'It Hits You Differently'
The case Jacob Miota still thinks about
Published in 2021 Wisconsin Super Lawyers magazine on November 16, 2021
Early in 2004, while working as a junior litigator at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan in New York City, Jacob Miota got a phone call about a man seeking asylum who had been detained at John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Miota met the man and, upon hearing his story, took his case. The client was a schoolteacher and father of four in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. “The DRC is, and was, a corrupt and failed state,” Miota says. “There is lots of warlord fighting, and the government is all powerful, except in areas where it’s not. In Kinshasa, it was powerful.”
One night, the man was abducted in front of his family and taken to the outskirts of town with a hood over his head. “We’re still not really sure who abducted him,” Miota says, “but he was taken to a prison camp facility, so it was quasi-official. We assumed forces loyal to the government.”
He was accused of being affiliated with the opposition party to the regime of President Joseph Kabila, and was held for about a week before a guard heard him speaking the same dialect of Lingala. Eventually, the guard helped him escape.
When he returned home, he found the place raided and his family had fled. He knew he needed to flee too, so he traveled on foot through Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, then connected with someone who could provide a fake visa to travel to the U.S.
“The story—as I just told it to you—it sounds outlandish, and crazy and impossible, but it’s not,” Miota says. “It’s something that we realized we needed an expert to say, because it’s so far removed from any of our experiences that it’s almost unbelievable.”
So Miota brought in an expert on domestic politics on the DRC to attest to the threats facing his client if he were forced to return to his home country. In addition, Miota got in touch with his client’s wife, after finding her in Kinshasa. She provided documentation to prove his identity, status as a schoolteacher and fear of persecution.
“Literally, after a day of testimony and expert testimony, I left the jail with him. And it was certainly the highlight of my legal career at that point,” Miota says.
The administrative law judge determined that Miota’s client had legitimate fear of persecution based on his political affiliations and granted his petition for asylum. Upon hearing the decision, the client started to cry. “He couldn’t believe it,” Miota recalls. “He was in disbelief the entire night. I waited for him because they had to process him, and I was at the firm, so I had a Lincoln Town Car out there waiting for him.”
That night, Miota and his fiancée (now wife) took the client to celebrate in downtown Brooklyn. They ate pizza at Grimaldi’s Pizzeria and walked around. Miota and his wife found out that the client was a Jehovah’s Witness, so they went to the Watchtower complex and took his picture there.
“He was giddy. And to be honest, so was I. We were all kind of high that night. It was a great night,” Miota says.
A couple of years later, the client’s immediate family members attained asylum, and after an appeal, so did his adopted daughter. In 2015, he and his wife became U.S. citizens. Now the family lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“They found a community, they found a life, the children are thriving. They must be almost graduating high school now,” Miota says. “And he’s giving back to the Congo. He’s running an organization that helps with medicine and supplies there.”
The case still resonates with Miota today. “I’ve won jury trials for people and they’re not as happy. It’s a different sort of thing when you’re impacting someone’s life in that way, and it hits you differently.”