Davis Polk Attorneys Fight for Immigrant Survivor of Sex Trafficking

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a team of attorneys from Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP for their tireless pro bono work on behalf of “Maria,” a trans survivor of sex trafficking.

Melissa D. James is a Senior Associate at a boutique employment law firm, specializing in Workers’ Compensation and Social Security Disability. She is also an Adjunct Professor and member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council.

“Giving is not just about making a donation. It is about making a difference.” – Kathy Calvin, CEO & President of the United Nations Foundation

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a team of attorneys from Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP for their tireless pro bono work on behalf of “Maria,” a trans survivor of sex trafficking. The incredible team, consisting of Joshua Sills and David Robles, was successful in helping Maria vacate two outstanding criminal warrants and ultimately secure a T-Visa.

Drawing Parallels

Maria started grappling with her gender identity in her early teens, back in the early 2000s, while living in her home country of Mexico. As she began to transition at the age of fourteen, Maria would come to face horrible backlash and even violence from her parents. One day she came home from school to find that her father, in a rage, had set all of her belongings on fire. This prompted Maria to leave her parents’ home immediately and move to Mexico City where, like many transgender youth without familial support, she was forced to live on the streets. By the age of fifteen, Maria was residing in a group home and waiting tables to earn money. It was there where she met the older man who would later rape and force her into the world of trafficking.  He brought Maria to the U.S. and as soon as they crossed the border, he took her to her new “home”—a house where she was forced to have sex with the men who lived there as well as other men who came for the purpose of buying sex.  Maria eventually managed to escape with the help of a childhood friend who was also living in the United States. She ended up in New York City and was arrested for prostitution but, luckily, was referred to the Human Trafficking Intervention Court in Brooklyn where she was connected to Sanctuary and, ultimately, to Davis Polk.

In sheer contrast, Josh, who is the same age as Maria, lived a life free from such a dark reality. In fact, Josh expressed that “going through life, not understanding” the challenges others face is a “real eye-opener and a motivator to do more” to help victims of sexual abuse and exploitation. So, when the time came to face an unexpected obstacle, the Davis Polk team did not hesitate in taking the necessary steps to help Maria vacate two outstanding criminal warrants that could have jeopardized her T-Visa application.  As Josh so humbly stated, “passing it [the task] on to anyone else was not even a thought.”

Blazing a Path

As part of the T-Visa application, clients must provide proof that they cooperated with reasonable requests for assistance in the investigation or prosecution of acts of trafficking. This proof often comes in the form of a law enforcement “certification.”  At the time that Josh and David were working on Maria’s case, no trafficking survivor had yet to obtain this type of certification from the Brooklyn Human Trafficking Intervention Court (“HTIC”).  Working with Maria to prepare her for an in chamber interview with a Brooklyn HTIC Judge, Josh and David were able to help Maria obtain this critical certification from the Judge, blazing a path in Brooklyn for future survivors.

The Game Changer

During the process of preparing Maria’s T-Visa application, the Davis Polk team learned that it could be compromised unless two outstanding criminal warrants were resolved. Without hesitation, the team reached out to Red Hook Community Justice Center (“RHCJC”) and got the cases placed on the calendar to be heard before a criminal law judge. At the hearing the team made an application to vacate the outstanding warrants that was granted by the presiding judge. Josh remembers Maria initially being scared, however he recognized her resilience and admired her for her strength. At the end, Maria was granted a T-Visa and could now truly move on from her past.

The Golden Standard

Amy Hsieh, Sanctuary’s Senior Staff Attorney, had an opportunity to work closely with the Davis Polk team and expressed that they provided “the perfect combination of support for Maria.” “Their legal work was of course outstanding,” said Hsieh, “but they also formed a true bond with their client so much so that Josh—even though he is now in Spain—continues to help her as needed from afar.” She noted that the Davis Polk team was very passionate, stepped outside the box and treated Maria like any other client who walked through Davis Polk’s doors. In her eyes, the way that the Davis Polk team took the lead to handle this arduous obstacle represents a level of dedication that she wishes could be the standard for all pro bono work.

What brings true value to the Davis Polk team is that both Josh and David understand the time and effort that it takes to provide exceptional pro bono representation. In fact, prior to joining Davis Polk both Josh and David regularly participated in complex pro bono opportunities. In law school, David worked closely with victims of domestic abuse and prior to law school, Josh was involved with Immigration Equality – the leading national LGBTQ immigrant rights organization. David expressed that working with Sanctuary has been invaluable and has shaped him into a better attorney. Similarly, Josh feels blessed to work so closely with Sanctuary and often thinks deeply about the struggles that face so many victims of sex trafficking. This vast contrast in life is what drives him to continue doing this type of work – the notion that sometimes we live a life so secluded oblivious to the fact that there is someone else so close living a life that mirrors a nightmare.

Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on November 12, 2019, at the RUMI Event Space, 229 W 28th St, New York, NY as we honor Davis Polk’s outstanding pro bono work. You can buy tickets here

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

Schulte Roth Attorneys Help Domestic Violence Survivor Through Complex and Challenging Custody Battle

At this year’s Above and Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a team of attorneys from Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP for their dedicated and powerful advocacy on behalf of their client, “Macey,” throughout a complex and challenging custody battle.

Elizabeth Buckel is a senior associate in the Litigation and Trial Practice group at Alston & Bird LLP and a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of attorneys from Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP for their dedicated and powerful advocacy on behalf of their client, “Macey,” throughout a complex and challenging custody battle.  We are pleased to honor this incredible team consisting of former associate Cara David, partner Taleah Jennings, and associates Thomas DeFranco, Thomas Przybylowski, and Elizabeth Sullivan.

In early 2015, Macey and her children were locked out of their family home by Macey’s violent and controlling abuser, the father of her children, following incidents where he threatened Macey and destroyed her belongings in fits of rage. Seeking to protect her children, Macey went to Family Court to file a family offense petition. Once there, Macey was assisted by Sanctuary’s Courtroom Advocates Project (CAP)

Sanctuary senior staff attorney Sadie Diaz took on Macey’s cases and helped her secure temporary custody of her children, and then continued to navigate a trial on cross-custody petitions in Family Court. During trial, Sadie was able to obtain key testimony and evidence showing the father’s violence, destruction, and abusive control (exerted at times in the children’s presence) and establish that he was completely unwilling to take care of the children’s various medical and educational needs. However, in August 2017, mid-trial and before Macey had completed presenting her evidence, the Family Court inexplicably granted the father’s motion for temporary custody of the children pending a final determination of the proceeding.

That’s when the pro bono team from Schulte stepped in. According to Sadie, who nominated this team,

“The Schulte team immediately went to work on an interim appeal to the Second Department, digesting the extremely complex record, which included three years of multiple orders, transcripts from approximately 10 days of trial, and multiple exhibits, and working tirelessly to draft persuasive briefing.”

Due to the Schulte team’s gold standard work in briefing the case and impressive advocacy at oral arguments by Cara David, the appellate court reversed the grant of temporary custody to the father, and the children remained with Macey for the remainder of the Family Court proceedings.

As the Family Court trial continued in 2018, the Schulte team remained dedicated to Macey and her children. They attended trial to lend moral support and advice, and witnessed the procedural and systemic challenges of Family Court and the father’s abuse of the litigation process.  At the end, the Judge once again transferred custody to the father despite the additional evidence that had been presented in favor of Macey, issuing her decision at the eleventh hour before the 2018 Labor Day weekend to make it difficult to appeal the decision and obtain a stay before the start of school.

The Schulte team immediately dove back into the case. The team worked over the holiday weekend to try to obtain a stay of the final custody order, and continues to handle the ongoing appeal. The team described that they wouldn’t have it any other way—

“We saw a Family Court that wasn’t getting it right and was therefore failing the people who needed its protection the most. Here, we have an opportunity to try and correct these errors.”

The team remains steadfastly devoted to the case, and to Macey and her children. As Sadie highlighted,

“The Schulte team has been genuinely concerned about Macey and her children throughout this process, and is truly dedicated to obtaining the best possible result for this family.”

The team noted that it is Macey who deserves the credit for keeping them going:

“It is a huge honor to represent Macey. Macey simply cannot be more invested in the day-to-day lives of her children. Despite this challenging process and devastating judicial determinations, Macey is fiercely committed to her children and is doing everything possible in her power to make sure they are safe and protected.”

Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on November 12, 2019, at the RUMI Event Space, 229 W 28th St, New York, NY as we honor the outstanding pro bono work by the team from Schulte. You can buy tickets here

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

Barclays and O’Melveny & Myers Attorneys Help Trafficking Victims Secure T-Visas

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a team of attorneys from Barclays and O’Melveny & Myers for their compassionate and hardworking pro bono assistance on behalf of trafficking survivors “Hana” and “Min-ji” in their successful applications for T nonimmigrant visas.

Nicole Vescova is an associate in the Labor & Employment Group at Ellenoff Grossman & Schloe LLP and a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council.  

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of attorneys from Barclays and O’Melveny & Myers (“O’Melveny”) for their compassionate and hardworking pro bono assistance on behalf of “Hana” and “Min-ji” in their successful applications for T nonimmigrant visas (sometimes referred to as “T-Visas”). The team consisted of former O’Melveny associates Richard Spatola (now at IBM) and Carolyn Baek (now at Barclays); O’Melveny partner Sung Pak; O’Melveny associate Matthew Murphy; and O’Melveny staff attorney Grace Lee.

ESCAPING TRAFFICKING

Min-ji

Min-ji first started dating “Marc” while visiting the United States from South Korea. After she returned home, they communicated often and Marc relentlessly urged her to come back to America, promising to marry her. Sadly, Marc’s persistence was a ploy to exploit her. Immediately upon her arrival, Marc forced Min-ji into labor and confiscated all of her earnings. He was physically and mentally abusive. He was possessive and controlled all of her movements and finances. Marc also attempted to force Min-ji into prostitution on multiple occasions.

After a particularly vicious episode of domestic violence, Min-ji bravely fled to the local precinct and filed a report. Fortunately for Min-ji, Marc was arrested. After speaking with Min-ji, the assistant district attorney assigned to the matter realized that Min-ji was not only a victim of domestic violence but also a victim of labor trafficking and referred Min-ji to Sanctuary for Families.

Hana

Ironically, Hana’s chance of freedom came the moment she was arrested. Hana, originally from Korea, was discovered during a sting operation involving an illegal “out-call service” operation—a call center where people could “order” women to come to motels and provide sexual services. Making matters worse, the out-call operation that was prosecuted and shut down had fostered a drug addiction among the workers. Her traffickers exploited that addiction, keeping Hana in debt to obtain drugs so that no matter how much she “worked” she would never make any money to escape. Fortunately, Sanctuary for Families had persuaded the NYPD to refer the women being exploited at the out-call center to Sanctuary after taking them into custody but before processing them in order to identify any trafficking victims. Sanctuary for Families provided supportive services so Hana could overcome her addiction and seek freedom.

COMPASSIONATE CARE & ZEALOUS ADVOCACY

Both Min-ji and Hana were severely traumatized by their experiences. Min-ji came to America under the impression of romance and false promises of marriage, but was instead tricked into involuntary servitude. She struggled horribly with self-blame. Hana had faced a pattern of abuse throughout her life, including childhood sexual abuse, domestic violence, and repeated sex trafficking. Given this traumatic history, she initially did not even understand that this latest form of abuse was a crime; she could not comprehend that she was worthy of being treated with care or compassion.

Both women needed legal assistance to help them obtain lawful immigration status and employment authorization. Lori Cohen, former Director of Sanctuary’s Anti-Trafficking Initiative, recognized the importance of assigning culturally and linguistically competent attorneys to their cases who would not only be able to navigate the legal issues ahead, but who would be sensitive to complicated sets of emotions these women struggled with and to treat them with respect. Lori reached out to trusted pro bono attorney Carolyn Baek, who at the time was working at O’Melveny. Carolyn assembled teams at O’Melveny to help both women. From the moment Carolyn and the teams met the two women, they treated them kindly and respectfully, allowing them to recognize their own value. Carolyn was dedicated to working compassionately with both Min-ji and Hana, and when she left O’Melveny in 2018 and moved to Barclays, Carolyn ensured continuity of representation by co-counseling with the team at O’Melveny so she could remain involved in her clients’ immigration journeys.

According to Lori,

“Carolyn and the O’Melveny/Barclays team achieved spectacular victories for these clients. The two women had histories that were completely different from one another, but they both experienced horrific abuse and were in need of highly skilled counsel.  This team not only provided excellent legal analyses to produce compelling applications, but also demonstrated a level of respect for these vulnerable woman that was deeply moving. And their cultural competency — the ability to speak directly with the clients to grasp the nuances of some of the abuse — was key to their success.”

CONCERNS ABOUT INADMISSIBILITY

When applying for a T visa, the individual must not only show that she is a victim of a “severe form of trafficking,” but also that she is “admissible,” that is, no bars to her eligibility exist. Hana, having been blackmailed and subjected to horrific abuse by the organized crime ring that exploited her, clearly was a victim of a “severe form of trafficking.” However, Sanctuary recognized that USCIS may have viewed Hana’s drug addiction as a ground of inadmissibility that would bar a visa, or worse, consider Hana herself to be a drug trafficker.

Sanctuary knew that Hana needed a legal team that could clearly spell out the link between the addiction fostered by Hana’s traffickers and the mounting indebtedness that it created as the abusive tactics used by the traffickers to ensure Hana’s captivity, not a grounds of inadmissibility. Given the increased scrutiny over these types of cases, particularly in any one that mentions drugs, this was by no means a certain argument. However, the O’Melveny team had prepared such a strong application that so amply documented the operations of the trafficking ring that Hana’s application was approved without any push-back from USCIS. This was a significant victory, and Hana, now drug free and working full time, has reclaimed her life.

OVERCOMING T-VISA APPLICATION CHALLENGES

When USCIS challenged Min-ji’s initial visa application on the grounds that she “merely” faced domestic violence, as opposed to labor trafficking, Carolyn and Lori brought Min-ji to the US Attorney’s Office to advocate on her behalf and help them understand the nature of the trafficking. During the interview, Carolyn, who speaks Korean, noticed that the interpreter was improperly translating Min-ji’s testimony and was instead using language that blamed her. Uncomfortable with the judgmental tenor of the translation, Carolyn immediately requested the interview be terminated. After counseling Min-ji regarding the problems with the interpreter, a second interview was conducted.

With proper translation, the US Attorney’s Office understood that despite the initial romantic relationship between Min-ji and her trafficker, the relationship had turned exploitative and Min-ji had in fact been labor trafficked by her partner. The Department of Justice ultimately supported Min-ji’s T-Visa application. This resulted not only in USCIS approving Min-ji’s application, but it also represented a pivotal moment in educating law enforcement and USCIS about the interplay between labor trafficking and domestic violence.

Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on November 12, 2019, at the RUMI Event Space, 229 W 28th St, New York, NY as we honor this team’s outstanding pro bono work. You can buy tickets here

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

My Voice Is Powerful and So Is Yours

Survivor Leader Alida Tchicamboud discusses her advocacy work and the importance of shelter and affordable housing for survivors of domestic violence.

Alida is a domestic violence advocate, Survivor Leader at Sanctuary for Families, and founder of Healing Hands International, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting victims of Domestic Violence.

Last week, I testified to the New York City Council about my experience in a domestic violence shelter and the challenges other survivors face in the shelter system when looking for affordable housing.

I am so excited to have been quoted in this article about a city council hearing I testified at alongside Helen Rosenthal, a Council Member and chair of the Committee on Women and Gender Equity:

“Some of the issues raised by the Council members were echoed by survivors who testified as well. Alida Tchicamboud, a survivor leader at Sanctuary for Families, a domestic violence survivor service provider, emphasized how the city’s shelter system saved her life. But there were hurdles along the way, she explained. ‘It seems like the system works against survivors, especially for single women with dependent minor children, by forcing them to go back into the cycle of lifetime public assistance,’ she said.”

I am also appreciative of Council member Brad Lander who tweeted my intervention and qualified it as “Smart & courageous”

By sharing my experience, thoughts and opinions, I encouraged HRA to take action where needed. I believe that my suggestions carry a lot of weight and I hope that it will influence policy decisions, because it is without a doubt that survivors of domestic violence need:

  1. At least one year stay in transitional shelters to build themselves first
  2. Imperatively an increase of the City vouchers every year to match the rent stabilization guidelines
  3. Building more affordable permanent housing units with survivors of domestic violence as the top priorities to occur those facilities
  4. Trauma-focus approaches while exiting shelters…

There are many ways to get involved in the effort to support survivors of domestic violence.

IN THE WORKPLACE

Domestic violence is not a “personal” issue, because it has no boundaries, it does not stay home. Approximately 60% of adults in the U.S. work, so chances are that in a given workplace, many employees are victims, perpetrators, or have a friend or family member who is a victim. Employers have to prepared to deal with domestic violence. Below are some ideas that can be explored in the workplace:

  • Educate yourself on the subject
  • Review the Employee and Family Assistance Plan (EFAP) services if you have them, to ensure that they identify services related to exposure to trauma and offer options and resources available to victims
  • Train managers and supervisors on how to recognize and respond to signs of domestic violence / how to address related issues such as privacy and confidentiality
  • Leaders should help and not judge and show concern for employees well-being
  • Build awareness because domestic violence is not always “visible”
  • Managers, don’t discriminate allow victims to take the time off to appear in court, apply for a protection order or seek medical attention…

I advocate to help survivors get the help they need to build a new future. Do you advocate?