At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary for Families will be honoring a team from Akin Gump for their compassionate and devoted pro bono representation of “Amy” during the prosecution of her trafficker and in securing T-Nonimmigrant status. The team consists of partner Estela Diaz and counsel Kate Powers.
Amy was a young teenager living in Mexico when she met “Mario.” Mario told Amy that he had a big debt that he needed to repay, and asked her to help him. Specifically, Mario told Amy she had to prostitute to pay off his debts. When Amy refused, Mario became violent, imprisoned her, and forced her into prostitution. A few years later, Mario smuggled Amy into the U.S., and continued to traffic her throughout the tri-state area. Amy was able to eventually escape Mario, but was afraid to ever reveal what had happened to her, fearing for her family in her home country.
In April 2016, Amy was approached by special agents working for the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”), which was investigating her trafficker. Once identified as a trafficking survivor, Amy was connected with Sanctuary for Families, who in turn contacted Akin Gump, seeking assistance on an expedited basis.
Akin Gump formed a team to help Amy prepare to meet with federal prosecutors and agents from DHS. The team jumped in immediately to educate Amy on the process of the investigation and the potential prosecution of her trafficker, and to represent her at the meeting with law enforcement. Understandably, Amy was nervous to participate in this ordeal; however, the Akin team ensured that Amy, a non-English speaker, fully understood what she was getting involved with and remained sensitive to the severe trauma she had experienced as they worked to prepare her and advocate on her behalf.
After the initial meeting with the prosecutors in 2016, Akin assisted Amy in preparing a declaration in support of her trafficker’s extradition. Thereafter, Amy bravely agreed to testify at her trafficker’s trial, though her trafficker ultimately pleaded guilty. As the process progressed, the Akin group watched Amy gain confidence and courage. In fact, Amy (with the Akin team beside her) chose to attend her trafficker’s sentencing so she could look him in the eyes when he was sentenced to more than a decade in prison.
Over the past 6 years, while the trafficker’s prosecution was ongoing, the Akin team was also assisting Amy in preparing a visa application so she could remain in the U.S. The process took a long time because her application was tied to her trafficker’s prosecution, and Amy could not obtain the necessary statement from law enforcement to support her application until the criminal proceedings were resolved. Eventually, Akin submitted an application which was over 120 pages long, and in April 2022, Amy was granted T-Nonimmigrant status.
Estela Diaz describes this representation as one of the “most satisfying matters” she has ever had the privilege to work on. Speaking on behalf of the team, Estela noted that Amy was so “deserving of relief” and watching her “evolve throughout the representation” was such a “great” experience.
“The Akin Gump team exemplifies what we as attorneys strive for in representing survivors of gender based violence. Not only did they achieve excellent results, but they provided a space for the client to feel respected, dignified and empowered throughout the legal process.”
Director of SFF’s Anti-Trafficking Initiative
Sanctuary is thrilled to honor Estela and Kate for their tremendous legal abilities and dedication to their client.
Join us at our Above & Beyond Awards Ceremony on November 2, 2022, as we honor Akin Gump’s outstanding pro bono work.
If you can’t join us, but would like to support Sanctuary’s work, please consider making an Above & Beyond donation here.
Nicole Vescova is an associate at Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP, where she practices labor and employment law in their Miami office. Nicole is also a member of Sanctuary for Families’ Pro Bono Counsel.