NLJ Features Akin Gump Lawyers, Pro Bono Program for Asylum Seekers in Texas

For its feature article “Adult Asylum-Seekers Need Lawyers, Too,” The National Law Journal profiled the work of Akin Gump first-year associate Lauren Connell, whom the firm seconded to its San Antonio office to work full time with undocumented Central American women and children seeking asylum and being held at the Department of Homeland Security’s Karnes City, Texas, detention center.

In late August, Akin Gump formed the Karnes City Immigrant Family Pro Bono Project with representatives from the University of Texas Law School Immigration Clinic, the Tahirih Justice Center in Houston, the American Immigration Lawyers Association in Austin and Human Rights First in Houston.

Connell is working at the Karnes City Residential Center, which holds 170 to 200 female detainees in various early stages of the asylum process who face deportation.  She is quarterbacking the firm’s participation in the project, working with more than 20 Akin Gump attorneys to coordinate legal assistance for these women and their children.

The article recounts a story Connell heard from one of her clients, a Salvadoran single mother. Gang members had threatened her and said they would take her son. Soon thereafter, men grabbed her son, gang-raped her and broke her arm.  Although eventually reunited with her son, she had to hide in her house for three months before deciding to flee to the United States. Connell commented on the fast pace and urgency of the work: "No matter how hectic it is, the need is so great. We're really the only barrier to something happening to them."

Steven Schulman, Akin Gump’s pro bono partner, is on the project’s advisory committee.  He noted that many of the women whom the firm is assisting are victims of abuse and sexual assault seeking asylum as a way to escape from the violence they face in their home countries.  He added that the brevity of the asylum screening interview, done via a translator, means that many women can’t express their fears well enough by interview’s end, saying, “That's why we were called in, [to] see whether we could get lawyers down there to throw sand into the gears. We weren't trying to break a system, but we were trying to slow it down.”