An activist lawyer who for more than 20 years has provided courageous and effective representation to immigrants has been selected as the winner of the 2008 Morris Dees Justice Award.
Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center (FIAC), a nonprofit legal assistance organization in Miami, will be presented the award at a November 20 ceremony in New York City.
The renowned international law firm Skadden Arps Meagher & Flom partnered with the University of Alabama School of Law in 2006 to create the award in honor of Dees, an Alabama graduate, for his lifelong dedication to public service. It is given annually to a lawyer who has devoted his or her career to serving the public interest and pursuing justice, and whose work has brought about positive change in the community, state, or nation. The first award recipient, in 2006, was U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice of the Eastern District of Texas. Last year's winner was Arthur N. Read, general counsel for Friends of Farmworkers Inc., based in Philadelphia.
The award selection committee recognized Little, who is considered one of the country's leading experts on immigration law, for her dedication to upholding the rights of immigrants throughout her professional career.
Little's nomination for the Morris Dees Justice Award was submitted by the Rev. Dr. Greta S. Reed and was subsequently joined by letters of support from a host of colleagues, legal organizations and admirers. The breadth of backing for Little extended well beyond the legal sector and represented a diverse cross-section of ardent professional and personal endorsements.
Reed noted in her nomination, "My sense of despair — especially over the plight of Haitian refugees — gave way to hope, because someone named Cheryl Little, whom I have never met, worked tirelessly and with passion and intelligence to stand with and for the most powerless and desperate people imaginable. The Morris Dees Justice Award has been established to honor someone just like Cheryl Little."
After graduating from law school with honors in 1985, Little became counsel for the Haitian Refugee Center. She co-founded the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center in 1996 and currently serves as the agency's executive director.
In 12 years under her leadership, FIAC has grown from 10 employees with a budget of $400,000 to 49 employees in three offices with a budget in excess of $4 million.
Little and her staff have taken the lead in monitoring conditions of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention. She has documented serious concerns regarding the physical and sexual abuse of detainees at Miami's Krome Detention Center, which led to two FBI and high-level Department of Justice investigations. Dozens of detainees were released and several officers who sexually abused female detainees were convicted.
Little was also instrumental in calling attention to complaints that immigrant detainees at Florida's Jackson County Jail were shackled to concrete slabs, beaten with batons and shocked with electric shock shields. All of the detainees were removed from the jail, and the Justice Department issued a scathing report confirming these concerns.
Little is regularly called on to testify about the plight of immigrants before assemblies such as the Organization of American States Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and the U.S. House and Senate Immigration subcommittees.
She has been featured in award winning documentaries, including Jonathan Demme's "Killing the Dream," "Black and White in Exile," "They Call Us Boat People," and "Abandoned: The Betrayal of America's Immigrants."
National television shows have sought out Little's expertise, and she has discussed immigration issues on 60 Minutes, Nightline, The McNeil-Lehrer Report, PBS's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Frontline, The Today Show, The Oprah Winfrey Show and CNN.
For her dedication and successes on behalf of Haitian refugees, the government of Haiti made her an honorary citizen in May 2002.
Little was selected for the Dees award by a distinguished committee that included SPLC board member Julian Bond.
Skadden is known for its premier corporate practice in New York and around the globe as well as support of public interest law and service.
Dees is a 1960 graduate of the University of Alabama School of Law. He co-founded the SPLC in 1971 with Joe Levin, also an Alabama graduate. Dees serves as the SPLC's chief trial counsel.
More information about the award is available at www.morrisdeesaward.com.