Taking On The Tough Cases: Holland & Knight's Community Services Team

Wednesday, August 1, 2007 - 01:00
Christopher Nugent

Editor: Mr. Nugent, would you tell our readers something about your professional experience?

Nugent: Prior to joining Holland & Knight's Community Services Team in 2003, I was a Director of the ABA Commission on Immigration Policy in Washington, D.C. I had earlier served as Executive Director of the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project in Arizona serving immigration detainees, and prior to that I was a National Association for Public Interest Law (NAPIL) Fellow in California working with Mexican and Guatemalan indigenous farm workers.

Editor: How did you come to Holland & Knight? What attracted you to the firm?

Nugent: While at the ABA, I led a variety of pro bono projects with large law firms. I became familiar with Holland & Knight's flagship pro bono program and had developed a strong working relationship with Martha Barnett, a Holland & Knight partner, during her tenure as President of the ABA. When an opportunity arose for me to join the firm, I was delighted. Holland & Knight considers pro bono service a fundamental core value of the firm and, given my background, the transition was a natural evolution of my work in the public interest.

Editor: Please give us an overview of the firm's Community Services Team.

Nugent: The Community Services Team was established in 1990 by partner Stephen Hanlon, a well-known civil rights champion. It is the largest structured, institutionalized pro bono program of any law firm. We currently have a full-time team of 12, consisting of nine attorneys, two paralegals and an administrator. We work on major impact cases and projects designed to benefit both indigent individuals and classes and have a positive impact on law and policy. We also train, supervise and mentor attorneys around the country in our own cases as well as in their own pro bono matters. On any given day I may have as many as 50 projects that I am responsible for in either a supervisory capacity or as lead attorney.

Editor: What types of cases does the team handle?

Nugent: We have four areas of priority for our work: fairness in the death penalty; reform of indigent defense systems; prison litigation; and immigration and refugee issues, both domestic and international.

Editor: Where does the team reside?

Nugent: Our team members are currently based in our Washington, D.C., New York and Miami offices and include our Chesterfield Smith Fellows. These Fellows are outstanding lawyers who come to Holland & Knight, usually after a clerkship, to work on pro bono matters for their first two years and then transition into other areas of the firm while continuing to help lead pro bono efforts.

Editor: I gather that some of your work involves helping gays and lesbians from foreign countries achieve asylum in the U.S. to escape persecution. How do these cases come to you?

Nugent: Protecting gays and lesbians from torture or even death in their homelands because of their identities has been a source of pride for both me and my colleagues, including members of our GLBT group. People seek asylum on our shores for a variety of reasons, and these cases come to us primarily from public interest law organizations. Given my expertise in immigration law, I am often called upon to handle some unusual cases referred by less traditional sources. That would include, for example, a diplomat seeking to defect to the U.S., a Nigerian youth amputee in need of prosthetic surgery and Iraqi refugees. And occasionally we will discover a great case arising from a direct request from the individual in need.

Editor: What are the forums you appear in?

Nugent: A wide variety of forums, including the Department of Homeland Security Asylum Office and the Executive Office for Immigration Review, immigration court, which is a Department of Justice entity. We also appear before the Board of Immigration Appeals, the Administrative Appeals Unit of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the Federal District Courts and Circuit Courts of Appeal as well.

Let me mention that when we accept a case for pro bono representation, we typically are committed to seeing the case through to the end, including all appeals. The appellate practice is very exciting, as it allows us to assemble teams from Holland & Knight's offices all across the country. This helps to foster a sense of firm unity. It also enables us to develop relationships that we continue to call upon in carrying our pro bono efforts forward.

Editor: What is the climate here for gay and lesbian cases?

Nugent: I have seen cases where there have been travesties of justice. I do not believe that there is a systemic homophobia in the asylum system, but I know that many lawyers who work in this area must contend with homophobia, mostly latent but sometimes overt. For example, I recently was consulted on the appeal of a Philippino transgender individual who had been repeatedly molested, raped and beaten in the Philippines. The immigration judge brushed the incidents aside as random criminal acts, as opposed to acts of persecution based on the victim's sexual identity, even though the perpetrators used homophobic epithets during the incidents. This is the kind of trivialization of horrendous experiences that one sometimes encounters in the system.

Editor: Our readers would be most interested in hearing about some of the cases you have handled.

Nugent: The last year has been both extremely challenging and rewarding for me. Much of my work has been in the international arena. In November 2006, we were able to help secure the release of Cuc Foshee, a U.S. citizen, detained for 14 months in Vietnam.

In another high profile case, we represented Daoud Ibrahim Hari, an interpreter for NGOs and the international media in Chad and Darfur. After being incarcerated for 35 days in Darfur with Chicago Tribune reporter Paul Salopek, Daoud was released through the efforts of Governor Bill Richardson and returned to Chad. There he was subject to grave danger. We were able to intercede and get him processed and admitted as a refugee to the U.S. in three months. Daoud is now undertaking a speaking tour with the Save Darfur Coalition and we are helping him negotiate contracts for both a book and film depicting his inspirational story.

I mentioned a Nigerian youth amputee. Henry Sunday was referred to us by a volunteer physician with Doctors Without Borders. We were able to obtain documentation and expert witness testimony to demonstrate that if he remained in Nigeria as an amputee he would be ostracized and left to be a beggar, at best. With donated prosthetic surgery in the U.S., Henry will now be able to return to Nigeria to continue college and pursue his professional dreams.

Also, the firm is currently undertaking an unprecedented initiative to assist brave Iraqi allies targeted by the insurgents for their work in Iraq with the U.S. government to secure resettlement to the U.S. as refugees.

These cases are very compelling, and it is very satisfying to be able to help remedy injustices, particularly if we are able to do so quickly. I am also engaged in administrative and legislative advocacy on immigration and refugee issues. These efforts move at a different pace and yield different results. I think this does inject some perspective into the process, however, and provides me with some balance in my practice.

Editor: You have been honored for your work with the Daniel Levy Memorial Award for outstanding achievements in immigration law. This did not just happen. Please tell us what led to this award.

Nugent: I have worked in the immigration and refugee rights field for over two decades, a very long time. In fact, between high school and college, I spent a year in Costa Rica helping Salvadoran refugees being resettled to other countries.

While in college, I was active in the Latino community and had my first experience with immigration law volunteering as a summer paralegal helping Latin American farm workers with their applications to gain legal status under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. I then worked as a paralegal with detained Central American asylum-seekers in California and Arizona before attending law school. While in law school, I worked with a number of public interest organizations on immigration matters, including the Gay Men's Health Crisis in New York and the American Friends Service Committee in both Newark and Miami. I also worked in community economic development, which led to my NAPIL Fellowship after law school, which in turn led to the call to return to the Florence Project as Executive Director.

I think the Levy Award was given in part for our team efforts at Holland & Knight in this area and in part as a recognition of my career-long commitment to protecting the rights of vulnerable immigrants, refugees and newcomers to our nation.

Editor: Our country's immigration policy is at a crossroads. Despite centuries of very successful immigration, there are many today who wish to close the door. Any thoughts about where we are going?

Nugent: According to national experts, the immigration debate has become volatile, and much of it has not been based on objective, empirical socio-economic data. Most economists consider immigrants as a net gain to the U.S. and not as a drain on public resources. Immigrants are credited for being responsible for the survival of many economic sectors in this country, and no one can deny the enormous influence they have had in agriculture, the hospitality sector, healthcare and the service sector. Based on the wages they generate, these people are responsible for the growth, and the expectations, of the American middle class. They invest in their children, and they believe in the importance of education. They are also responsible for the survival of Social Security at a time when the system is looking to take on the first of the baby boomers, something Alan Greenspan has noted.

At the high end of the immigration debate - that concerning business immigration - it is apparent that there are too few Americans available and qualified to fill positions in the technology sector. If the U.S. is going to be able to maintain its global competitive advantage in this arena, it must have access to and visas for the foreign-born engineers, scientists and technology professionals that are being educated in both the U.S. and abroad. If that does not happen, international businesses are going to establish or expand operations in countries other than the U.S., including, for example, the economic powerhouses of China and India, something that is anything but in the best interests of the U.S. economy.

We have not had a real national dialogue on immigration. We need to cut through the emotions and address immigration reform through a reasoned approach which recognizes the country's proud history as a nation of immigrants and refugees and our long-term interests in immigration as vital to our economy and global economic position.

Please email the interviewee at christopher.nugent@hklaw.com with questions about this interview.