Fighting for the Refugee

Ana Reyes '96
Ana Reyes '96

When Ana Reyes ’96 finished law school at Harvard University, her mother told her she’d be disappointed if she didn’t use her education to help others.

Luckily for her—not to mention the numerous people she's helped through pro bono work at Williams and Connolly in Washington, D.C.—disappointing her mother is not a concern. In fact, Reyes’s efforts to help others have garnered approval well beyond the family circle.

Most recently, the Uruguay native was named the Women's Bar Association of the District of Columbia's 2017 Woman Lawyer of the Year for her tireless work helping asylum seekers. Prior to that, her work received recognition for distinction from the National Law Journal's "Minority 40 under 40" list (2011), the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights (2004 and 2008) and the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies (2009). And she was featured in the Legal Times special section “Champions, Visionaries and Pioneers” for her pro bono efforts and advocacy for asylum applicants.

In 2008 a case came up involving three women from Guinea who were seeking to remain in the United States after having been subjected to female genital mutilation in their home country. The law says in order to gain asylum, the person must show that he or she has been persecuted or will be persecuted, and to deny it, the government must show that there has been a change in circumstances that would prevent future persecution. The case against the women stated that having already been subjected to female genital mutilation, the women could not undergo it again.

“I cannot say enough about Transylvania. I think the level of interaction at a school like Transylvania, with the quality of professors and the small class size—you can’t match it anywhere.”Reyes and her firm were approached by the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies to argue against that notion, so they spent almost 500 hours drafting a brief. Reyes argued the case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which included the Hon. Sonia Sotomayor, who now sits on the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Our argument to the court was that it doesn’t make any sense that the act of persecution itself is a changed circumstance,” Reyes said. “It doesn’t make any legal sense, and it doesn’t make any logical sense. Female genital mutilation is just one example of overall persecution against women, and depending on the type of FGM they had, it could happen again. So we argued it and were very successful.”

The ruling was made to let the women stay in the U.S., and precedent was set for future cases like these.

“Today’s ruling is a tremendous victory for women who seek our nation’s protection to escape the brutal practice of female genital mutilation and the other forms of gender persecution that are associated with it,” she said at the time of the decision.

Reyes was elected to a William and Connolly partnership in 2009, and she serves on the firm’s pro bono committee. She began working with asylum seekers early in her career.

“My first asylum client was a very shy, reserved woman,” she said. “I met with her countless times over a one-year period to prepare her for the hearing. During all that time, I never saw her smile or laugh. At the hearing, when the translator told her that the judge had granted her and the family asylum, she turned to me and gave me a full-on smile and a big hug. That was the most rewarding moment of my career to date. Whenever I feel stressed or out of sorts professionally, I think about that moment, and it always makes me feel better.”

In recognizing Reyes in the Minority 40 under 40 list, the National Law Journal cited her success as lead negotiator in a dispute between her native Republic of Uruguay and its Central Bank and three international banks. She told the magazine it was “particularly meaningful” to travel back to Uruguay to represent the government in reaching a settlement.

As with her commitment to helping others, Reyes’s commitment to Transylvania, where she was a political science major, remains strong as well. During spring break 2011, Reyes met with a group of Transylvania students who were in Washington, D.C., doing volunteer service projects as part of Alternative Spring Break—a project that began when she was at Transylvania and a sign, she says, that the university’s commitment to community service continues.

“I cannot say enough about Transylvania,” she said. “I think the level of interaction at a school like Transylvania, with the quality of professors and the small class size—you can’t match it anywhere.”

Political science professors Don Dugi and Jeff Freyman, in particular, “had an exceptional ability to challenge me as an individual. They kept raising the bar on me.”