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Safe Haven

Michelle Roy takes an asylum case with the highest of stakes

Published in 2018 Louisiana Super Lawyers magazine

By the time the sisters left, they had no one but each other.

Their father had been murdered by a drug cartel in Guatemala in 2015. Their mother, besieged by death threats, had fled, leaving the three sisters—one in her early 20s, one in her late teens and one under 10—on their own.

Then the cartel set its sights on them. They were given an ultimatum: “Give us the money within a week, or we’re going to kill you.” When that deadline came, the sisters were crossing the border into Mexico. From there, they took a bus to the U.S. border, crossed it and immediately turned themselves in to the border patrol.

The sisters’ asylum case came to Tim Gray of Forman Watkins & Krutz in New Orleans by way of PB&J: Pro Bono and Juveniles, an organization created by immigration attorneys in conjunction with Catholic Charities to connect attorneys to this type of pro bono work.  

Initially, Gray accepted the case of the youngest sister, a minor eligible for Special Immigrant Juvenile status, which allows children who’ve entered the U.S. illegally to attain lawful permanent resident status if they’ve been abused, neglected or abandoned by a parent. Then the two older sisters, who were not eligible for SIJ status because they were over 18 years old, asked if Gray and his team would represent them in their asylum applications. 

That’s when Gray asked fellow Forman Watkins lawyer Michelle Roy to take the reins. Roy—whose everyday practice involves defending businesses in toxic tort litigation—had previous experience with asylum cases, but nothing with literal life-or-death stakes. 

“It’s a lot of pressure when you know what the alternative is,” Roy says. “I researched the availability of the different standards under asylum and the different opportunities under the asylum proceedings and just made sure we had the research to back up the asylum claims and that we were providing them with enough documentation to show that our clients should be entitled to asylum.” 

Roy was well acquainted with the difficulty of demonstrating that a client belongs to a protected class. “A threat from a cartel isn’t always considered [justification to become] a part of a protected class,” she says. “In this situation, because the cartel was virtually the government in Guatemala, they are considered a government actor, but in other countries the cartel is not always considered a government actor and not always a basis for asylum.”

On Aug. 3, 2017, Roy and Gray received a text message from a family friend and interpreter that the middle sister had received a letter with a red card, signifying she was granted asylum. “The paperwork went straight to her, which caught us totally by surprise,” Gray says. 

Roy remembers the relief and happiness she felt: “It was great not to have to call and tell her that she had to leave—that they aren’t going back to a country where the cartel would likely kill them.” 

One down, two to go. The other sisters’ cases are likely to be decided in late spring.

“I’m hopeful that if one sister has been granted asylum that will, at the very least, be taken into consideration with the other sisters as well,” Roy says. “Honestly, it’s just nice to be able to help someone and to know you made a difference in their life.” 

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