Joe Lee, Munger Tolles & Olson

by Alex Pender   on January 6, 2015


Why attorneys at Munger Tolles & Olson represent the most vulnerable


Joe_Lee_2013Five out of five grants of asylum in 2014—this stunning statistic says a lot about Munger Tolles & Olson’s wholehearted commitment to the protection of unaccompanied children in the United States.

A partner of KIND’s Los Angeles office since it opened in 2009, MTO has repeatedly proven its dedication to due process for these children, many of who have fled severe and pervasive violence in their home countries from which their governments could not protect them. It is the vulnerability of these children that has driven MTO to take on numerous cases of children traumatized by their experiences in their home countries.

More than 68,000 children came alone to the United States in 2014, an extraordinarily high number and by far the largest influx in a single year. The large majority are from Central America, where escalating gang and other criminal violence targeting children has driven them to the United States. At least 70 percent of these children do not have attorneys to represent them in their deportation proceedings.

Joe Lee, a partner at MTO, is the powerhouse who has driven firm’s resolute commitment to KIND over the past five years. Joe appreciates how transformative pro bono representation can be – to both the children and the participating attorneys. “These cases are great training for our junior lawyers,” Joe explained. “While the legal issues are different from our day to day, the process is quite similar to [what junior lawyers need to] succeed as litigators.” It isn’t just the hands-on experience and training that drives these attorneys to take on these hard cases. “We treat these pro bono cases no differently than any paying client. So if we need a private investigator to run down facts in support of a client’s application for asylum to track down police records, or other paperwork, we hire the private investigator to go down to these countries to get this information. We want to win these cases for these kids.”

The determination of these individual pro bono attorneys, who go above the call of duty for the kids, is the backbone of their success. Joe knows that when a potential case comes in, he will have no trouble finding a team of attorneys to take it on. “These stories and situations these children come from are so horrific that we have no trouble finding someone who is willing to step in and help.”

Children Fighting for Asylum

Mary* fled Guatemala to escape the constant and escalating persecution that she suffered because of her indigenous Guatemalan heritage. At age 16, while walking to a neighborhood market, Mary was thrown to the ground, called a racial slur, and raped. Her rapist told Mary that he owned her, knew where she lived, and would kill her if she told anyone. Mary did not trust the police to help her, because they had not helped other victims she knew. Mary was sexually assaulted twice more by the same man before she fled to the United States a year later. MTO associates John Mittelbach and Jen Broder took Mary’s case from KIND, and helped Mary gain asylum.

When Alonso* was born, his father already had another family. Alonso became known as the illegitimate son of his father, who had another “legitimate” family with his wife, which abused Alonso and his mother. Alonso was only 7 years old when his half brother beat him up. His other half brothers, who were known to be members of a gang in their town in Honduras, stole Alonso’s mother’s car and destroyed her business. After Alonso’s father died, the abuse increased. Alonso’s mother eventually fled to the United States, but could not afford to bring Alonso with her, leaving him with her sister and his younger brother. Scared for his life, Alonso left Honduras at age 16 for the United States. Soon after arriving in the US, Alonso was apprehended by US Customs and Border Protection, and later referred to KIND, which connected him with MTO associates Puneet Sandhu, Enrique Schaerer, Benjamin Friedman, Thane Rehn, and Elia Herrera, all of who worked tirelessly throughout Alonso’s case to help Alonso win asylum.

Elisa* was the victim of repeated physical and emotional abuse by her father. Elisa’s mother survived severe domestic abuse at the hands of her husband before she fled to the United States. At only 11 years old, Elisa then became the primary focus of her father’s violence and rage. Although Elisa’s mother sent money back to El Salvador to care for Elisa and her younger sibling, her father spent most of the money on alcohol and neglected the children. Elisa was left for long periods of time without food or basic support. Elisa’s sibling moved in with other family members, leaving Elisa to bear the brunt of the abuse alone. Having suffered enough, Elisa fled for the US in hopes of leaving her father’s abuse behind. Elisa was matched with Joseph Lee, and MTO associates Jeremy Lawrence, and Kenneth Trujillo-Jamison from MTO who worked to get her asylum request granted.

These stories represent three of the fourteen cases that MTO has taken on in the past five years. “What really brought me the most satisfaction professionally was to work with these pro bono clients because you meet them and you form that bond, and just want to help them. For these kids to be sent back to their home country given what they suffered would be horrific. To have that impact on a young person’s life is immensely rewarding and satisfying,” Joe said.

Rosalind Oliver, KIND’s Supervising Attorney for Pro Bono Programs in Los Angeles, is struck by the dedication of each of MTO’s attorneys to their cases, “Working with Joe Lee and his team of attorneys on our asylum cases has been a tremendous honor. Joe asked for difficult cases because he wanted his attorneys to be stretched and challenged. We can always count on MTO attorneys to go the extra mile and we are so fortunate to have them as our partners.”

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