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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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.

Davis Polk & Wardwell Secures Release of a Survivor Under New York’s DVSJA

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a compassionate team of pro bono attorneys from Davis Polk who employed New York’s revolutionary Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act to secure the release of Chloe, a survivor of severe domestic abuse and trafficking.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a compassionate and perseverant team of pro bono attorneys from Davis Polk who employed New York’s revolutionary Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act (“DVSJA”) to secure the release of “Chloe,” a survivor of severe domestic abuse and sex trafficking. The team includes Pro Bono Counsel Dara L. Sheinfeld, Counsel Denis J. McInerney, associates Don Levavi and Stephanie Mazursky, and former associates Timothy Horley and Patrick Moroney. 

The DVSJA, which was passed in 2019, provides judges greater discretion in sentencing when domestic abuse significantly contributed to the crime for which the person was convicted. The Act also allows for re-sentencing of incarcerated survivors like Chloe.

Chloe is a survivor of terrible abuse at the hands of her trafficker. Under the guise of a loving boyfriend, her trafficker convinced her to travel with him from upstate NY to the Bronx, leaving her young child behind with her family. Once in the Bronx, her trafficker cut her off from her family and friends, prevented her from having access to a cellphone of her own, and surveilled her minute-by-minute, even going so far as to sit outside the bathroom while she showered. Her trafficker abused her physically on a daily basis and also abused her psychologically and emotionally. He forced her into prostitution and even made her get a tattoo of his name across her neck – a common branding technique used by traffickers.

In a tragic incident, Chloe’s trafficker killed a buyer who had paid to have sex with Chloe. When Davis Polk began working with Chloe, she was serving a 10-year sentence for robbery, a crime related to the buyer’s death. Remarkably, after four months of intensive work in partnership with the Legal Aid Society and Sanctuary for Families, the Davis Polk team was able to successfully secure Chloe’s release under the DVSJA.

The Davis Polk team recognized that key to the case was highlighting the psychological factors that undermined Chloe’s lack of agency in connection with her crime of conviction. To that end, Davis Polk engaged a recognized expert psychologist to meet with Chloe, explore the nature of her relationship with her trafficker, and evaluate her agency at the time. The psychologist concluded that Chloe suffered from “trauma bonding,” a phenomenon in which there is a powerful emotional attachment to an abusive partner which often remains even after the relationship ends.

Trauma bonds are formed when three main conditions are met:

  1. The existence of an imbalance of power between the abuser and victim
  2. The use of coercive control tactics, and
  3. The intermittent reward and punishment that the abuser metes out in the course of the relationship.

These factors, combined with isolation, gaslight the abused into an almost worshipful dependence on the abuser. The DVSJA permitted the court to take these psychological factors into consideration in connection with Chloe’s re-sentencing.

The case was highly challenging. One difficulty in employing the DVSJA for re-sentencing, as team member and former Davis Polk attorney Patrick Moroney remarked, is that “you go before the same judge who initially imposed the sentence” and who might be reluctant to disturb that previous decision. In Chloe’s case, securing the support of the District Attorney’s Office proved crucial. While the Davis Polk team worked tirelessly with Chloe to prepare and submit her DVSJA application, engaged in extensive communications with the DA’s Office regarding the merits of the application and arranged for Chloe to be interviewed by the DA’s Office for several hours, all of which resulted in the DA’s Office joining in the application, the Court still required the District Attorney’s Office to submit a full written response to the petition. As a true testament to their commitment to re-sentencing, the DA’s Office promptly submitted a detailed set of papers explaining their reasoning for joining in the application within just hours of the Court’s order.

The prosecution’s willingness to support the DVSJA application was facilitated by the collaborative, open approach that both defense counsel and the DA’s Office took in handling this case. Davis Polk team leader, Counsel Denis McInerney, who serves as President of Sanctuary’s Board and supervises many DVSJA matters at the firm, noted that the defense team’s history with the DA’s Office in a prior similarly successful DVSJA application — which also centered on open lines of communications in which the defense provided the prosecutors with a thorough and candid evaluation of the facts and legal issues in the case – undoubtedly helped to establish the trust one wants in order to have an effective dialogue with the DA’s Office. In Moroney’s words, the team “gave them access to Chloe [and] the documents,” and answered all of their questions. McInerney believes that this approach of being rigorous in one’s factual and legal analysis while at the same time treating the prosecution as “allies” helps tremendously in persuading DA’s Offices to respond rapidly and sympathetically to meritorious DVSJA applications.

Davis Polk demonstrated not only legal acumen but humanity in their representation of Chloe. In anticipation of her release, the team sought therapy services for Chloe, and even provided a car service for her five-plus hour drive home from prison—with a stop at Walmart included! Davis Polk team member Stephanie Mazursky said that she learned patience, compassion, and the power of positive reinforcement from her relationship with Chloe – a relationship that was difficult to build, not only because it required Chloe to revisit traumatic memories, but because conversations took place almost exclusively over the phone due to COVID restrictions at the prison. Now, with the benefit of her early release and without the burden of any post-release supervision, Chloe has emerged from her incarceration with the unfettered freedom to participate in her child’s growth and to spend time with her loved ones.


Join us at our Above & Beyond virtual celebration on Oct. 26, 2021, as we honor Davis Polk’s outstanding pro bono work. Click here to RSVP for free.

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


Dr. Devin Jane Buckley holds a Ph.D. from Duke University where she studied philosophy and literature while doing title IX advocacy and policy work. She is also a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council and serves on the Education Committee for World Without Exploitation.

Kasowitz Team Navigates Complicated Divorce Proceeding

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a team from Kasowitz Benson Torres LLP for their compassionate and devoted pro bono representation of “Frannie,” a domestic violence survivor.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team from Kasowitz Benson Torres LLP (“Kasowitz”) for their compassionate and devoted pro bono representation of “Frannie” to obtain a judgment of divorce with a continued order of protection and a favorable settlement agreement. The team consisted of partners Sarah Gibbs Leivick and Cindy Caranella Kelly, and associates Léa Dartevelle Erhel, Marcellene E. Hearn, and Jillian Roffer.

Approximately ten years ago, Frannie moved to the United States where she met and married Jim. Frannie thought that Jim was kind and loving, but he quickly became both mentally and physically abusive. The abuse increased after Frannie gave birth to their two children, and often occurred in front of the children. Frannie fled the family home and, fortunately, found Sanctuary and obtained an order of protection.

After Jim obtained private counsel and filed for divorce, Sanctuary realized it needed to build a more robust team to support Frannie and joined forces with Kasowitz at the end of 2018.  After over two years of court appearances, extensive discovery from multiple parties, and complex negotiations, Kasowitz successfully secured a favorable settlement agreement.

Throughout the proceedings, the Kasowitz team remained highly client-centered and sensitive to Frannie’s needs. The team took the time necessary to ensure that Frannie, a non-English speaker, was fully informed of all issues during court conferences or negotiations.  When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the team smoothly navigated the transition to virtual hearings and continued to remain in contact with Frannie to resolve day-to-day issues while a final custody/visitation arrangement was being negotiated. To facilitate Frannie’s understanding of a complicated visitation schedule, the team got creative, preparing tools to help her visualize and adhere to the final schedule.

Sarah Leivick, speaking on behalf of the team, describes the experience as “extremely rewarding,” and stressed that the Sanctuary team was with them every step of the way. “It was a true partnership and team effort,” said associate Marcellene Hearn. Lauren Patel, Senior Staff Attorney in Sanctuary’s Matrimonial and Economic Justice Project, applauds the Kasowitz team for being graceful and proactive throughout the proceeding:

“The Kasowitz team remained constantly engaged, and was ready to pivot to meet every challenge. Whenever the Kasowitz team would come to Sanctuary to discuss an issue, the team had already thought of three possible solutions.” – Lauren Patel, Sanctuary Senior Staff Attorney

Frannie just recently received her judgment of divorce and is very happy to be done with the proceeding. She is relieved to have the custody and visitation issues resolved, and is thankful that Kasowitz was able to have her order of protection continued.


Join us at our Above & Beyond virtual celebration on Oct. 26, 2021, as we honor Kasowitz’s outstanding pro bono work. Click here to RSVP for free.

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 in the Labor & Employment group at Ellenoff Grossman & Schole LLP where she represents and advises businesses in all industries across the country. She is also a member of the Pro Bono Council.