Profiles in Courage: Senior Staff Attorney, Ayo Gansallo

I want to thank these lawyers from @HIASPA, AILA PHL, and the @aclupa, that really got it done. And all who came to make their voices heard. pic.twitter.com/4EukdNQi0T

— Jim Kenney (@PhillyMayor) January 31, 2017

 

President Trump’s recent executive order banning entry to the U.S. for people from seven predominantly Muslim countries sparked a fierce reaction around the nation. In order to provide a response that would protect the rights of those seeking to enter, HIAS PA moved immediately. Here is the story of Ayodele (Ayo) Gansallo, our Senior Staff Attorney: what she did to help not just that day, but has done throughout her career.
 
Ayo, who has been an attorney at HIAS PA for almost 19 years, went to Philadelphia International Airport the day after the President’s order was signed. Six families who had arrived from several of the seven countries had arrived at the airport but were being denied further entry into the United States by Federal officials. Ayo joined forces with attorneys from the ACLU of PA in seeking legal remedies. At one point, she and Jonathan Feinberg, a good friend to HIAS PA over many years and a partner with Kairys, Rudolvsky, Messing and Feinberg, accompanied Sen. Bob Casey Jr. and Rep. Bob Brady in an attempt to meet with those believed to be detained at the airport in order to speak with them and advise them of their legal rights. However, because of rules denying legal representation to anyone who hasn’t yet passed through immigration control, the group was denied access, despite strong but unsuccessful arguments that all government employees, including those in Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, are required to answer to Congressional officers. While they were never allowed to speak to the detainees, when the New York Court’s injunction was ordered late Saturday night, Ayo and her team were there to successfully negotiate the detainees release. 
 
But some individuals had not just been detained, they had been sent back before the injunction was in place. Among them was a Syrian Christian family -- two brothers, their wives and two children -- who were joining a brother in Allentown, PA.  The U.S. citizen brother had filed a petition 14 years ago to bring his family members here, and the petition had finally been approved. But, despite the fact that they had valid visas to enter, they had all been sent back to Qatar within two hours of touching American soil. The long awaited reunion that they expected to enjoy became mired in disappointment, confusion and lack of information.
 
Ayo, along with civil rights  lawyers from the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, or AILA, worked tirelessly to bring them back. While they were fighting for the family, a federal court judge issued an Order that has temporarily stayed parts of the President’s ban from being enforced. This Orderwas affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit yesterday evening. This nationwide success  assured the recent entry of the Syrian family. All six of them are now in Allentown.
 
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How does someone like Ayo come to her important position as a senior litigator for HIAS PA? 
 
Ayo came to the U.S. from Britain, where she went to university and law school. After practicing corporate law in England, she said, “I decided that wasn’t where my interests lay.” She took a position in Manchester as a solicitor working with immigrants mainly from the Bengali and Pakistani communities. After transferring to London and continuing her immigration legal work, Ayo decided to come to Temple University to pursue a master’s degree in international law and, after graduation, took a position at HIAS PA. Her specialty is complex litigation work, helping people seeking asylum, trying to bring family members to the country and protecting individuals in deportation proceedings.
 
A typical case can involve years of work. “My longest case was with a client who came to us in 2003,” she says. “He is from Liberia and had filed an application for asylum that was referred to immigration headquarters in D.C. because he had worked for the Liberian government and questions were raised about whether he’d assisted in the persecution of others. If he had, then that would be an automatic bar to relief. The case sat in H.Q. for years until finally it was referred to Immigration Court. We had a court hearing a few months ago where I had a chance to argue and present evidence that proved that my client hadn’t persecuted anyone and, ironically, was the one who had been persecuted. We won and the man is now awaiting receipt of his Green Card.”
 
Ayo considers the judges in Immigration Court in Philadelphia to be very fair, but of course she sometimes loses a case. “I don’t like to lose,” she says. “When you work with someone for years, you naturally get to know them well. It’s hard to see anyone receive a deportation order.”
 
In addition to her HIAS PA work, Ayo spends two afternoons a week at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law where she is an Adjunct Lecturer in Law with the Transnational Legal Clinic. The course is a combination of seminars and case work, but ultimately seeks to teach students the practical skills they need to be lawyers, in the context of immigration and human rights law through the representation of live clients.
 
All of this is more than an eight-hour work day for Ayo. Her evenings are spent at her home in the Art Museum neighborhood of Philadelphia, trying to keep up with her emails and handling other tasks she wasn’t able to accomplish during the day.
 
Ayo has an 18-year old son, Noah, who is beginning the process of college applications. Noah’s entire life has been spent with a mother who has an exciting but demanding job at HIAS PA. “Over the years,” Ayo says, “he’s spent a lot of time in the office with me. My co-workers know Noah very well. He’s very entrepreneurial. He used to write comic books and stories, then offer them to my colleagues who were very generous in ‘subscribing’ to them.”
 
Ayo is just one of many employees and volunteers at HIAS PA doing extremely important work. “The most satisfying part of my job,” she says, “is knowing that I have the ability to change someone’s life for the better. Many of my clients, who are claiming asylum, know that if they return to their country of origin, they will be harmed. I am very aware of the weight of the responsibility and grateful that people trust me to help them achieve the important goal of safety. For these reasons, I have a great sense of fulfillment and achievement in the work that I do.”
 

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