Our human rights and refugee practice focuses on helping individuals fleeing persecution, immigrant women suffering from domestic violence or other abuses and victims of human rights abuses seeking justice in U.S. courts.
From its founding, people of all ages, races, religions, ideologies and orientations have come to the United States for a chance to lead a peaceful and successful life. Some of them come here in response to life-threatening conditions in their home country. However, the challenges for new immigrants dealing with the laws and regulations of resettlement have always been considerable, all the more so for those whose immigration status is uncertain as they request asylum or protection under the Violence Against Women Act.
In every U.S. Akin Gump office, our lawyers represent clients seeking asylum in the United States. Asylum applications are adjudicated by the USCIS Asylum Office and/or the immigration courts. In either forum, access to a lawyer is key to getting a fair hearing: according to a study by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, asylum seekers represented by an attorney are 12 times more likely to be granted asylum than those without attorney representation. However, most asylum seekers cannot afford to pay for a lawyer. This is where large law firms such as Akin Gump, working closely with legal services organizations, fill a critical need.
Akin Gump attorneys represent individual clients fleeing persecution on account of a range of grounds, including their religion, politics, ethnicity, scholarship and sexual orientation.
Akin Gump has also taken the lead in working to address the immigration challenges of women fleeing domestic abuse and gender-based oppression in their home country, women who enter the United States in arranged marriages only to face physical or emotional abuse and women who are smuggled into this country to be forced into servitude and commercial sex work.
We work closely with legal services and advocacy organizations to ensure that women and children can start safe and productive lives in the United States. For example, in every office, we work with local human rights organizations as part of our annual firmwide Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) Summer Project. Since 2007, nearly every Akin Gump summer associate, supervised by Akin Gump lawyers, has represented undocumented women who have been victims of domestic violence and need to “self-petition” for legal residency in the United States. Through this program, more than hundreds of women have secured permanent residency in the U.S. for themselves and their children.
The work of the human rights and refugee practice also extends to seeking redress for human rights abuses by foreign leaders through litigation in U.S. courts.
In one case, Yousuf v. Samantar, Akin Gump, in partnership with The Center for Justice & Accountability, represented four Somali nationals against Ali Samantar, the former defense minister of Somalia, who had been residing in the United States for 15 years. After Akin Gump lawyers persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court to remove a statutory immunity shield for foreign officials sued in U.S. courts in cases alleging their involvement in human rights abuses abroad, we convinced the U.S. State Department and the U.S. District Court to deny Samantar any other immunities. On the day the jury trial was to begin, Samantar, instead, admitted his liability for war crimes, crimes against humanity, torture and extrajudicial killing committed against our clients and their families in the 1980s.
In a more recent case, Mamani et al. v. Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín, Akin Gump--in partnership with the Center for Constitutional Rights and Harvard Law School's International Human Rights Clinic-- represents eight Bolivian families in a groundbreaking human rights litigation against the former President and Defense Minister of Bolivia. The case alleges that the Defendants planned and carried out attacks on civilians that left over 50 people dead in 2003, including family members of our clients. The attacks occurred during what Bolivians refer to as the “Gas War,” a government effort to suppress opposition to a controversial economic policy. The multi-week jury trial in the Southern District of Florida marked the first time in U.S. history that a former head of state sat before his accusers in a U.S. human rights trial. The jury found the Defendants responsible for extrajudicial killings carried out by the Bolivian military and awarded $10 million in compensatory damages. However, the judge took the extraordinary step of overturning the jury verdict. The matter is currently on appeal to the Eleventh Circuit.