At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring two attorneys from Milbank LLP, Cathy Zhu and George Zhang, for their persistent and creative advocacy on behalf of their client “Chelsea” in her efforts to be reunited with her 12-year old daughter, “Sarah,” who remained in China without proper guardianship during the pandemic.
When Cathy and George started working with Chelsea, she was not a new client for Milbank. Prior Milbank teams had helped Chelsea, a trafficking survivor, become a lawful permanent resident of the United States. Although she was well on her path to a new life in the United States, one important piece of the puzzle was missing: her youngest daughter, Sarah, who Chelsea had not seen in person since leaving China several years before. With her immigration status settled, in August 2019, Chelsea began working with Cathy Zhu to bring then 10-year-old Sarah to the U.S.
Although Sarah was eligible for an immigrant visa as Chelsea’s minor daughter, there remained a number of hurdles to overcome, including an interview with the U.S. State Department at a local consulate. Securing an interview at a U.S. consulate in China from abroad is challenging under any circumstances, but when the pandemic began in early 2020, the process ground to a halt. On January 31, 2020, the Trump administration imposed restrictions on travel and immigration to the U.S. from China.
Throughout this time, Sarah had been living with her father and his girlfriend in China. Although Chelsea did not think Sarah’s father was providing Sarah with the level of care and nurturing she deserved, Chelsea felt that Sarah was at least safe, and knew her father would assist with the visa process. But even that small bit of consolation ended when, in January of this year, Chelsea learned that Sarah’s father had been arrested in China and sent to jail.
Panicked, Chelsea called Cathy at Milbank and explained the renewed urgency to get Sarah out of China. The girlfriend was not interested in caring for Sarah, and Sarah was essentially left to fend for herself in Shanghai. To ensure that Sarah had adequate nutrition, Chelsea sent Sarah meals through a delivery service—a necessary stopgap, but nothing close to a solution to the problem. Chelsea was determined to reunite with Sarah, and started planning a trip to China, despite the risks of getting stuck and jeopardizing her own U.S. residency.
Cathy sprang into action. She recruited fellow Milbank associate George Zhang, and the two pursued a relentless campaign to get through to a U.S. consulate in China. In February, they finally made contact with the U.S. consulate in Guangzhou, China, only to be told that the consulate could not help in light of President Trump’s 2020 proclamation. Cathy and George impressed upon the consulate staff the urgency of the situation—while attempting to avoid having Sarah sent into foster care, which would further complicate her immigration proceedings—and began developing legal arguments in support of Sarah’s application.
Kathy Lu, the Sanctuary for Families attorney who worked with Cathy and George, noted how remarkable their efforts were:
“Cathy and George were advocating for their client in a period of unprecedented challenges, and they faced those challenges with determination and a deep empathy for the emotional toll the situation was taking on their client.” — Kathy Lu, Sanctuary Attorney
Little did they know that relief was close at hand. On February 24, 2021, the Biden administration lifted the restrictions imposed by the January 2020 executive order, which allowed Sarah’s application to proceed quickly, due to the work that had already been done. Working with the International Organization for Migration, Cathy and George got Chelsea on a flight to China, armed with the necessary paperwork, and worked to obtain an interview appointment at the U.S. consulate on the first possible day Sarah could get there, taking into account travel time—Chelsea had to fly to Shanghai to pick up Sarah and accompany her the long distance to the consulate in Guangzhou—and strict quarantine guidelines in China.
The plan worked. Chelsea was reunited with Sarah and accompanied her to the interview in Guangzhou. Two weeks after her interview, Sarah was granted a visa to come to the U.S., and mother and daughter boarded a flight back to the U.S. together. When they arrived, Cathy was at the airport waiting for them.
“It was very touching,” Cathy reflected. “Chelsea had spoken so much about her daughter and was clearly so happy to be with her. She could not get over how tall her daughter had grown in their time apart. She was beaming.”
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Colleen is a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council. She is a Vice President and Senior Counsel at Goldman Sachs & Co. LLC.