Sullivan & Cromwell: Sanctuary Pro Bono Partner Spotlight

A spotlight on Sanctuary Pro Bono Partner Sullivan & Cromwell for their team’s outstanding work in securing T-Nonimmigrant Status for a Guatemalan survivor of sex trafficking at the hands of a Customs and Border Patrol agent.

Sanctuary for Families’ Pro Bono Project has the honor of working with hundreds of extremely dedicated and expert pro bono attorneys annually. As part of our new Pro Bono Spotlight, we’ll highlight some of the great work done by Sanctuary pro bono attorneys!

*Please note that this blog contains descriptions of physical and sexual abuse that could be triggering*

Assisting a Survivor Fleeing Domestic Violence and Trafficking

Beginning in 2020, Sanctuary for Families partnered with Sullivan & Cromwell (“S&C”) on an appeal on behalf of a survivor of trafficking at the hands of a Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agent who grossly abused his position of power over Ms. Aura Hernandez and her young nephew. In 2021, we learned that the appeal was successful and in 2022, Ms. Hernandez was granted T Nonimmigrant Status, which has put her on a pathway to citizenship. This was the culmination of over 15 years of struggle and courage on the part of Ms. Hernandez to ensure safety and security for herself and her family. Sanctuary is honored to have been able to support Ms. Hernandez on that journey, and forever grateful for the outstanding, creative lawyering of the S&C team who represented Ms. Hernandez on her challenging appeal.

Fleeing severe domestic violence in her home country of Guatemala in 2005, Ms. Hernandez and her nine-year-old nephew embarked upon a dangerous two-week journey to Texas that ended within the walls of a detention facility. Already traumatized and terrified, Ms. Hernandez was met with an abusive CBP agent who threatened deportation or family separation of her and her nephew if she did not comply with his forceful demands for sexual acts. In a small room at the detention facility, the CBP agent sexually assaulted Ms. Hernandez, and then failed to timely release her and her nephew. Despite this, Ms. Hernandez and her nephew were ultimately able to continue their journey to New York and she began to settle into a new life. Then, under the Trump administration, a new threat emerged: Ms. Hernandez was informed that she was to be deported back to Guatemala, regardless of the risk this posed to her life.

With this backdrop of fear, in 2018, Ms. Hernandez and her infant daughter moved into a Manhattan church for sanctuary. As she fought to remain in the United States, Ms. Hernandez’s case drew national attention, including coverage by The New York Times and other publications. She redirected that spotlight, becoming an incredible advocate for women and immigrants, speaking out about the inhumane conditions of ICE detention centers and the sexual violence that was rampant within their walls, as well as against the barriers that prevented her and her family from experiencing true safety. “I don’t intend to stand here with my arms crossed and do nothing,” she told The New York Times. “I have to stand up and raise my voice because an injustice is being committed to me and to us. I think I’m here for a reason.”

It was around this time that Sanctuary began working with Ms. Hernandez, helping her file for T Nonimmigrant Status. Sanctuary argued that she was a victim of trafficking at the hands of the CBP agent and that she had, as required to obtain a T-Visa, cooperated with the investigation into the sexual assault (though it had not resulted in any disciplinary action against the agent). However, the visa was denied, throwing Sanctuary into high gear, as notices of appeal and briefs in support must be filed within 90 days of the denial. Sullivan and Cromwell attorneys Olivia G. Chalos, Regina M. Roediger and Sharon Cohen Levin, a longtime Sanctuary pro bono partner and anti-trafficking advocate, jumped in to co-counsel with Sanctuary on the appeal and immediately set to work proving Ms. Hernandez’s eligibility.

Sanctuary Senior Staff Attorney Ines Chennoufi, who worked with the team, explained that the case was “particularly difficult because U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) argued that Ms. Hernandez did not meet any of the eligibility requirements for a trafficking visa. Typically, at the appeal stage of a case, we only have to argue one discrete area of law or facts. Here, the Sullivan & Cromwell team had to argue that Ms. Hernandez satisfied all of the eligibility requirements for T Nonimmigrant Status.” One of the critical elements that the team had to prove was that Ms. Hernandez was a victim of a severe form of trafficking.

“In order to be eligible for a T-Visa, an applicant must establish that they were a victim of a severe form of trafficking, which includes a ‘commercial sex act.’ USCIS denied Ms. Hernandez’s application in part because it found that the sexual abuse perpetrated at the border was not ‘commercial.”

Ines Chennoufi
Senior Staff Attorney, Sanctuary for Families

The Sullivan & Cromwell team demonstrated incredibly creative and pragmatic lawyering to establish that the sexual act here was coerced in direct exchange for something of immense non-monetary value—freedom from the detention center for Ms. Hernandez and her nephew, and a safer life in the U.S. The team used the decisions in the Harvey Weinstein prosecutions to establish that the definition of a commercial sex act is broad and encompasses more than just monetary gain or something of economic value. They pointed out that in one of the Weinstein decisions, the court found that value can include “promises of career advancement” or the opportunity to meet a world-renowned film producer. These arguments were clearly persuasive–the decision issued by the Administrative Appeals Office (AAO) found that Ms. Hernandez’s safety and liberty, her fear of deportation and her nephew, all constitute things of “value” to her and the CBP agent used them against her to force and coerce her into providing a nonconsensual sexual act.

In the winter of 2021, Ms. Hernandez was informed by the AAO that she had successfully demonstrated she was the victim of a severe form of trafficking and her application was remanded to USCIS. In July 2022, she received the approval notice, granting Ms. Hernandez T Nonimmigrant Status for a period of four years. In three years, she will be eligible to apply for Lawful Permanent Residence (a green card) and eventually for citizenship.

“We are thrilled with this outcome for Ms. Hernandez, and proud to have partnered with Sanctuary’s incredibly talented lawyers on this challenging case.”

Sharon Cohen Levin
Pro Bono Partner, Sullivan & Cromwell

Sanctuary is profoundly grateful to the Sullivan & Cromwell team for being a critical partner in Ms. Hernandez’s fight for safety and security in the U.S. and for all their work on behalf of survivors of trafficking.

Join the team from Sullivan & Cromwell in standing with our clients. Your gift supports Sanctuary’s life-saving work with survivors of gender violence.

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Epstein Becker Team Assists Survivor in Eviction Proceeding

At this year’s Above & Beyond, Sanctuary will honor an Epstein Becker team for their representation of Sanctuary client “Jane” in a challenging landlord-tenant dispute and application for relief under the Emergency Rental Assistance Program.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary for Families will be honoring Epstein Becker attorneys Tamara Bock, Jennifer O’Connor, and Anastasia Regne for their dedicated, creative and successful representation of Sanctuary client “Jane” in a challenging landlord-tenant dispute and application for relief under the Emergency Rental Assistance Program.

In 2018, Sanctuary for Families and Epstein Becker & Green, P.C. teamed up to work on an eviction proceeding that had been ongoing for a year. Although the client, Jane, had been diligent in making payments to her landlord since the beginning of the case up until the pandemic hit, there were accrued arrears based on the fact that the monthly rent had increased to an untenable level – nearly double what it should have been as a rent stabilized unit. And while she was happy to stay in the apartment with her college-student daughter after divorcing her abusive husband, the rent had become too high for Jane to manage on her own. Although Jane had good legal arguments to support her side of the case, proving them in court would be an uphill battle.

In came Epstein Becker. Jennifer and Anastasia, with tremendous support from Tamara and other attorneys and staff at the firm, got to work. Collaborating with former Sanctuary attorneys Dana Kaufman and Sandra Takami, the team concluded that the way to push the case forward would be to retain an expert who could speak to the adequacy of the landlord’s arguments for why the building was allegedly no longer subject to rent regulation. The Epstein Becker team moved for expert discovery and ultimately won the landlord’s consent, premised on the landlord’s intention to submit his own expert report.

Epstein Becker then retained an expert at their own expense – a cost that would be prohibitive for most individual tenants – and worked with the expert to conduct a thorough inspection of Jane’s unit and key areas in the apartment building. The expert completed his review and subsequently prepared a report that debunked the landlord’s theory underlying its case and supposed justification for charging a market rent. Although the landlord claimed they wanted to submit their own expert report, they did not produce one timely. After several extensions to the deadline passed, the landlord ultimately filed an order to show cause in which they sought permission to submit a report after the deadline, but to no avail. The Epstein Becker team skillfully opposed the order to show cause, and the court denied the landlord’s request.

That was the turning point. The landlord, apparently realizing what a strong case Jane had, began to engage in settlement discussions. Unfortunately, by that point, the COVID-19 pandemic was at its peak, and it had become even harder for Jane to make rent and utility payments. Her arrears, as claimed by the landlord, had reached nearly $70,000.

Undaunted by the challenge, Anastasia did the painstaking work of filing an application on Jane’s behalf for relief under the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (“ERAP”), an economic relief program that permitted eligible households in New York State to request assistance for rental and utility arrears accumulated during the COVID-19 crisis. The application process was not without its challenges, however (including all-too-familiar crashes on the application website, which required Anastasia to start from scratch on more than one occasion), but ultimately it worked. Jane was granted relief in the form of $22,500, which was paid directly to her landlord.

Between the strength of Jane’s legal case, particularly with the benefit of the impactful expert report, and the show of good faith evident in the team’s efforts to get ERAP relief while negotiations were ongoing, Jane and the landlord were able to come to a favorable resolution. And best of all for Jane, her daughter was able to stay in the apartment until she earned her design degree last May, which she had been working towards throughout the stressful ordeal.

Reflecting on the case, Anastasia noted how meaningful the matter was for Jane and how satisfying it was to work on the case. “Public interest work can be very challenging,” she said, “but this felt like a very good result.”

Thanks to the tireless advocacy and empathy offered by Jennifer and Anastasia, Jane and her daughter received the support they needed in their legal battle.

“The wholistic aspect of Sanctuary’s work covers every aspect of the clients’ needs, to ensure that they continue to succeed in their lives even after the legal case has been resolved.”

Anastasia Regne
Associate, Epstein Becker

Join us at our Above & Beyond Awards Ceremony on November 2, 2022, as we honor the Epstein Becker team’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.

Colleen O’Brien is a member of the Sanctuary for Families Pro Bono Council. She is a Managing Director and Senior Counsel at Goldman Sachs.

Akin Gump Assists Survivor in Prosecution of Her Trafficker and Immigration Process

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”, a survivor of sex trafficking.

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.”

Jessica-Wind Abolafia
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.

Schulte Roth & Zabel Assists Survivors in Critical Real Estate Matters

At this year’s Above & Beyond, Sanctuary will honor Gregory Pressman of Schulte Roth & Zabel for his invaluable assistance in multiple cases involving real estate matters.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary for Families is pleased to honor its go-to real estate counsel, Gregory Pressman of Schulte Roth & Zabel, LLP, with an Above & Beyond Award for his invaluable assistance to Sanctuary’s clients in multiple cases involving real estate matters.

Greg Pressman is a well-known and extremely accomplished real estate lawyer who has generously shared his expertise and decades of experience to help Sanctuary’s clients navigate complex and critical real estate matters that arise as part of the client’s domestic violence or matrimonial cases. In the cases that Greg has worked on, abusers often attempt to use ownership and financing of real estate, including the family’s home, as a means of control and intimidation against Sanctuary’s clients. The Sanctuary team, with Greg’s help, has worked on several cases where the team has been able to educate clients as to their rights with respect to real estate matters, work with clients to come up with innovative strategies in unusual and particularly complex cases, and help clients fight for their rights with respect to their homes and real estate assets (which are often used by abusers to jeopardize a client’s sense of security, sense of stability, and financial independence). For example, Greg was instrumental in helping a client and her children recover their rightful share of the proceeds of the sale of the family home through an escrow arrangement in a case where her husband had left the country and married again without the client’s knowledge.

Greg is both a trusted advisor and a critical member of several litigation teams where real estate matters are central to the outcome of cases. Greg’s thorough understanding of real estate law, real estate ownership and financing documents, and negotiation strategies has been invaluable to clients. In a case where the client’s abuser is using the foreclosure of the family home and associated debt to exert coercive control over the client, Greg has offered invaluable insight into the complex foreclosure matters, employed strategic negotiations, and worked on innovative settlement solutions to obtain the best outcome for our client.

Greg is always willing to assist the Sanctuary lawyers in any way they need him to, from reviewing mortgage documents, answering questions about sales of client’s homes and real estate foreclosure issues to leading negotiations and coming up with novel and creative litigation strategies that involve thinking out of box. Greg is very responsive and has spent countless hours advising clients, the Sanctuary lawyers and other pro bono counsel in spite of his busy schedule. He will even call the Sanctuary team on weekends to answer questions. He always goes above and beyond in his representation of Sanctuary’s clients, such as visiting the client’s property to better understand why the house is in foreclosure and assess its potential value better and personally contacting and staying in touch with a referee appointed to oversee the foreclosure of a house so as to keep the client updated and informed in order to obtain the best possible outcome in a difficult situation.

While Greg’s dedication in generously volunteering his time and skills in real estate matters has made him an invaluable resource to Sanctuary, what really stands out is that Greg treats every client with respect, dignity, and compassion as he empowers clients with respect to their rights. Greg also has a great appreciation for the dedication, skills, and stress level that Sanctuary’s lawyers work under and therefore wants to share his time and knowledge with them and be a part of the team. Greg’s involvement with Sanctuary started many years ago when he successfully advised Sanctuary on a critical mortgage matter involving Sanctuary’s Sarah Burke House shelter, which led to Sanctuary inviting Greg to join the Sanctuary Board in 2007. Greg served on Sanctuary’s Board from 2007 to 2016 and during his board tenure worked closely with Sanctuary on real estate matters involving Sanctuary’s office space. In the past few years, Greg has become involved with direct client pro bono work (even connecting clients to Sanctuary), which he has done with great energy and dedication for the last several years. Sanctuary is pleased to honor Greg for his countless contributions towards helping and empowering Sanctuary’s clients.

Join us at our Above & Beyond Awards Ceremony on November 2, 2022, as we honor Greg Pressman’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.

Tushna Gamadia is an of counsel in the Real Estate Group at Morrison & Foerster LLP, works with Sanctuary for Families’ clients on pro bono cases and is a member of Sanctuary for Families Pro Bono Council.