Former Corporate Litigator Now Aids ‘Most Vulnerable’ Clients
New York Lawyer
January 6, 2006
By Thomas Adcock
New York Law Journal
He was born into modern-day slavery in the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal in 1971.
From her windowless office in Manhattan, a young American lawyer is helping him scale the final obstacle in a long struggle for freedom — for his people, his family and himself.
Attorney Jennifer H. Kim, director of the New York City Bar Association’s Refugee Assistance Program, asks for reasons of her client’s physical survival that he be known here simply as Mr. C. She writes in her case file:
Mr. C was a human rights activist in Nepal. He is a Tharu, a low caste indigenous people who were the victims of a . . . system akin to slavery. Until recently, [they] were forced to work without wages for over 18 hours a day in return for food and shelter.
Mr. C helped to found an NGO that fought against poverty, bonded labor and the exploitation of the Tharu people. . . . [H]e was targeted by Maoists and landlords alike . . . beaten more than 50 times . . . arrested and detained for his work.
After aiding the cause of abolishing the Nepalese slavery system known as Kamaiya in 2002, Mr. C made his way to New York. Details of his departure from war-scarred Nepal must remain secret. In May 2004, he went before U.S. Immigration Court Judge Barbara A. Nelson.
Judge Nelson found his tale of persecution, torture and brutal jailings credible. But in accordance with regulations set by the Department of Homeland Security, she denied Mr. C’s application for political asylum. Specifically, he had not established “extraordinary” or “changed” circumstances that would excuse his failure to claim asylum within one year of arriving in the United States.
Alternatively, Judge Nelson granted withholding of removal, allowing Mr. C to remain in the country in legal limbo. Of more personal importance, Mr. C was unable to reunite with his wife and two children, who remain in Nepal. The impoverished Mr. C, who speaks only the Nepalese language of Gurkhali, had volunteer counsel at the hearing. But his attorney subsequently left New York.
Enter Ms. Kim, 32, who joined the city bar only two years ago after four years as a corporate litigation associate at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett — where she first got a taste of asylum practice through pro bono projects. Last April, she filed on behalf of Mr. C before the Board of Immigration Appeals.
Upon arrival in the United States, according to Ms. Kim’s appellate filing, Mr. C’s several enemies in Nepal threatened the lives of his family. The deadlines and niceties of the U.S. legal system were the furthest thing from his mind.
Further, said Ms. Kim in an interview, “We made it abundantly clear that going back to Nepal was not an option. They were not about to forget him.”
There is, Ms. Kim explained, an entirely different brand of worry attached to asylum law, as opposed to representing powerful corporations.
The pro bono attorneys on whom she relies for the bulk of her program’s average caseload of 70 clients “tell me they’ve never been so stressed as when they do this asylum work,” she said. “At the firm, what keeps them awake at night is being yelled at by a partner. The only penalties the clients face are financial.”
Ms. Kim now lives with the possibility of greater penalty applied to a profoundly less powerful clientele.
On Dec. 14, an envelope from the Board of Immigration Appeals was delivered to Ms. Kim’s office at the city bar — small quarters populated by Martin York, program coordinator for the Refugee Assistance Program, and herself as sole staff lawyer.
As she opened the envelope, Ms. Kim said, the dread thought of a hard phone call pounded in her head.
“Asylees are often the most vulnerable clients, and have the most compelling stories,” she said. “They face cultural, social and linguistic dislocation. There is so much trauma, so much tragedy.”
But Ms. Kim was gratified to learn that her appeal essentially succeeded — pending one last hurdle: a final background check by the Department of Homeland Security before Judge Nelson may choose to issue a grant of political asylum.
A phone call to Mr. C was quickly made, with the assistance of a local Gurkhali speaker.
“I could tell from the tone of his voice that Mr. C was relieved and surprised and very, very grateful,” said Ms. Kim. “This is why we become lawyers.”