June 18, 2019 / All Stories

Bringing representation – and hope – to asylum seekers

AbbVie attorneys have taken on complex pro bono cases, giving their time and talent to assist people seeking asylum in the United States.

AbbVie attorneys Adam Chiss and Lynette Lupia lead the company’s pro bono asylum cases project.

The power of pro bono

A few words spoken at a community meeting in Eritrea, Africa, changed one woman’s life forever.

After voicing her opinion in a country with an authoritarian government, B.L.* soon found herself arrested and held for weeks, suffering beatings and torture in a local prison notorious for abuse.

She fled to the Chicago area, and today is applying for asylum in the United States. B.L. is represented by an AbbVie attorney working pro bono on her case, which will likely take more than 2 years to move through the immigration system.

B.L.’s case is among 14 taken on by AbbVie attorneys and legal staff through a partnership with the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), a nonprofit that provides legal aid to immigrants and asylum seekers.

AbbVie attorneys and legal staff have taken on 14 asylum cases, donating their time to represent people seeking asylum in the United States on the grounds of political and gender persecution.

‘It’s transformative’

The opportunity to represent these people, many of whom are seeking asylum on the grounds of political and gender persecution, allows attorneys to directly impact lives while also putting their skills and professional training to good use, says Adam Chiss, project co-lead and division counsel, legal, intellectual property litigation, AbbVie.

The asylum cases are part of a broader AbbVie legal department initiative to give back through substantive legal work – in 2018 alone, the department contributed over 1,100 pro bono hours.

By stepping up to take on an asylum case, each of the 14 AbbVie attorneys and their legal staff are taking on a significant time commitment and are dedicated to understanding the complexities of asylum law, says Ashley Huebner, associate director, legal services, NIJC.

The NIJC has never placed so many cases with one corporate partner.

“The fact that we were able to place 14 cases like that allowed us to take on a number of new cases and help even more people,” Huebner says. “It’s transformative.”

Legal representation makes a critical difference

The AbbVie attorneys, who are also partnering with outside law firms to better serve the clients, build relationships with the people they’re representing to understand their past and the reason they are seeking asylum.

The majority of AbbVie’s clients are from eastern African countries, each with a unique story but with themes that repeat themselves: Physical and emotional abuse. Retaliation for speaking out against the government or persecution based on demographic identity. Fear that if they return home, they will be seriously harmed.

People seeking asylum in the United States don’t have the right to government counsel, which means that without pro bono counsel, many people end up representing themselves.

The rate of being granted asylum increases dramatically when people have legal representation. Undetained asylum-seeking immigrants without a lawyer prevailed in only 13 percent of cases, while those with a lawyer prevailed in 74 percent of cases, according to a 2018 study. 1

“AbbVie is really playing a critical role between getting asylum in the United States versus getting deported to a country where they may be tortured or killed,” Huebner says.

An opportunity for skills-based volunteering

Not all AbbVie attorneys involved in the project are litigators, but instead represent many different parts of the legal spectrum with a common skill set, Chiss says. For example, as part of the process to prepare for an asylum seeker’s milestone meeting with an asylum officer, the attorney must help the client prepare sworn affidavits and get statements from witnesses and medical professionals who know the asylum seeker.

“We can really utilize our skill sets,” Chiss says. “We investigate complex and often traumatic facts and also research and analyze asylum law and our clients’ country conditions.”

AbbVie’s dedication has been clear since the partnership kickoff in fall 2018, starting with an in-depth clinic that brought AbbVie staff together with the clients, partner law firms and translators.

“AbbVie took the role of making sure everything runs smoothly, from the clinic to the actual commitment to these cases,” Huebner says. “This is a model for other legal departments to take on these types of cases.”

*Name has been changed

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