Public Counsel Recognizes Sabrina Damast and Joshua Lee with the 2018 Public Counsel Pro Bono Award

Top: Sabrina stands with Judy London, IRP Directing Attorney (right) and her first client (left). Bottom: Joshua Lee stands with Judy London (left), his wife, and Supervising Senior Staff Attorney Sara Van Hofwegen (right).

Sabrina Damast came to the Immigrants’ Rights Project in June of 2014, when she agreed to represent an asylum seeker one week before his scheduled asylum interview. The client, a doctor in Congo, treated women who survived rapes by soldiers. When he reported the crimes to the government officials, he was detained and beaten. Sabrina dove right in. She supplemented the client’s asylum application, got up to speed on Congolese country conditions and prepared the client intensively for the interview. The case was granted. However, before the grant approval notice even arrived, Sabrina was already hard at work on another pro bono Public Counsel case—this time for a Ugandan woman who was attacked multiple times for her sexual orientation. This client was also granted asylum. Since then, Sabrina has assisted over dozen IRP clients. Among them are a woman and her family who were violently targeted by a gang in El Salvador, a Honduran mother who was sexually abused from the age of ten and whose children were kidnapped by her ex-partner, an unaccompanied minor child who was at risk of homelessness while he waited for his hearing date, and a Cuban political activist who was forced into exile. And that’s just the asylum cases! Sabrina has also used her skills to represent vulnerable children eligible for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. She generously gave her time to assist with Public Counsel/UCLA Law School’s Asylum Clinic, bringing with her a former client to speak with law students about his experience with Sabrina navigating the asylum system. And she tirelessly provides advice and assistance to IRP staff on complex criminal-immigration issues and tricky conflict situations.

We are honored to recognize Sabrina with the 2019 Pro Bono Award because of her intellect, responsiveness and excellent judgment, but most importantly, because we know that her clients will always be well-served by her compassion and commitment.

The Immigrants’ Rights Project is also thrilled to recognize Josh Lee with its 2018 Pro Bono Award. Josh’s start with IRP began with winning asylum for a citizen of Ghana detained by immigration authorities after fleeing persecution in his country. Josh then shifted from asylum to work on emerging and critical legal issues around special immigrant juvenile status; issues which impact thousands of immigrant children who have been subject to parental abuse, abandonment or neglect, and have a path to permanent residency if they can successfully obtain SIJS findings from a state court. In 2015, the IRP reached out to Irell and Manella to file a writ to the California Appellate Court after Bryan, our 17-year-old client, was denied SIJS findings by a California family court. The request for pro bono help was not a typical request. IRP needed an attorney who within days could file a writ petition, as Bryan was within weeks of turning 18, when he would “age-out” of eligibility for the relief he sought from the family court. Josh sprang into action, recruiting colleagues to work around the clock to file with the California Court of Appeals, and his work led to a reversal from the trial court, and ultimately permanent residency for Bryan. Both of Bryan’s siblings had been murdered in Honduras so Josh’s work was truly lifesaving. When months later IRP’s client Bianka found herself in a situation similar to Bryan’s – facing denial of a request for SIJS findings from a family court – Josh again sprang into action. This time Josh argued before the California Appellate Court, which then issued a truly stunning published decision, which could have rendered thousands of children in California ineligible for SIJS. Over several years, Josh led an army of lawyers to overturn this decision, and his relentless and brilliant advocacy led to a decision from the California Supreme Court, this time going in our favor. As a result of the Bianka M. decision – which addressed numerous legal issues, thousands of children residing in California can now obtain the permanent protections offered by SIJS. 

Through all the years of pro bono work, Josh has been the consummate team player, leading us with grace and humor, and never losing sight of what our work is about: keeping immigrant families safe and together. Josh is now inhouse counsel at Origin Materials, where he continues to support Public Counsel’s Immigrants’ Rights Project.

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