Sheppard Mullin Helps Afghans Put Down New Roots In Calif.

By Tracey Read | July 7, 2023, 7:03 PM EDT ·

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Afghan families walk through an American military base in Germany in October 2021 as they prepare to board a plane bound for the United States. In California, a team of Sheppard Mullin Richer & Hampton LLP attorneys has been working to help Afghan refugees obtain asylum after fleeing their home country. (Photo by Boris Roessler/picture alliance via Getty Images)

When the Taliban took over Kabul nearly two years ago following the withdrawal of American troops, the Afghan people — who have endured almost nonstop war and extreme poverty for decades — faced another wave of adversity.

Some fleeing Afghans have been shot dead, denied the right to apply for asylum or have experienced opposition at the borders of countries they're trying to flee to.

But some asylum-seekers, however, have been lucky enough to make their way to San Diego, where, with the help of attorneys at Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP, they have started to put down roots.

More than 50 Sheppard Mullin attorneys in the San Diego area, plus summer associates, have been working to help Afghan refugees who supported U.S. interests in Afghanistan to resettle in California. So far, the firm has secured asylum for six Afghan clients in the state — some individuals and some in family groups — and is representing 38 more who have applications in process.

"I left Afghanistan because I was threatened by the Taliban," said a 26-year-old woman from Kabul who spoke to Law360 via an interpreter on the condition of anonymity. "Because of Sheppard Mullin's representation, I am alive and can continue to study, work and be with my family."

The client graduated from Tabesh University in Kabul with a bachelor's degree from the Faculty of Law and Political Science. Both her education and her history of working in Kabul to help women with legal issues made her fear for her life after the Taliban took over, Sheppard Mullin said.

She is now studying English and has found work as a cashier in a food establishment. She hopes to continue her legal studies in the United States and to eventually become an attorney, Sheppard Mullin said.

Matthew Rebelo, a corporate and securities associate in Sheppard Mullin's Del Mar, California, office, told Law360 he'll never forget the very first Afghan client he worked with: a woman who had managed to escape the country with her 3-year-old daughter.

The woman's husband was viewed by the Taliban as supportive of the U.S. military, Rebelo said. So one night, the Taliban burst into her home, separated the men and women and started assaulting the men, she told Rebelo.

The women knew they were next.

"And this client of mine just made a decision that, for her and her daughter's future, she was going to just steel herself, and she grabbed whatever she could — a few documents that were in the room with her — and then jumped out of a window, ran across the yard, jumped over a wall, leaving behind everything — all of the rest of her family," Rebelo said. "She managed to get to a road, hailed someone down, phoned her brother, who took her to the airport. She spent two nights in the airport with people dying around her, bleeding."

He added that it barely mattered to her where she would ultimately end up.

"She didn't even know where she was going," he said. "She just knew she was getting on a plane and fleeing that terror. You can't imagine what these people have had to deal with."

After making her way to the U.S., the woman was granted asylum in May, Rebelo said.

For Rebelo, his work on behalf of the refugees is more personal because of his own experience immigrating to the U.S. in 2015 to escape violence in his native country. A former barrister in South Africa, Rebelo helped his father run a small printing and marketing business when he first came to the U.S. Through that work, he met lawyers at Sheppard Mullin, who eventually offered him a chance to work at the firm.

photograph of a happy smiling family

Matthew Rebelo, a corporate and securities associate with Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP, is one of more than 50 attorneys at the firm who are helping Afghan refugees obtain asylum. Rebelo, who himself fled violence in South Africa and resettled in the U.S. in 2015, is pictured in a recent photo with his wife, Lee-Ann, and daughters, Isabella and Alexia (from left). (Photo courtesy of Matthew Rebelo)

But first, he had to obtain his green card and take the California bar exam.

Although Rebelo wasn't running away from a dictatorship, he still had to leave his friends, family, job and culture behind to start somewhere completely new.

"I wanted to get involved with this program because I saw a lot of similarities, just from the point of view of having to start again," he said. "I liked the idea of helping these people and putting them on the right track. These are people that had an ordinary life until one day the country was overthrown by a dictatorship aided by the Taliban. And they left this ordinary life to become desperate people that arrived in a new place and had to start life again."

Sheppard Mullin partner Elizabeth S. Balfour, a securities and health care lawyer, said the legal skills needed to do this type of work overlap with multiple areas. One of the most important is preparing the client, who in many cases will require an interpreter, for a lengthy interview — often two to four hours — with an asylum officer from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Balfour explained. The interview is then cross-checked with supporting documents of a client's background.

"It's this completely overwhelming experience that we have to really prepare our clients for," Balfour said. "And so there's a lot of role play of question-asking, making sure that their answers align ... with what they said in their declaration so that there's no opportunity for the USCIS asylum officer to say, 'Oh, your story doesn't check out.'"

Some clients have been asked to do second interviews. Although Sheppard Mullin has had no instances where the client's application for asylum was denied, in some cases it's been nine months since an interview with no final decision, she said.

"Many are just pending," Balfour said. "[USCIS] is being very cautious about these. They want to double-check and triple-check that these are not people that were affiliated with the Taliban."

Balfour said the firm got involved with the refugee effort last year thanks to its long-standing referral relationship with Casa Cornelia Law Center, a nonprofit public interest law firm that provides pro bono legal services to victims of human and civil rights violations. Their main focus is on helping indigent persons within the immigrant community in greater San Diego County.

Casa Cornelia's executive director, Carmen Chavez, called Balfour in spring 2022 in desperate need of help. Under federal law, a refugee must apply for asylum within one year of arriving in the U.S., and Casa Cornelia had more cases than they were able to process in-house.

"At the time of the crisis, we faced a dire circumstance and quandary of whether we would be able to adequately respond to the needs of the Afghan asylum-seekers who were broken and desperate, not knowing where they had landed, what had become of their friends and family back home and what would happen to them personally," Chavez told Law360.

Chavez added that Sheppard Mullin enthusiastically rose to the challenge.

"They were willing and ready, and we are forever grateful to the firm's leadership and many attorneys and staff for helping us to help so many," she said. "They did so without hesitation and with agility that only comes with experience, willingness and passion for access to justice."

Balfour said that what she finds special about the program is that, although people in the U.S. have differing views on issues like immigration, the firm's work has generated a positive response from both sides of the political spectrum.

"This program focuses on helping people who in many instances were translators for the military or otherwise supporting our U.S. troops at some serious peril to themselves," she said. "It seems like it's sort of the right thing to do — to help them have a path to citizenship and safety here."

Rebelo agreed.

"Immigration can be a hot topic, and it's nice to see that a program that's been put into place is actually working and achieving results," he said.

--Editing by Alanna Weissman.

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