Former Skadden Associate Michael Van Hulle Honored for His Work with Survivors of Gender Violence

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring former Skadden litigation associate Michael Van Hulle for his pro bono work on behalf of six Sanctuary clients, all survivors of gender violence, whose lives were put on hold as they waited for years for their asylum office interviews to be scheduled.

michael-van-hulleAt this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is  honoring Michael Van Hulle, a former litigation associate at Skadden,  for his pro bono work on behalf of six Sanctuary clients, all survivors of gender violence, whose lives were put on hold as they waited for years for their asylum office
interviews to be scheduled. 

Fleeing gender violence, asylum seekers find themselves in limbo

In early 2015, Sanctuary for Families reached out to Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP with a unique request –   a mandamus action against U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”).  Sanctuary had six asylum clients who had been waiting years for their asylum interviews.  The clients fled from various forms of gender violence abroad, from female genital mutilation (“FGM”) and forced marriage to domestic violence and trafficking, to seek protection from the U.S. government.

Although federal regulations require that USCIS grant interviews to asylum applicants no later than 45 days after the date their application is filed, backlogs at the asylum offices have led to an average wait time of two to three years for interviews in New York and New Jersey.

As a result of these significant delays, asylum seekers find themselves in limbo, remain separated from family members still at risk of violence overseas, and struggle to make ends meet due to ineligibility for public assistance, housing, and even Medicaid in certain states.

Dania Lopez Beltran (former Sanctuary attorney) and Sanctuary attorney Sayoni Maitra reached out to Skadden regarding the possibility of filing a mandamus complaint on behalf of Sanctuary’s clients. Dania and Sayoni had learned that Michael recently worked on a similar matter for Immigration Equality and therefore had the expertise needed for this particular lawsuit.  This was Michael’s first Sanctuary matter, and he was excited to get involved again on behalf of deserving asylum clients who needed legal representation.

Changing USCIS policy

Michael moved quickly.  He drafted and filed under seal a complaint seeking a writ of mandamus in the Southern District of New York against the New York and Newark Asylum Offices on behalf of Sanctuary’s clients.  The complaint alleged that USCIS was statutorily required to interview each asylum applicant within 45 days.

After the complaint was filed, Michael heard back from an Assistant United States Attorney in the Southern District of New York.  Up until early 2015, USCIS had been utilizing a “last in, first out” system of scheduling asylum interviews.  This meant that applicants who had submitted their applications most recently were scheduled interviews before those who filed years before.

However, just around the time Michael filed the mandamus complaint on behalf of Sanctuary’s clients, USCIS switched to a “first in, first out” policy, so that those cases dating back to around 2012 would now be scheduled interviews at the New York and Newark Asylum Offices. While a welcome change, the policy shift did not reduce the average wait times facing asylum applicants, and those who filed after 2012 continued to languish in purgatory while their interviews remained unscheduled.

USCIS’s new approach to scheduling asylum interviews benefited some of Sanctuary’s clients.  Two of Sanctuary’s clients, however, remained in limbo after the policy change and could not afford to wait another year or two for an interview.  They were in particular need of immediate assistance, and it was on their behalf that Michael’s advocacy and perseverance paid off.

Campaigning on his clients’ behalf

The first client, Ms. A, had daughters back in her home country who were at an age when most girls in their community have already been subjected to FGM.  In 2013, after Ms. A’s husband and children went into hiding, Ms. A fled to the United States to seek asylum, hoping that she could then apply for her husband and children to join her.  As time passed, however, Ms. A feared more and more that her daughters would be located by her family and forced to undergo FGM.  Scheduling her asylum interview therefore became critical.

The second client, Ms. B, had been repeatedly raped for years by her trafficker until she was finally able to escape from him.  As a result of the sexual abuse that she was subjected to, Ms. B experienced medical symptoms that worsened over the years and required immediate medical care by the time she was in the United States in 2013.  However, in New Jersey, where she was located, individuals with pending immigration applications are ineligible for Medicaid, and without Medicaid, Ms. B remained unable to obtain the treatment that she desperately needed.

Michael diligently and passionately advocated on behalf of Sanctuary’s clients, through letters and phone calls, explaining the urgency that was now facing each woman.  He told each woman’s story, of why USCIS’s utter failure to abide by the 45-day rule was creating an increasingly dire situation. 

Eventually, his campaign led to settlement negotiations with the Assistant U.S. Attorney, pursuant to which all six Sanctuary clients, including Ms. A and Ms. B, were finally able to get what they’ve been fighting for:  their interview dates.  Having been granted asylum, Ms. A has applied for her children to join her as asylee derivatives, and Ms. B was enrolled in Medicaid to receive the health care she needed for so long.

Heroes among us

Reflecting on the phenomenal outcome of his negotiations and efforts, Michael stated that he was proud to have been able to make a real difference in the clients’ lives.  When he initially took on the matter, he read through each woman’s asylum application.  He marveled at the strength demonstrated by each woman, and the adversity that they had to overcome to escape their circumstances.  He remarked,

“There aren’t heroic people doing heroic things anymore; but here, I would read these affidavits, and think, ‘Wow, that is actually heroic.’ [It was hard to read through these applications without], getting a little teary eyed.”

The emotions became even more poignant when the settlement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office was signed in late 2015.  He felt “good,” remarking, “It really was difficult to beat the raw emotional impact of getting to do this type of work.”  His hard work brought about a positive change to the lives of six women who had survived – with a heroic level of grace and courage – acts of incomprehensible cruelty and horror.  His advocacy also held the government accountable for their decisions not to abide by a clear statutory requirement, by pointing out the costs and consequences that were at risk.  It was a touching end to his time at Skadden.

Being able to see the matter to conclusion was also an emotional victory for Michael on a personal level.  Steve Kolleeny, former Special Counsel and the head of Skadden’s pro bono asylum program, had been the person who reached out to Michael and encouraged him to take on the government to seek justice on behalf of asylum seekers.  He had been a personal and professional mentor to Michael, and a source of inspiration in his dedication to providing unparalleled advocacy on behalf of asylum applicants.

Shortly before Michael began working on the mandamus complaint for Sanctuary’s clients, however, Steve passed away.  Michael was particularly proud and honored to have had the opportunity to follow in the large footsteps of his mentor in his fight on behalf of deserving asylum clients.

 

Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on October 19, 2016 at the Highline Ballroom as we honor Michael’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.

Etienne Barg-Townsend is Senior Legal Counsel at KGS-Alpha Capital Markets, L.P., a New York-based institutional fixed income broker-dealer.  She was formerly a litigation associate at Shearman & Sterling LLP, Cahill Gordon & Reindel, LLP, and Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP.  She has worked on several pro bono matters with Sanctuary, and is in the process of developing a pro bono program at KGS-Alpha.  She is a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council and is Co-Chair of this year’s Above & Beyond gala. 

 

Akerman Attorneys Help Domestic Violence Survivor Win Final Protective Order

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring Akerman associates Steven Cordero and Vanessa Garcia for their pro bono work on behalf of Sanctuary client “Ms. C.”

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of Akerman attorneys for their pro bono work on behalf of Sanctuary client “Ms. C,” a survivor of domestic violence.  Akerman associates Steven Cordero and Vanessa Garcia worked tirelessly on a difficult family-court trial that lasted eighteen months.  In July 2016, they ultimately prevailed, obtaining for Ms. C a five-year final order of protection against her abuser. 

Securing the protective order

For years Ms. C has been struggling with a rare degenerative illness, while also suffering from on-going abuse by her husband.  Ms. C sought help after a particularly frightening incident in 2014, which culminated in her husband threatening to kill her. Her husband was arrested, but the criminal court only granted Ms. C a two-year protective order. Fearing what could happen to her after the order expired, Ms. C reached out to Sanctuary, and Sanctuary reached out to Akerman.

Akerman associates Steven Cordero and Vanessa Garcia met Ms. C in January 2015, and, with the assistance of Amanda Norejko, Director of Sanctuary’s Matrimonial and Economic Justice Project, immediately began preparing for a trial in Family Court to seek a five-year protective order so that Ms. C would still have an order of protection in place after the two-year criminal order expired.

Amanda nominated Steven and Vanessa to receive the Above & Beyond award because of their incredible dedication to their client:

“Steven and Vanessa devoted many hours to preparing for trial to ensure Ms. C received the longest possible order of protection.  They introduced compelling evidence and carefully prepared Ms. C. for her testimony. The client was extremely nervous about testifying, but they did an excellent job working with her to be able to present a very solid case.  They skillfully represented a very anxious client with incredible sensitivity and understanding. They took all the client’s concerns into consideration and answered her many questions with great care and patience.”

The family court ultimately granted Ms. C a five-year final order of protection in July 2016.  The team was thrilled with the court’s ruling—it is difficult to win a protective order of such length because it requires specific factual findings by the court that aggravating circumstances (for example, serious physical injury) exist.

Going above and beyond

In addition to their exceptional legal representation, Steven and Vanessa have truly gone above and beyond for Ms. C.  Domestic violence victims often have to wait around the courthouse for long periods of time following each court appearance, in order to get their temporary orders of protection from the court clerk.  This experience is made even more uncomfortable and scary for victims by the fact that their abusers are also present at the courthouse waiting for the orders. But Steven and Vanessa always went the extra mile to ensure that Ms. C felt safe, by waiting as long as two hours with her to receive her temporary orders of protection, and walking her out of the courthouse.  In addition, Vanessa is continuing to assist Ms. C. with her other legal needs.

Ms. C is incredibly grateful to Steven and Vanessa:

“I am so grateful for all the time, effort, and skill that Steve and Vanessa have put into my case over the past two years. Steve and Vanessa worked tirelessly to prepare me properly for my court appearance.  They also gave me the reassurance and comfort I needed throughout the process to persevere.  Thanks to their remarkable ongoing efforts before, during, and after each court appearance—not only from a legal point of view, but also in terms of their kindness, compassion, and sense of humor—Vanessa and Steve helped make this unpleasant process as pleasant as possible.”

Fighting for a worthy cause

Reflecting on his experience working with Ms. C, Steven explained that this case showed him that domestic violence is an issue that touches people of all walks of life, regardless of social-economic status.  He also appreciated that representing a domestic violence survivor in a case that would help protect her from harm gave him an opportunity to use his legal skills to fight for a good and worthy cause.

“It is very rewarding to have such a close client relationship, and to have someone like Ms. C put her trust in you,” Vanessa added.  In addition, “the pro bono work has given me the opportunity, even as a junior associate, to really get involved in a case and see it through.”

Both associates expressed their appreciation for Akerman’s support of its attorneys’ pro bono work, and their excitement about the firm’s recently expanded pro bono practice.

Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on October 19, 2016 at the Highline Ballroom as we honor Steven and Vanessa’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.

Emilie Winckel is a white-collar associate at O’Melveny & Myers LLP and currently represents a Sanctuary client in connection with a federal criminal case.  She is also a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council. 

Cleary Gottlieb Attorneys Seek Asylum for Survivor of Female Genital Mutilation

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton attorneys for their pro bono work on behalf of Sanctuary client “Ms. G.”

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of Cleary Gottlieb attorneys for their pro bono work on behalf of Sanctuary client “Ms. G,” a survivor of female genital mutilation, sexual violence, and torture. The Cleary Gottlieb team of associates S. Ellie Norton, Clayton Simmons, Jessica Thompson, and Marion de Meslon have championed Ms. G’s asylum claim throughout three years of immigration proceedings to prevent Ms. G from being deported to her persecutors in Burkina Faso.

Finding Sanctuary

Ms. G was living in a crisis domestic violence shelter when she first met Ellie, Clay, Jessica, and Marion. She suffered from repeated infections and hospitalizations caused by the female genital mutilation (FGM) she was forced to undergo as a young child. She had also been kidnapped, tortured, and raped by political groups in her home country of Burkina Faso.

After fleeing to the United States, Ms. G suffered further physical, sexual, and emotional abuse by her husband. Undocumented and unable speak or understand English, Ms. G. understandably felt scared and alone. Without friends or family members to help her, she turned to her doctors who referred her to Sanctuary for Families. Sanctuary helped Ms. G find shelter and connected her to her pro bono team at Cleary Gottlieb for legal representation.

Certain that Ms. G’s life would be in danger if she were forced to return to Burkina Faso, the Cleary Gottlieb pro bono team quickly filed an affirmative application for asylum on Ms. G’s behalf.

The team advocated that Ms. G must be granted asylum in the United States because she had endured severe persecution and horrific human rights violations in the past and would face further persecution if returned to Burkina Faso, due to political violence and the high rates of FGM and gender violence against women in Ms. G’s ethnic group in Burkina Faso.

Claiming asylum

Ms. G presented a strong claim to asylum at her asylum office interview in 2014, but to the pro bono team’s surprise, the asylum officer rejected her application merely because it lacked a copy of her marriage certificate, which was in the possession of her abusive husband. Ellie explained:

“The only copy of Ms. G’s marriage certificate available in the United States was in the hands of her abusive husband, who refused to turn it over to us.”

Although the pro bono team attempted to procure another copy of Ms. G’s marriage certificate directly from Burkina Faso, it unfortunately did not arrive in time for the interview and the asylum officer was unwilling to wait.  As a result, Ms. G was directly placed into deportation proceedings.

Disappointed but undeterred, the Cleary Gottlieb associates began preparing Ms. G to present her asylum claim before an immigration judge. According to Clay:

“We tried to be sensitive to Ms. G’s emotions and give her as much support as possible because we knew that having to relive the traumatic experiences of her past by telling her story yet again would be very challenging for her.” 

Ms. G and the pro bono team were confident and ready to argue the merits of her case at her first scheduled immigration court hearing, but unfortunately the hearing was adjourned.

Moving forward

The merits hearing finally took place in 2016, nearly two years after her asylum office interview. At Ms. G’s merits hearing, opposing counsel made the surprising decision to defer to the judge for a decision without requiring Ms. G to testify.

The judge remarked that the team’s presentation of Ms. G’s asylum application was so strong he would grant it on the existing record alone, pending routine security clearances. The team is hopeful that Ms. G will finally be granted asylum at her next hearing later this year.

Sayoni Maitra, the Immigration Intervention Project Staff Attorney at Sanctuary for Families who worked with the Cleary Gottlieb pro bono team, shared that Ellie, Clay, Jessica, and Marion are being recognized because of the “great compassion, encouragement, and emotional support” that they provided to Ms. G “[t]hrough a long and arduous immigration process.” Sayoni added that “the team’s outstanding preparation of Ms. G’s asylum application was so impressive that even opposing counsel agreed to forego testimony, sparing Ms. G the trauma of retelling her painful past in court.”

When asked to reflect on the most meaningful part of their experience as Ms. G’s pro bono attorneys, the Cleary Gottlieb team marveled at Ms. G’s tremendous strength and growth as an individual. “Ms. G has remained resilient, calm, and composed throughout an extraordinarily difficult process,” said Jessica.

“She graduated from college in Burkina Faso and has since been taking additional classes in the United States to learn English and develop a career here. With counseling from Sanctuary for Families, Ms. G has gotten back on her feet. Seeing her remarkable progress over the years has been so rewarding.”

When asked to reflect on her experience working with the Cleary Gottlieb pro bono team, Ms. G said “I want to thank Clayton, Ellie, Jessica, and Marion for the work they did for my case. They were helpful in many ways in my life in the United States and I will always be grateful to them.”

Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on October 19, 2016 at the Highline Ballroom as we honor Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton’s outstanding pro bono work.  Learn more about the event 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.

Erin Meyer is the Pro Bono Manager at Proskauer Rose LLP and was formerly a senior associate at Hogan Lovells US LLP.  She is also a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council and Co-Chair of this year’s Above & Beyond event.

Cahill Attorneys Help Domestic Violence Survivor Keep and Protect Her Kids

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of Cahill Gordon & Reindel attorneys for their pro bono work on behalf of Sanctuary client “ZN.”

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of attorneys at Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP for their pro bono work on behalf of Sanctuary client “ZN,” a young, immigrant mother of four children. The Cahill team, consisting of partner Joel Kurtzberg, and associates Sara Ortiz, Chloe Sauer (currently of Barclays), and Ben A. Schatz (currently of the Center for Appellate Litigation) helped ZN obtain a finding of neglect against her husband, full custody of her children, and an Order of Protection, including all of her children, against her husband.

sara-ortiz

Pro Bono Council Co-Chair Ben A. Schatz talks with Sara Ortiz about her experience working with Sanctuary on the ZN matter.

Ben: Tell us briefly about the work you and your team did on behalf of ZN.

Sara: ZN is a young immigrant mother of four who had suffered years of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her husband. She came to Sanctuary a few years ago after her husband lied to police to have her falsely arrested, only to find his plan backfiring, and resulting in a neglect case against him in Bronx Family Court.

Working with Dara Sheinfeld, Sanctuary’s Legal Director in the Bronx and Manhattan, we prepared ZN for a trial in the neglect matter in Bronx Family Court, and filed petitions for custody and an order of protection, to be heard simultaneously.

At an emotional hearing in the neglect matter, ZN and her oldest son testified about the extensive physical and emotional abuse her husband inflicted on the family. In July 2015, the court made a finding of neglect against ZN’s husband, and granted ZN full custody of her children and a full five-year order of protection for herself and her children. We also then assisted ZN in obtaining a favorable child support order against her husband. We’re continuing to advocate on ZN’s behalf in other pending legal matters.

Ben: Has working with Sanctuary on ZN’s case helped you grow as a lawyer?

Sara: Absolutely. My work at Cahill primarily focuses on long-term, large-scale commercial litigation matters and investigations.  Working with Sanctuary on ZN’s case as a junior associate has given me a great chance to take the lead on a completely different and incredibly important case.

Also, I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to work with, and learn from, Dara.  I could not ask for a better legal mentor.  Dara is a brilliant advocate, and made herself available day and night to answer any questions that came up during the case. Dara clearly loves her job, and working with her and with Sanctuary undoubtedly has made me a better advocate.  

Ben: Sanctuary takes a holistic approach to helping its clients. How did you and Sanctuary help ZN in ways outside the courtroom?

Sara: Sanctuary lawyers are always looking to support their clients in ways that extend beyond the clients’ immediate legal needs. Inspired by this approach, we referred ZN to our holiday Adopt-a-Family program, helped ZN obtain public assistance benefits, got her children signed up for free summer camp, and made sure she left each of our meetings with anything she needed to care for herself and her four children, whether it be food, clothing, or a MetroCard.

I also personally helped ZN become more comfortable taking public transportation by exchanging text messages with photographs of our respective locations to make finding each other near the subway easier.  ZN even gained the confidence to take the train alone from the Bronx to Manhattan.

Ben: How has Cahill supported your pro bono work with Sanctuary?

Sara: Cahill has been unwavering in its support of my work with Sanctuary. The Firm has a deep and longstanding relationship with Sanctuary, spearheaded by Joel Kurtzberg when he was an associate (that was nearly two decades ago—Joel is now a partner).

In addition to its pro bono efforts, the Firm sponsors holiday drives, collecting hundreds of gift cards for Sanctuary clients, and has hosted resume review and interviewing skills workshops for survivors of domestic violence enrolled in Sanctuary’s Economic Empowerment Program.  It’s a privilege to work at a Firm that enables me to pursue pro bono work I feel passionate about.

Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on October 19, 2016 at the Highline Ballroom as we honor Cahill Gordon & Reindel’s outstanding pro bono work.  Learn more about the event 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.