Elaine Blais, Eric Romeo, and Alexandra Lu
Kevin Johnson, Adam Newton, Armando Hurtado, and Priscilla Matos
It was on Layla’s* ninth birthday that she found out that somebody was going to help her. KIND had found a group of lawyers who had agreed to take her immigration case, pro bono. The challenge – with Layla’s first immigration hearing just a week away, the team had to work quickly to put together the case for her asylum.
Layla’s story is traumatic and harrowing. For years, her family had been targeted by the notorious MS-13 gang in El Salvador, prompting most of the family to seek safety in the United States. Layla stayed behind with her grandmother, witnessing first-hand MS-13’s increasing violence in her neighborhood.
The girl’s 16-year-old cousin was brutally murdered by three gang members with machetes. A young boy was killed – in front of Layla – for selling vegetables on the wrong street.
When Layla was very young, the family thought the gang would leave her alone. But as she got older, the violence got worse and Layla started receiving threats against her life. This is when her family decided it was time for her to flee as well.
“We knew Layla had been surrounded by terrible violence, and we spent the first two meetings just listening to her story,” said Alexandra Lu, an associate at Goodwin and one of the lawyers on the case. “It was really tough. She was a bubbly 9-year-old who just wanted to be with her family. She told us wanted to become a joyful teacher when she grows up, but it’s really hard for her to talk about what she saw in El Salvador and the danger her family faced.”
In addition to Lu, the pro bono legal team on Layla’s case included Goodwin’s Elaine Blais and Eric Romeo, who partnered with Gillette lawyers Kevin Johnson and Adam Newton. Members of Gillette’s Spanish-speaking affinity group, Armando Hurtado and Priscilla Matos, served as translators. The team also helped Layla’s father and grandmother.
“After the Gillette team heard Layla’s story, our only response was to take action and help,” said Kevin Johnson, Associate General Counsel at Gillette.
Assembling the asylum case was a true collaborative effort – the Gillette lawyers handled the father’s and grandmother’s declarations, the translators facilitated the meetings with Layla and her family, and Goodwin put together the asylum application and prepared Layla for her interview.
“Gillette was really in the weeds with us, which was great, and they really went above and beyond by going to their Spanish-speaking affinity group, whose volunteers acted as translators,” said Goodwin partner Elaine Blais. “Having Armando and Priscilla onboard was invaluable. They were with us throughout the case and in every meeting. They helped us build trust with Layla and her family, allowing them to tell their story.”
“This family is just wonderful – they give even when they don’t have anything to give,” explained Goodwin associate Eric Romeo. “They are very proud too, so it took numerous meetings to get all the details of the story. In every meeting over the year and half we learned something new as we build more and more trust.”
Children like Layla are the lucky ones. Only 50 percent of unaccompanied children have an attorney in immigration court and only one in ten children who do not have an attorney is granted some form of immigration relief. This means that without legal representation, Layla could have easily been sent back to the danger she was fleeing.
“While the family and Layla won this asylum case because of their ability to tell their story, without attorneys, they wouldn’t have known the stories to tell and the importance of the experiences they had,” said Blais. “I don’t think she would have had a shot without an attorney.”
Layla was granted asylum in July 2016 and the Goodwin and Gillette team took the family and Layla to the Boston Aquarium to celebrate. Layla dreams of becoming a teacher. Just 10 years old, she is already helping the new students at her school learn English.
KIND’s Pro Bono Coordinating Attorney in Boston, Alexandra Peredo Carroll, explained, “The success of this case was due to the dedication and devotion of the Goodwin and Gillette attorneys. Layla’s team was not only invested in the legal outcome of the case, they were truly committed to helping Layla and her entire family. Goodwin and Gillette have been invaluable partners to the KIND Boston Office.”
*Child’s name and certain details have been changed to protect her identity.