The team of attorneys, led by partner Mary McKelvey, say they worked for three years, gaining the girls’ trust, helping them tell their harrowing story to a court, and witnessing them glow with happiness and confidence after being granted asylum last July. The sisters have expressed that they want to help others in their lives in the U.S.— one hopes to become a doctor and the other a lawyer.
McKelvey explained that the trust element was a huge factor in the team’s ability to win asylum, a difficult task when working with teenagers who had been repeatedly abused and traumatized, according to court documents.
“You can have a team of good lawyers, but you have to have a team of good people too,” she said. “We had great people on this team and it was so important because so much of this is trust building and being able to be compassionate in addition to being good lawyers.”
The lawyers refer to the girls by pseudonyms, Rachel and Angela, in order to maintain their privacy.
After their father died in 2008, the girls — Rachel, 6 at the time, and Angela, 7 — were sent to live with their step-mother and step-sister, who physically abused them, causing physical scars; restricted their ability to leave the house; demanded they act as servants, performing unpaid labor for many hours a day; and failed to prevent multiple instances of sexual abuse perpetrated against the girls by those close to them, court filings say.
Additionally, the police and government, as well as mental health professionals, in the country were either unwilling or unable to stop the abuse and mistreatment, according to court documents.
After years of abuse, the girls, at 12 and 13 years old, say they were able to make contact with their mother in the U.S. — she had moved to the country in 2005 before the death of her children’s father — who arranged for a coyote, or human smuggler, to begin the process of transporting them to the U.S. border. After a journey by bus, trailer and semitrailer, they say they made it to the border, where they were arrested and detained by U.S. immigration officials.
In addition to Rachel and Angela’s case, Polsinelli is also handling their older sister’s asylum case, which is still pending.
“I want to continue to live with my mother and sisters in [redacted], California. I am afraid to leave and return to Honduras,” one of the two younger sisters said in a statement to the immigration court. “I feel much safer living in the United States with my mother. I have never committed a crime and am going to junior high school that is near our apartment in [redacted].”
Both sisters stressed the dangers of going back to Honduras, saying they believed that not only would the abuse continue if they returned to the only family they have in the country, but that they may be punished even further for leaving. They described a sense of hopelessness that came with living there.
“We tried to protect each other, but we were too young. No one could protect us. No one came to help us. We felt so alone,” the statement said.
McKelvey describes a moment that stood out to her during the case, when the team and their clients walked into the immigration office and got the news that asylum had been granted.
“The girls lit up. They jumped up and down and they were so happy. You haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen someone who wants with every fiber of their being to be a citizen of this country and have fled from a country where they have experienced all this trauma and then to hear they’ve been granted asylum. It’s a moment I’ll never forget,” she said.
Another of the attorneys who worked on the case, Polsinelli associate Danila Toscano, remembered back to a celebratory dinner the attorneys held a few weeks after the sisters’ asylum was granted. She said there was a noticeable change in the girls.
“They were radiant and just glowed. They had an aura of confidence they never had before,” Toscano said.
It’s something she says she’s seen before working on immigration cases in which women or girls gain confidence when they are granted asylum, residency or citizenship.
“If they are raised in a society where women are often oppressed and young girls don’t have a voice, when they win asylum and realize their voices are not only heard, but believed, it completely changes their energy, their outlook, their confidence,” she said.
The sisters’ confidence is also clear in the ambitious professions they say they plan to pursue when they’re older.
“In the United States I can do whatever I want,” one of the sisters said in her statement to the immigration court. “The opportunities are endless. I have so many dreams I want to achieve here.”
–Editing by Rebecca Flanagan and Emily Kokoll.
SOURCE: Law360 & Polsinelli.com