My name is Neil Thomson and I’m an associate with White and Williams LLP in New York City practicing commercial litigation. I have previously practiced in Melbourne, Australia and in Bermuda. I’ve been involved in pro bono work since the beginning of my legal studies, including with organizations as diverse as Lawyers for Animals, the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, and a homeless persons’ legal clinic.
Which leads me to my most recent pro bono endeavor: representing through the Immigration Justice Campaign an asylum seeker in US Immigration Court along with my colleague Jeremy Miller, a corporate lawyer. This experience was far beyond anything I had ever expected or had done previously in the world of pro bono, or any type of law for that matter. It was challenging and rewarding in a way I’ve never experienced, and I think it was hard not to get personally interested and attached to the case and my client. The experience drew upon my legal skills and allowed me to polish up my French (our client spoke no English), but I ended up learning a great deal while navigating the idiosyncrasies of US immigration law and learning about our client’s past.
We met our client, CD, in early April 2018, and over the following months, learned about his story. He was a great student in his home country of Mauritania and obtained a Baccalaureate diploma from high school. He started studying science at Mauritania’s only university but was expelled for participating in peaceful rally for black students’ rights.
As a black man in Mauritania, we learned that he was routinely persecuted by the Arab ruling class, in a country that legally abolished (but never really eliminated) slavery in the 1980s and where rights are nearly non-existent for the ethnic black population. Out of options, CD joined the Navy following his expulsion to support himself and help his parents and siblings. There, the persecution sharply increased and he endured four years of torture and abuse due to the color of his skin. Facing a lifetime of endless persecution, he decided to desert the military. But, because the authorities were sure to track him down, imprison, and ultimately kill him, he decided to flee the country and make his way to the United States. He was apprehended at JFK airport and detained at an immigration detention center in Elizabeth, NJ.
We met with CD in the Elizabeth Detention Center more times than we can count and put together a case for our merits hearing in August. We obtained witness statements from family and acquaintances in Mauritania attesting to his abuse. We obtained an expert report from a country conditions expert regarding the conditions in Mauritania, and a medical report confirming the cause of our client’s scars. We did research and collected original documents from our client. We even found a letter from the U.S. Senate exhorting DHS not to deport native Mauritanians due to racial and ethnic discrimination. We drafted and redrafted our client’s personal declaration. We prepared our direct examination, filed the required motions and prepared for all the issues we thought would arise.
The merits hearing lasted 4 hours and was an emotional experience. Given the complexity of some of the issues, the judge elected to reserve his decision and issue a written decision. Three days and a 17-page judgment later, we had the great privilege to deliver the good news to our client at the detention center. He had been granted full asylum and the government would not be appealing. He was so overcome with joy he could barely speak through the tears. He told us we had saved a life. I could never have predicted how rewarding and emotional that day would be.
The Immigration Justice Campaign was with us every step of the way. They fielded our regular (and probably annoying!) questions with grace, generosity and skill. We knew absolutely nothing about immigration law and procedure, and, because of their assistance and dedication, we were able to represent our client in immigration court effectively, compassionately, and successfully. This experience really reminded us of the power of advocacy, especially for those who otherwise had no one on their side.