S&C Attorneys Help Trafficking Survivors Adjust Status, Obtain T-Visa

Colleen is a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council.  She is a Vice President and Senior Counsel at Goldman Sachs & Co. LLC.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a team of attorneys from Sullivan & Cromwell LLP for their astute and flexible representation of “Soojin” and “Miyoung” in their applications for adjustment of status and a T-non-immigrant visa, respectively. The team assisting Soojin consisted of partner Garrard Beeney, attorneys Connor “CJ” Haynes and Suniti Mehta, and legal assistant Emma Needham.  Garrard Beeney also assisted in Miyoung’s case, along with attorneys Olivia Chalos and David Seidler.

Soojin and Miyoung, two unrelated women who survived sex trafficking through massage parlors in both Korea and the United States, have each spent years working to overcome the trauma they endured.  Both women had paid the same immigration attorney in another state to assist them with their immigration petitions, but when they found their way to Sanctuary for Families, those applications had been in limbo for several years.  Soojin had filed a petition to adjust her status to receive lawful permanent residency after procuring a T-nonimmigrant visa (“T visa”) several years prior.  Miyoung had been waiting for her T visa for nearly five years, despite the successful prosecution of several of her traffickers.

When Sanctuary for Families attorneys Amy Hsieh and Kathy Lu began working with Soojin and Miyoung, they made several attempts to get the attention of USCIS and to find out the status of the cases, but to no avail. They realized that the best course of action to force a decision would be a rare and risky tactic: filing a mandamus action against the federal government to compel action in Soojin’s and Miyoung’s cases. And they knew that they would need a sophisticated team of pro bono attorneys to help.

In July of 2019, the Sullivan and Cromwell team took the cases, and Garrard, CJ, Suniti, Oliva, David, and Emma began preparing the mandamus actions.  After conducting extensive research into the novel issues presented, and considering the risks of increased negative scrutiny on the clients’ petitions as the result of a lawsuit against the government, the team drafted complaints.  In relatively short order the team filed the mandamus suit in Miyoung’s case in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York.  Shortly thereafter, they were contacted by the Assistant U. S. Attorney who had been assigned the case.  The AUSA asked for more time to respond, with the implication that the suit may have prompted the government to take action on the underlying petition that would moot the mandamus case.  In January 2020, Miyoung received a Request for Evidence (“RFE”) relating to her T-visa petition.

In the meantime, Soojin had received an RFE, as well, likely on the back of a new, corrected adjustment-of-status petition Sanctuary had filed after withdrawing the prior version.  In light of the new territory both clients found themselves in, the Sullivan and Cromwell team did not miss a beat before shifting their attention to the RFEs.  While the mandamus actions were largely complicated questions of law that required extensive legal research, the RFE responses were incredibly fact-specific, especially when it came to detailing in a clear and accurate way the complicated criminal histories of both Soojin and Miyoung, which often present challenges for survivors of trafficking.

Further compounding the issue was the fact that the country was in the beginning stages of a pandemic.  In-person meetings between the clients and their lawyers would not be possible. “These circumstances make pro bono cases especially difficult when you can’t see your clients in person and develop that connection with them,” reflected Suniti.  

But as Kathy notes about the Sullivan and Cromwell team, “The speed with which Garrard, CJ, Suniti, Olivia, David, and Emma pivoted was remarkable.  They did not hesitate to roll up their sleeves to work on the RFE right after they had put countless hours into the mandamus complaints, all while managing the challenging new logistics of handling immigration cases during a pandemic.  We could not have done this work without them.”

For their part, the Sullivan and Cromwell team remained focused on serving Soojin and Miyoung with the best quality legal counsel, and they found their close partnership with Amy and Kathy to be incredibly effective.  Bolstered by their clients’ resilience and this new shot at overcoming the legal barriers that had been in Soojin and Miyoung’s way for too long, the Sullivan and Cromwell and Sanctuary for Families teams completed the RFEs together and submitted them timely.

Within a matter of weeks, Miyoung received approval of her T-visa petition, which granted her access to much-needed work-authorization, as well as a derivative visa for her husband, and Soojin received approval of her adjustment of status petition and is now a lawful permanent resident of the United States.  Given the extensive length of time both clients waited, and the significant legal hurdles they had to overcome, they were prepared for the worst.  Receiving approval of their respective petitions so soon after the Sullivan and Cromwell team started working on them was a tremendous relief.

Reflecting on the case, Olivia noted how clear it was to her from the start that Miyoung undoubtedly had overcome horrible experiences and had met the legal requirements for a T visa, especially since her traffickers had already been prosecuted.

“I was grateful to work on this case, but it is challenging to know that there are so many people without lawyers who find themselves in similar situations, facing these procedural hurdles.” — Olivia Chalos, Associate.

Suniti expressed her deep admiration for Soojin, who had lived in a state of uncertainty for so long and had survived years of trauma as the result of the trafficking, only to become stuck for years in an immigration system that she thought her prior attorney was working to help her navigate.  The Sullivan and Cromwell team, cognizant of Soojin’s experiences, worked hard to gain her trust and to be the advocates she deserved.  As Suniti put it, “having counsel can actually help you.”

Join us at our virtual Above & Beyond virtual celebration on October 29, 2020, as we honor the outstanding pro bono work of Garrard, Suniti, C.J. Emma, Olivia, and David. Click here to RSVP for free.

If you can’t join us, but would like to support Sanctuary for Family’s work, please consider making an Above & Beyond donation here.