On International Agunah Day, Sanctuary Stands with Jewish Orthodox Survivors

Learn about the plight of “chained women” and how you can support our work within the Jewish Orthodox Community.

On the eve of Purim, the Jewish Orthodox community observes Ta’anit Esther to commemorate the plea of Queen Esther – a Jewish woman who saved her people during their exile in the Persian Empire. Like many Jewish women today, Esther was trapped in a forced marriage to the king of Persia and spent years fearing her husband might kill her.

Today, Sanctuary joins advocates around the world to observe the International Day of the Agunah – a day marked yearly on the Fast of Esther to bring awareness to the plight of the modern-day agunah, or “chained woman” – and stands in solidarity with Jewish Orthodox women in New York and across the world who have suffered from get-refusal and are trapped in unwanted marriages.

According to Jewish law, a marriage can only be dissolved once the husband voluntarily grants a get, or religious divorce, to his wife – something many men refuse to do out of malice or to use as leverage when negotiating financial settlements and custody arrangements. Get-refusal is thus a form of domestic violence by which the husband asserts power and control to deny his wife the opportunity to separate and move on with her life. Orthodox Jewish women in these situations are called agunot, or chained women, for they are not allowed to remarry. For agunot, any new relationship they have is considered adultery, and their children will be considered illegitimate if conceived outside of marriage.

At Sanctuary, we recognize get-refusal as a form of gender violence that harms women, their children, and the wider Jewish Orthodox Community. In 2015, seeing that many women seeking help with civil and religious divorces had virtually nowhere to turn for help, we launched the Jewish Orthodox Matrimonial Project. In the years since, we have provided clinical and legal services, shelter, and economic empowerment to hundreds of Jewish Orthodox women and their children. Furthermore, we have actively engaged with rabbis, community leaders, and peer organizations, to build a network of advocates committed to raising awareness about domestic violence within the Jewish Orthodox community and protecting the rights and wellbeing of survivors.

Please consider demonstrating your solidarity this International Agunah Day by donating to Sanctuary’s Jewish Orthodox Matrimonial Project.

Get to know our Immigration Intervention Project staff

Find out what drew our Immigration Intervention Project staff to Sanctuary and what about their work inspires them.

Working in immigration these days is not easy. Adapting to the rapidly changing policies amidst a constant stream of charged anti-immigrant rhetoric from the White House, and seeing the impacts of both on families here in New York is often as exhausting as it is upsetting.

Our Immigration Intervention Project team, made up of 19 attorneys, case managers, specialists, and project assistants, are committed to helping immigrant gender violence survivors secure and maintain lawful immigration status and obtain U.S. citizenship. Working with partner agencies and city officials, our immigration team strives to support New York’s immigrant communities and empower undocumented survivors of gender violence to build safe and happy lives here in the City.

Get to know a few of our team and find out why they do the hard but important work that they do. 

Sheeba

Staff Attorney, Bronx Family Justice Center

Languages other than English: Tamil and Spanish.

What drew her to Sanctuary for Families’ Immigration Intervention Project: The holistic support that Sanctuary’s immigration clients receive — legal assistance in other areas, counseling, economic empowerment, case management, etc.

One thing in her work at Sanctuary and life in New York that gives her hope as our country’s leadership continues demonize immigrants and target immigrant communities: I’m a child of immigrants who grew up in New York City, so helping other immigrants obtain status and unite their families is a great way to pay it forward.

Anne Cécile

Immigration Specialist, Manhattan Family Justice Center

Languages other than English: French, German, Chinese, and basic Spanish.

What drew her to Sanctuary for Families’ Immigration Intervention Project: I try hard never to believe in borders.

One thing in her work at Sanctuary and life in New York that gives her hope as our country’s leadership continues demonize immigrants and target immigrant communities: The resilience and strength of survivors, even in these dull times, never ceases to amaze me.

Pooja

Deputy Director, Manhattan Office

Languages other than English: French

What drew her to Sanctuary for Families’ Immigration Intervention Project: The people. 

One thing in her work at Sanctuary and life in New York that gives her hope as our country’s leadership continues demonize immigrants and target immigrant communities: Our clients’ resilience. 

Ines

Staff Attorney, Manhattan Office

Languages other than English: French and Spanish.

What drew her to Sanctuary for Families’ Immigration Intervention Project: My passion for representing vulnerable immigrants in removal proceedings. Legal representation is more than essential to navigate the U.S. immigration court system and win a case. All immigrants facing deportation should be given a fair hearing.

One thing in her work at Sanctuary and life in New York that gives her hope as our country’s leadership continues demonize immigrants and target immigrant communities: The courage, strength, and resolve of our clients give me hope. They don’t give up so neither should we.

Natali

Immigrant Justice Corps Fellow, Manhattan Office

Languages other than English: Spanish.

What drew her to Sanctuary for Families’ Immigration Intervention Project: Immigrant women are among the most vulnerable groups of immigrants. On top of the forms of domestic violence survivors face, immigrant women face extra barriers to peace and justice, including fear of police and the judicial system, fear of deportation, inadequate shelter and other social services, language and cultural barriers, and lack of access to information about the legal system. When I first found out about Sanctuary’s Immigration Intervention Project, I was immediately drawn to its mission to breaking down these barriers for immigrant survivors.

One thing in her work at Sanctuary and life in New York that gives her hope as our country’s leadership continues demonize immigrants and target immigrant communities: Our clients! They have gone through unspeakable violence and systematic barriers and still continue to contribute to the United States. The first thing the majority of my clients ask me is how and when they can pay taxes because they want to give back to their new home. Immigrants are not a “drain” on our resources they are the fuel that keeps this nation running. Their strength and hope gives me hope. (sorry cheesy, but it’s so true)

Tayyaba

Senior Staff Attorney, Manhattan Office

Languages other than English: Spanish, Urdu, and Hindi.

What drew her to Sanctuary for Families’ Immigration Intervention Project: I was drawn to the opportunity to work with immigrant survivors from across the world and empower them with the knowledge of their rights and remedies, as well as being able to assist them in their immigration needs.

One thing in her work at Sanctuary and life in New York that gives her hope as our country’s leadership continues demonize immigrants and target immigrant communities: It gives me hope to see New Yorkers and Sanctuary staff outside of the Immigration Intervention Project taking such an interest and becoming so active in supporting immigrants’ rights. It was great seeing how how recent trip to the border generated so much interest among staff.

Vanessa

Project Assistant, Manhattan Office

Languages other than English: Spanish.

What drew her to Sanctuary for Families’ Immigration Intervention Project:My family and I are immigrants from Mexico. I was helped by a non-profit to adjust my status and without them I do not think I would have been able to cover the fees, let alone apply to adjust my status. With the current political climate that we are in and the attacks on immigrant communities, I felt called to support immigrants and wanted to work in a non-profit as a way to give back and help.

One thing in her work at Sanctuary and life in New York that gives her hope as our country’s leadership continues demonize immigrants and target immigrant communities: That all the colleagues I work with are as passionate as I am about the work that we do. That we care deeply for all immigrant communities and we want to provide high quality work for our clients because they deserve it. We all know the importance of immigrants to this country and to this city, so being around people who share that same value is so important to me.

Gaby

Case Manager, Manhattan Office

Languages other than English: Spanish.

What drew her to Sanctuary for Families’ Immigration Intervention Project: I want to one day be an immigration attorney.

One thing in her work at Sanctuary and life in New York that gives her hope as our country’s leadership continues demonize immigrants and target immigrant communities: Sanctuary provides so many resources to those who feel they have nothing or no where to turn.

Ana

Senior Staff Attorney

Languages other than English: Bosnian.

What drew her to Sanctuary for Families’ Immigration Intervention Project: To help clients win their cases despite the current administration’s hostile, anti-immigrant policies.

One thing in her work at Sanctuary and life in New York that gives her hope as our country’s leadership continues demonize immigrants and target immigrant communities: That we still rise. 

Voices from The Border

Sanctuary attorney Natali Soto writes about our legal team’s experience assisting asylum-seekers in Tijuana, Mexico, as the U.S. implemented new deterrence protocols.

Natali Soto is an Immigrant Justice Corps Fellow and an attorney in Sanctuary’s Immigration Intervention Project

In light of the current humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, my fellow Sanctuary immigration attorneys and I spent the first week of February working with asylum-seekers in Tijuana, Mexico. That same week, the U.S. rolled out its “Migrant Protection Protocol,” a policy which requires most asylum seekers who have passed their credible fear interviews to remain in Mexico, instead of the U.S., while they wait for a U.S. Immigration Judge to hear their asylum case.

Throughout our time in Tijuana, we met beautiful souls from all over the world – including Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Haiti, Ghana, Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Tajikistan, Chechnya, and Russia – who had fled gender violence and other forms of persecution and violence in their home countries. These migrants had traveled thousands of miles by plane, bus, boat, and by foot, driven by hopes of finding asylum in the U.S.  They endured unimaginable hardships throughout their dangerous journeys only to find out, upon their arrival at the U.S.- Mexico border, that they must “wait in line” for weeks, even months, before being allowed to present their asylum claim to a U.S. Immigration Officer.

Listen to our attorneys describe the circumstances that have forced survivors to flee their home countries and seek refuge in the U.S.

The Current State of the Asylum-Seeking Process

This line-keeping system is a direct outcome of the Trump Administration’s “metering” policy, implemented in November 2018, which limits the number of asylum seekers allowed to enter the US each day. The system, however, is anything but official. Rather than being run by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) or any other U.S. or Mexican government agency, the line is managed by migrants who have assumed a leadership role among their peers. Newly-arrived asylum seekers must provide their names and nationalities to these migrant leaders in order to be assigned a number that corresponds to their place in line, supposedly based on the order in which they arrive.

Every day, CBP settles on a seemingly-indiscriminate number of people to allow into the U.S. and notifies Mexican officials who, in turn, pass this information to migrant leaders. The leaders then call out certain migrants’ numbers to indicate that those individuals are now allowed to cross into the U.S. to kickstart the asylum-claim process. Because the U.S. is inconsistent in the number of asylum seekers they’ll accept on any given day, these migrants must show up every morning, with their children and all of their belongings. If they are not present when their number is called, they will have to either plead to keep their spot in line or sign-up for a new number and wait several more weeks.

Migrants whose numbers have been called are lined up, put into vans, driven across the border, and kept in detention centers until their credible fear interviews, where a CBP officer will assess their fear of return to their home country. Unfortunately, even passage of these credible fear interviews does not guarantee temporary safety in the U.S. – under the Migrant Protection Protocol, asylum seekers must meet an even higher “reasonable” fear standard by demonstrating they fear persecution both in their home countries and in Mexico. Unfortunately, many vulnerable individuals who “have not had time to gather evidence that would show their credibility,” or whose claims include trauma-related inconsistencies or omissions, will fail to meet this higher standard and be sent back Mexico to await the adjudication of their asylum case.

Watch Lori Adams, Director of Sanctuary’s Immigration Intervention Project, describe the situation at the U.S.-Mexico on the third day of implementation of the “Migrant Protection Protocol.” 

Our Work at the Border

Part of our duties as volunteer attorneys in Tijuana included delivering “Know Your Rights” presentations and meeting with migrants individually to provide them with legal counsel on their respective asylum cases. We also held last-minute credible fear interview prep sessions for migrants whose numbers had been called that morning. Although some migrants had anticipated the strenuous conditions they were about to face upon entering the U.S., others had reasonably assumed the worst of the asylum process was over. Had we not told them, the latter group would not have known that upon entering the U.S., they would be stripped of their extra layers of clothing and forced to await their credible fear interview in freezing holding cells for days at a time.

Listen to Sanctuary attorneys describe how they assisted migrants as they prepared to cross the border to deliver their credible-fear interviews — the first step for claiming asylum in the United States.

While conducting these last-minute interview prep sessions with migrants about to cross the border, my colleagues and I acted as “human shields” to provide privacy for those who needed to change into their warmest base layer. We also provided migrants with Sharpie markers so that they could write their loved ones’ phone numbers on their forearms, in the likely case that ICE would take away their possessions. We also encouraged parents to write their own names and dates of birth on the backs of their children’s shoulders in preparation for the tragic yet foreseeable case of ICE separating families upon crossing. Two young kids with whom I worked thought of these as “cool new tattoos” and showed them off to fellow migrants while their mother held back her tears fearing that these marks would not be enough to keep her children by her side.

Having to explain to families that they would most likely be separated at some point during the asylum claim process and that they would most likely be returned to Mexico while they await adjudication, was soul-crushing. When migrants learned about the new policies central to the current U.S. Immigration System, their hopefulness and excitement would immediately turn into anguish and disappointment, yet for many of them turning back was not an option. When you are fleeing for your life, not even a cruel system that is purposefully set in place to deter you from seeking asylum will dissuade you from pleading for safety.

Listen to our attorneys describe the anguish experienced by migrant families facing separation at the border.

My colleagues and I stayed in San Diego and crossed the border by foot twice a day since the people we were working with were in Tijuana. Throughout the week, I could not avoid thinking of the irony and privilege that underlined our back-and-forth crossings, during which we did as little as wave our U.S. passports to border officials. We were able to easily cross this arbitrary line only because we were born on the “right” side of it, while those who were born elsewhere and are fleeing for their lives were kept waiting for weeks for an opportunity to plead asylum in our country.

We hope that our experiences at the border can further shed light on what has become an undeniable reality – that our current immigration protocols are inhumane and deprive thousands of migrants of their basic human rights. These asylum seekers are fleeing domestic violence, gang violence, and government torture, among other types of unbearable persecution.  Sending them back to Mexico, even after they have passed their credible fear interviews, is a violation of due process. It also puts them at greater risk of harm, for many of them are still being followed by their persecutors and perpetrators.

As a nation founded under the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we must embrace those who are most vulnerable, not turn our backs on them.

Please consider donating to Sanctuary’s Immigration Intervention Project to support our work with immigrant survivors of gender violence.

Pa’ lante, mi gente.

New York State moves to protect survivors of cyber sexual abuse

This legislation will go a long way to help survivors like our client Nathaly pursue justice against abusive partners who seek to humiliate, harass, and coerce their victims. 

Today, landmark legislation was unanimously passed in the New York State Legislature to criminalize the non-consensual dissemination of sexually explicit images and videos, commonly known as “revenge porn” or “cyber sexual abuse.” This legislation will go a long way to help survivors like our client Nathaly pursue justice against abusive partners who seek to humiliate, harass, and coerce their victims.

When Nathaly first ran into Sanctuary staff attorney Lindsey Song at the Bronx Family Court House, she was anxious and distraught. A former boyfriend she had dated as a teenager had recently sent her a link to a porn website with a video of the two of them having sex – a video she did not know even existed. The link included her full name, where she was from, and her father’s phone number. This was in 2017, before she helped New York City pass a law criminalizing cyber sexual abuse and before any legal remedies existed for victims like herself.

Today, thanks to Nathaly’s courageous advocacy in partnership with Sanctuary and the work of Assembly Member Edward Braunstein, Senator Monica Martinez, and numerous advocates and other survivors, New York joined 42 other states that have passed legislation to protect victims of cyber sexual abuse and recognized the terrible magnitude of harm that it inflicts upon victims.

Watch Nathaly’s speech from our annual benefit last year >

At Sanctuary, we see the devastating damage that cyber sexual abuse causes its victims. Survivors are often forced to change their names and flee the state to escape the horror of having their most intimate photos go viral; others have been threatened with sexual and physical violence when their photos have been posted, and many have lost their jobs, families, or communities as a result of this abuse.

Should this legislation be signed into law, it will be a crime to share an explicit image without a person’s consent when done so with the intention of causing emotional, financial, or physical harm. In addition to criminal relief, survivors will also be able to seek justice and protection through both Family and Criminal Courts, as well as secure injunctive relief if a website refuses to take action in removing the videos or images in question.

In late 2017, Nathaly and Sanctuary helped pass New York City’s cyber sexual abuse bill which is being used every day. Today we celebrate their work and the work of others in the passage of a New York State bill which will provide many more survivors like Nathaly with the legal recourse to seek relief from the flood of online harassment that they have long been denied. We hope that the Governor will act quickly to sign this measure into law.