WilmerHale Attorneys Help Trafficking Survivor Secure T-Visa

Victoria O. Abraham is an associate in the Mergers & Acquisitions group at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in New York, a Co-Chair of the Above & Beyond Committee and a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council. 


At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a team of attorneys from Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP for their compassionate and devoted pro bono representation of “Julina,” helping her to obtain her T-Visa.  The team consisted of partner Dan Schubert and attorneys Jenny Pelaez, Sara Maldonado, Olga Kamensky, and Ken Brady.  Former WilmerHale partner Sharon Cohen Levin worked extensively on this matter, as did former WilmerHale attorneys Lisabeth Mendola-D’Andrea, Marguerite Colson, Sarah Mortazavi, and Carrie Montgomery.  Senior paralegals Lauren Kennedy and Joseph Ciraco also provided invaluable assistance.

In 2016, when she had just turned 18 years old, Julina went to a party where her future trafficker drugged her, kidnapped her, and then sex trafficked her out of a hotel room in New York. Julina managed to escape from him when he left her alone in the hotel room. She ran to another hotel down the street where she used a stranger’s cell phone to call the police. Despite going through this extremely traumatic and challenging trafficking experience, Julina was able to be a key witness in the case against her trafficker. Julina, with the help of her WilmerHale attorneys, Lisabeth Mendola-D’Andrea*, Sharon Cohen Levin*, Sarah Mortazavi*, and Jenny Pelaez participated in a series of interviews with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York and was instrumental in helping them bring charges against her trafficker. He ended up pleading guilty and was sentenced in 2019.

After the successful resolution of her trafficking case, the team of current and former WilmerHale attorneys, consisting of Dan Schubert, Sharon Cohen Levin*, Lisabeth Mendola-D’Andrea*, Sara Maldonado, Ken Brady, Olga Kamensky, Jenny Pelaez, Marguerite Colson*, and Carrie Montgomery*, took Julina on as an immigration client to help her with her T-Visa application. Julina had come to the U.S. from Mexico, undocumented, when she was just two years old.  Julina’s T-Visa case was not straightforward and required the team to put together a supplemental application in response to the government’s Request for Evidence (“RFE”).

“What stood out to me about this case was that their representation of the client was really multi-faceted. They took on so many different kinds of representation – witness cooperation, obtaining Continued Presence and applying for and obtaining T nonimmigrant status,” said Jessica-Wind Abolafia, Director of the Anti-Trafficking Initiative at Sanctuary for Families. “It was legally complex – during the pendency of the T application, the government issued an RFE dealing with the intersection of immigration and criminal law. It was a particularly challenging RFE given the policies of the current administration. The team skillfully drafted a compelling response that was ultimately successful.”

“Sometimes the systems that are put in place to help people who have been trafficked may make help out of reach. It is unimaginable from our point of view how someone could fill out this application on their own,” Sara said. “We had initially been frustrated when we received an RFE asking her to explain why she should be admitted after having engaged in prostitution.  But we were able to explain the nexus to the trafficking component of her story and that she had not engaged in prostitution on a voluntary basis, and we were glad to see that they understood and credited Julina’s story.”

The COVID-19 pandemic presented additional logistical challenges for the team in terms of managing the process, navigating the court system and obtaining the necessary records. With all these challenges, the team was still able to approach the case in a holistic way that was supportive of Julina and respectful of her healing process.

“The way the team was there for her on an emotional level was so key and so crucial. Their compassionate approach led to the client being able to get through a really challenging time in a way that was manageable and respectful of her limits. They really struck the right balance.” — Jessica-Wind Abolafia, SFF Anti-Trafficking Initiative Director.

“She helped me to figure out different ways to interact with clients and how to respect where she is as a person. This has been a learning and growing experience for me. I was working with someone who experienced trauma that I could not even imagine,” said Sara.

The government granted Julina’s T-Visa in June 2020, and since then Julina has been focused on rebuilding her life with her two young children and her partner.

Join us at our virtual Above & Beyond virtual celebration on October 29, 2020, as we honor the outstanding pro bono work of Dan, Sharon, Lisabeth, Sara, Ken, Olga, Marguerite, Sarah, Carrie, Jenny, Lauren, and Joseph. 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.