LAW OF THE LAND: A most rewarding case

William Martin
Bill Martin

The most rewarding legal matter I’ve handled was a pro bono case in New York City’s Immigration Court. Pro bono is a Latin phrase that basically means the lawyer is working for free, so the reward was not in the form of money. My client was a young lady from Tibet with a fascinating story. In order to protect her identity, I will refer to my client by the pseudonym of PC. But first, a bit of background on what it takes to be granted asylum status in the United States of America. 

A person can be awarded asylum if they have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Past persecution on any enumerated ground is sufficient to establish eligibility for asylum. Case law holds that persecution includes beatings and threats to a person's freedom.  More broadly, persecution entails "a threat to the life or freedom of, or the infliction of suffering or harm upon, those who differ in a way regarded as offensive." 

PC was born in Tibet to Tibetan parents and raised as a Tibetan Buddhist of the Nyingma sect. She lived with her parents, herding yaks in the mountains, until she married and moved in with her husband. PC suffered frequent beatings by her husband before seeking a divorce and custody of her approximately one-year old son. The Chinese court stated that the child, as a boy, must go to the father.

Later, PC’s ex-husband visited her house and pelted her on the forehead with a stone, causing a gash that left a scar that still remains and knocked out two of her teeth. PC called the Chinese police for help. When the police arrived, they noticed that PC had several pictures of the Dalai Lama arranged on her alter. The police tore up the pictures and threw them in the toilet, telling her it was illegal to have pictures of the Dalai Lama. The next day, the police brought her three pictures of Mao Tse-tung and told her to worship those instead. The Chinese authorities never handed down a decision on her husband’s crime.

Realizing she could no longer remain in Tibet, PC smeared the three pictures of Mao Tse-tung with human excrement and put them on an outside wall. She half-burned a Chinese flag, and wrote on a piece of paper, "May the Dalai Lama live long. May Tibet be free soon. May imperialist China leave Tibet soon." She signed her name, and left the flag and the paper outside. That same day, PC, a Sherpa guide, and six others left for Nepal. After selling her family heirlooms, she flew to the United States, arriving at O'Hare International Airport where she was arrested and eventually referred to me by my law firm’s pro bono department.

In many ways, PC was fortunate to be from Tibet. Tibet continues to struggle under the oppressive yoke of Chinese rule so I was able to prove that a native of Tibet suffered and could expect to suffer persecution if asylum was not granted. After a hearing, PC was granted asylum and, to this day, her case is my most rewarding legal matter. The last time I saw PC in front of 4 Times Square, her application for permission to work had been granted, she was working at a nail parlor, and she was happily learning to speak English — something she could not do when she landed at O’Hair with no friends, no money, and little hope.

Bill Martin is a former B-52 and B-1B pilot and Senior Attorney for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. He is currently a partner in the law firm of Keefe, Anchors & Gordon in Fort Walton Beach, Florid. Bill is admitted to practice in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.