Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson



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Fried, Frank (60)


If there is any doubt that asylum-seekers in the United States face a burdensome legal path to a green card, consider the case of Ashbir, a Somali man who spent a year in detention in Texas before his lawyers at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson finally won his release.

The Am Law Pro Bono 100Ashbir, who asked that we withhold his last name, was born in Kismayo, Somalia, into the minority Ashraf clan. In 1991, when he was 11 years old, rebels from the United Somali Congress came to his town, intent on driving out minority clan members and confiscating their land and property. A truckload of the rebels came to his house. When his younger brother tried to flee, the rebels clubbed him and then drove over his head with their truck, killing him. Ashbir, meanwhile, was beaten and cut with a hot knife and left for dead. After recovering with a neighbor's family, he escaped to a refugee camp in Kenya, where the tribal violence continued. In 2007 he made his way to South America, and then up through Mexico. On March 4, 2008, he arrived at the Mexican-American border at Hidalgo, Texas, in a taxi. He approached a customs official and asked for asylum, as he had been told to do. He was detained and taken to a customs detention center in San Antonio. He had no identification or documents, only his story. He didn't speak English.

In May the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project (ProBAR), recommended Ashbir's case to Jennifer Colyer and Karen Grisez, Fried Frank lawyers who run the firm's pro bono program. Grisez, who travels to Texas every summer with a handful of associates to work on asylum cases, supervised the associates as they tried to piece together Ashbir's past. They hired a private interpreter and found an expert witness to testify on Somalia's clan structure. But they still had no documents or witnesses to testify that Ashbir's horrific story was true. Then they got a lucky break. While in detention, Ashbir befriended another Somali man, who was soon released. The man traveled to Minneapolis, where there is a large Somali population. He went to a market where large numbers of Somalis gather. Asking around, he found a woman who knew Ashbir's family, and who was able to testify at a mid-summer hearing by telephone. But it wasn't enough to convince skeptical immigration officials.

Ashbir appeared before immigration judge Howard Achtsam on July 16, and again on September 4. The Department of Homeland Security presented no witnesses, made no opening or closing arguments. The DHS case was limited to cross-examining Ashbir. At the end of September, Judge Achtsam denied Ashbir's asylum request. Ashbir's testimony was credible, Achtsam said, but Ashbir hadn't proved that he had been attacked because of his tribal allegiance.

At this point, Grisez says, Ashbir had to decide whether to appeal the decision. The Fried Frank lawyers thought he had ample grounds for appeal, but it would mean more time in detention. There was a certain irony to the decision. Grisez says that if Ashbir had not appealed, he likely would have been released. Somalia is in such turmoil that the United States has no way to extradite its citizens. But that would have meant that he could be deported at any time, and Ashbir didn't want that possibility hanging over his head.

The Fried Frank lawyers filed an appeal on Christmas Eve of last year. On March 27, 2009, more than a year after he was first sent to the detention center, and after Fried Frank lawyers had logged nearly 1,000 hours on his case, a three-judge panel granted Ashbir's asylum request. Ashbir now lives in Amarillo, Texas, where he is enrolled in community college.

Grisez can't imagine an immigrant like Ashbir navigating this minefield on his own. "The idea that this young man could write a brief or deal with new arguments to support invented theories is absurd," she says.

—Ben Hallman | July 1, 2009

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