California Immigration Law Set Through Orrick Pro Bono Effort


In an issue of first impression, Orrick’s pro bono team has set California law with regard to the financial support of immigrants by their sponsors. In the test case, an abused Fijian wife of a U.S. citizen will be entitled to spousal support under provisions of federal immigration law designed to protect immigrants under the poverty line.

The California Supreme Court last week put the finishing touches on the case, letting stand a published state appeals court ruling earlier this year that backed the arguments our team raised for our client, Ashlyne. As a result, the case has established new precedent in California, now the only state where divorcing immigrants can enforce breach of contract claims in family court for spousal support through federal I-864 affidavits.

The complex case involved Ashlyne’s efforts to secure spousal support from her husband, who abused her after bringing her to the U.S. then abandoned her while trying to deny her financial support under the I-864 regulations. Those provisions require an American spouse (in this case the husband) sponsoring an immigration visa to commit to provide spousal support of 125 percent of the poverty line for at least 10 years.

With scant precedent and obstacles under both California family law and the I-864 provisions, Ashlyne faced an uphill battle. But Orrick’s team tried a unique approach, asserting that an immigrant in Ashlyne’s vulnerable position could seek the support through a breach of contract claim in divorce proceedings. The trial court ruled against her, but the First District Court of Appeal unanimously backed our arguments in the published ruling in July. With the California Supreme Court denying review, that decision is now the standard for all future cases.

The decision can be found here.
Edwin Steussy, an associate in Orrick’s Los Angeles office, led our pro bono effort. Partner Amy Van Zant advised on the petition to review. Our team worked with the Family Violence Appellate Project and Bay Area Legal Aid on the litigation.