When Best Best & Krieger attorneys Adriana Sanchez and Shannon Erickson were asked to help a young African woman gain political asylum in the United States, they knew little about immigration law.
They knew even less about Eritrea, their client's home country, including its location (that would be east Africa, on the border of Sudan and Ethiopia).
"My first response was to Google Eritrea and religious persecution," Sanchez recalled upon receiving the pro bono case.
Sanchez and Erickson, however, were undeterred, and they were successful in helping Helen Hailu Berhe gain her freedom in America.
The case was completely out of their comfort zone. Erickson, 33, is an associate who focuses on real property law while Sanchez, 29, handles the representation of public agencies and special districts.
They took Berhe's case as volunteers for the Casa Cornelia Law Center, a San Diego-based nonprofit that provides legal services to victims of human and civil rights violations.
"Before we even met her, we were determined to help her," Sanchez said. "After we heard her story, it became even more urgent for us to succeed. We saw how life-threatening it would be if she was to return to Eritrea."
Berhe, 25, arrived at the California-Mexico border in July 2011 seeking asylum because she was being persecuted in Eritrea for practicing her Pentecostal Christian faith. She feared if she was deported, she would face incarceration or even death.
Pentecostalism had been outlawed by the Eritrean government shortly after Berhe converted at the age of 12. Her aunt was arrested for practicing the faith, but Berhe was able to escape two years ago.
Berhe believed she would only be safe if she did not return to her country and was instead given political asylum.
In February 2012, Sanchez and Erickson took the case.
"Shannon and I both had sleepless weeks leading up to the (May 10) merit hearing because Helen was all alone," Sanchez said. "She didn't have anyone in her home country that she could rely on for safety because of the fear the rest of the citizens have for supporting someone who practices an outlawed religion.
"Shannon and I and her interpreter were her only family in the U.S., and it put added pressure on us."
Erickson said it was challenging learning an entirely new area of law, but they pulled immigration law resources from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals website and got a handbook on asylum law from Casa Cornelia.
The duo was extremely thorough, using the maximum 100-page limit for Berhe's asylum application and submitting more evidence than they needed in court on several occasions.
In developing the case for asylum, Sanchez and Erickson drew upon several key aspects of U.S. law, including that asylum should be granted to refugees. To be deemed a refugee, an asylum applicant must establish that religion was or will be at least one central reason for persecuting the applicant.
Also, an asylum applicant has a burden of proof of past persecution or future persecutions and that the source of persecution is the government or a quasi-official group.
The BB&K attorneys used Berhe’s detailed description of what she endured in Eritrea as well as reports from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and The Christian Post of human rights abuses by the Eritrean government as proof.
When the judge granted Berhe's asylum, Sanchez and Erickson could barely hold back the tears.
"It was just an amazing moment," Erickson said. "Everyone in the room had been completely touched by Helen."
"There was a huge wave of relief and happiness that we helped this person start a new life," Sanchez added.
Erickson's and Sanchez's aid didn't stop there. They helped Berhe, who didn't speak English, get a prepaid cellphone, find lodging and put her in touch with resettlement organizations.
They received donations from BB&K attorneys throughout the state and opened a "Helen fund" to help Berhe get started on her new life. Now she's getting job training and has a bus pass, an apartment, clothing, shoes and health insurance.
"I think it's definitely made me more aware of how amazing America is and how good we have it," Sanchez said. "I'm so lucky. She did not have any of the opportunities I have. It's inspired me in terms of her religious convictions. I've never had my religious convictions challenged — ever."