy & Bacon LLP’s Houston office, and Light, who has since taken a job at BoyarMiller.
“The stakes were much bigger here. It’s not just two corporations fighting and somebody cuts a check at the end of the day,” Gray said. “The fact that her life was really at risk was an order of magnitude different than anything else I’ve ever done.”
“It felt like a very important thing to be working on,” Light added. “I’m used to working on cases with thousands of plaintiffs and a lot of co-defendants and there’s hundreds of lawyers involved, and here it was one client, an individual, not a company, and then there was a small team of us working on this day in, day out.”
After the death of Anne’s father, who attended school in New York and held progressive views compared to other compatriots, Anne became determined to leave her homeland.
Customs of some African social groups dictate that a widow marry the brother of her late husband, which meant Anne’s uncle became her stepfather. Her uncle insisted that she enter a forced marriage. Anne instead chose to follow the wishes of her late father – to gain an education in the U.S. before marriage.
Eventually Anne’s uncle refused to fund her education. Anne was referred to YMCA International Services, an organization that assists immigrants with legal processes. Through Shook Hardy’s pro bono outreach efforts in Houston, Gray heard about Anne’s situation and recruited Light to assist.
“I’ve done a lot of other pro bono cases, but I’ve never had one where I literally felt like this person’s life was at risk,” Gray said. “I really felt that if she lost and had to go back, her family probably was going to kill her out of revenge, and to make an example out of her to make sure that no other women stood up for themselves.”
“Being able to give her a shot at having a normal life, which is an exceptional life for her, was a really meaningful thing to be a part of,” Light said. “To give her that opportunity to live a life that I probably took for granted, honestly.”
Difficulties in the case reflect the larger struggle of gaining asylum in the U.S. In addition to language barriers and cultural differences, ever-changing laws typically make acquiring asylum a lengthy, arduous process.
“You have a massive need and not enough lawyers to go around,” Gray said. “You have people not even knowing where to go for help. It’s not as simple as putting someone in a chair and saying, ‘Tell me your story.’
“They might be terrified. There may be the cultural barriers of not knowing what’s relevant or unusual. They’re probably not in a place where they’re willing to trust people, even if you’re their lawyer. Lawyers should know it’s going to take a little bit more time and effort to let these clients know that they can trust you, and they can tell you their story.”
Anne was granted asylum on Aug. 2, 2019, earning permission to remain in the U.S. and the chance to live an independent life free of violence.
“It changed everything,” Anne said. “I feel free. I’m on a way to finding new friends. Before I was granted asylum, I didn’t talk to anybody. It was just myself and my brother and a small community, but now I’m going out, meeting new people.”
The day of the decision saw a packed courtroom and high emotions, as winning the case had been a two-year endeavor with an extended legal team.
“The day I was granted asylum, Michael cried,” Anne said. “Barbara was super happy too. Everybody was happy that day.”
Gray and Light felt having Anne as a client changed them as people and attorneys while contributing to their understanding of asylum seekers.
“Every person’s story and case is different,” Gray said. “So when you’re looking at a new case, you have to learn your clients’ background and figure out what their story is, where they’re coming from. There are a lot of people out there, who are honest, decent people, who just want a shot.”
“It really showed me the value of our degree and our license to practice law that we can really impact people’s lives,” Light added. “As a person, it showed me so many different things. I lost so much sleep over this thinking about how important this case was and how there are so many times that I’ve been stressed over different things, but couldn’t imagine what she’s been through.”
The connection Anne formed with Gray and Light, despite her initial apprehension, led to a relationship beyond the scope of the case.
“Everybody learned together,” Anne said. “I was their first asylum case and they were my first lawyers. They believe in me, and they want to help their community too.”
Anne can apply for permanent residency in 2020, and if granted will eventually become eligible for citizenship a few years later. Gray is committed to helping her through every step of the process.
“We worked so hard for this. I don’t want it to fall apart,” Gray said. “I’m not turning loose on this yet.”
Editor’s note – Anne is a pseudonym for Gray and Light’s client. In addition to pro bono efforts by alumni, the University of Houston Law Center Immigration Clinic has helped thousands of immigrants and trains hundreds of students to enter careers as immigration attorneys.
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