A Guide for Survivors of Sex Trafficking During COVID-19

The invisible barriers of social distancing can feel similar to those similar invisible restrictions placed on survivors when they were trafficked.

By: Cristian Eduardo, Survivor Leader & Shobana Powell, LCSW, Director of Survivor Leadership Institute at Sanctuary for Families

Disclaimer: Please note this article may be triggering as it goes into detail about the coercive tactics of traffickers. The purpose of this is to empower survivors and service providers with psychoeducation on how COVID-19 might be particularly triggering for survivors of human trafficking, but we acknowledge that this information might be challenging to read for some. It is written for survivors of sex trafficking who are no longer being trafficked. This guide was written by a survivor of sex and labor trafficking and a licensed mental health clinician.   

It’s okay to feel how you feel

It is important to talk about how trauma can manifest in different ways, and there is no shame, blame or guilt for being triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. If you are feeling this way, know that you are not alone.  Many survivors are feeling similarly.  It is ok if you can identify with any of these feelings. In many ways, it makes sense after the experiences you have lived through

Why might COVID-19 feel particularly triggering or activating for survivors of human trafficking?

Psychological coercion is a powerful form of psychological abuse that can be used to create an environment of fear.  The ever-changing nature of how our communities respond to COVID-19 can mirror the psychological coercion tactics utilized by traffickers.  Many survivors of trafficking felt they could not exit their trafficking situation due to emotional, financial, and psychological barriers, as opposed to physical ones.  As Judith Herman states in her book Trauma and Recovery, “Physical barriers to escape are rare. In most homes, even the most oppressive, there are no bars on the windows, no barbed wire fences… The barriers to escape are generally invisible. They are nonetheless extremely powerful.”  The invisible barriers of social distancing can feel similar to those similar invisible restrictions placed on survivors when they were trafficked.

8 Methods of Psychological Coercion

Research has shown that traffickers often use tactics of psychological coercion similar to those used to elicit false confessions from prisoners of war: isolation, disconnection and distrust, debilitation and exhaustion, threats, moments of hope, intimidation, humiliation and emotional abuse, and unpredictable expectationsBelow, we will outline how social distancing and our current climate with COVID-19 may remind survivors of feelings and experiences of power and control when they were being exploited.

1. Isolation

Isolation involves cutting off or restricting contact from family members and friends. It can also consist of control over your physical, emotional and digital movement and connections, such as monitoring and restricting your transportation, access to your workplace, your phone, etc. 

How does COVID-19 mirror Isolation?

With social distancing, you are kept physically away from your support network. You might also lack full control over your transportation, such as where you are allowed to go and how long you can stay.  For some, a safe space you once had access to may no longer be accessible.  For example, due to social distancing, many survivors can no longer access a family member, friend or community organization that felt safe.  The sense of isolation many of us are feeling due to social distancing does not come close to comparing to the level of isolation most survivors have experienced. However, it can remind survivors of how it felt when they were being trafficked, and if you are feeling that way, it is valid and makes perfect sense after all you have overcome.

Tips on Coping with Isolation

Stay connected virtually in the safest and most comfortable way that you can, whether that might be text, phone call, social media, videoconference, etc. 

  • Why videoconferencing might be triggering: Please note that videoconferencing itself may be triggering for many survivors of trafficking, especially if the sexual exploitation involved cameras and/or online chat rooms.  We advise service providers to be mindful of this and give survivors choice in how they connect with you virtually.  We also recommend service providers do not videoconference from their bed. Videoconferencing from a bedroom setting can be especially triggering for survivors under any circumstances, but especially when interacting with an individual in a role of power, as in the past many survivors were exploited by those with power in a bedroom setting. It is important for service providers to be mindful of their power.  
  • Why certain camera angles might be triggering: Be mindful of the angle at which a survivor might be viewing you if you are videoconferencing. For example, when your device is below you, it can look like a survivor is looking at you from your lap, which can be extremely triggering for survivors of sex trafficking and other forms of sexual violence. Instead, we recommend positioning your camera a few inches higher than eye level, facing slightly down towards you. 
  • Why phone calls, texts and social media might be triggering:  Many survivors had to interact with sex buyers over the phone, text, or social media so even telephone communication and texting can be triggering. Again, we advise that the power to decide what type of virtual communication you use during this time lies with the survivor.  

2. Controlling Understanding of Reality

Traffickers often make themselves the single source of information and connection to the outside world, which further enhances their power in the relationship. Traffickers also often blame survivors for their own exploitation and abuse.  They also often constantly call, text, email and social media the survivors to maintain even a virtual presence and power in their life. It can feel like you have no escape from the trafficker.  

How does COVID-19 mirror Disconnection and Distrust?

With social distancing, it can feel like our only sources of information is the news and our virtual platforms.  This can feel similar to trafficking in that we are expected to trust sources outside of ourselves for information.  This can be particularly challenging for survivors of trafficking whose trust has often been broken by their primary source of information, namely their exploiters.  With social distancing, we can also feel inundated and overwhelmed by the constant bombardment of information via text, phone calls, email, and social media. It can similarly feel like you have no escape from what others want us to hear, see and think about. For some, it can feel like once again, others are controlling you and what you are exposed to.  

Tips on Coping with Disconnection and Distrust

  • Trusted Sources: Use trusted sources of information, especially those from trauma-informed organizations who have in mind the impact of the information they share.   
  • Assert Your Power: Create a Routine:  If you feel overwhelmed by the overload of information, turn off notifications about updates of current situations.  Instead, you can schedule a time for yourself to check those updates, so you can be in control of when and how you receive information.  

3. Debilitation and Exhaustion

Traffickers often demand that survivors are exploited by sex buyers for prolonged periods of time, oftentimes without adequate sleep or food.  Traffickers often control survivors’ meals, sleep patterns, showers, and access to medical care. When traffickers induce such debilitation and exhaustion for survivors, survivors often struggle with chronic stress and physical ailments as a result of the exploitation.  

How does COVID-19 mirror Debilitation & Exhaustion?

With self-quarantining, we lose control over our access to food, sleep and oftentimes medical care. The current climate of fear around COVID-19 can also contribute to survivors’ chronic stress, as many are struggling with fear of exposure, fear of the unknown, fear of things worsening, fear of getting sick, fear of death, etc. For survivors trafficking, these feelings of fear, anxiety and unpredictability can be triggering in and of itself, as these are common feelings survivors experienced during their exploitation.  

Tips on Coping with Debilitation & Exhaustion

During quarantine, self-awareness is important.  You can create a journal and keep track of your feelings and symptoms (if you have any). Writing them down can help you feel more in control by recognizing patterns of times of day or triggers that may be leading to your anxiety.  It can also help you acknowledge the feelings, and then begin to focus on solutions, such as connecting with a trusted friend, processing with your therapist, or doing a self-care activity such as mindfulness, meditation, reading, cooking, drawing, or whatever else brings you peace.  

See here for a link to 3 free online trauma-sensitive meditations. 

4. Threats

In order to maintain power and control over survivors, traffickers often threaten to kill the survivors, their children, their loved ones, or their pets. They also often threaten to take away their children.  As many survivors may be undocumented or have mental health issues, the fear of losing your children may be very real.  Traffickers might also threaten to die by suicide if a survivor leaves or threaten to abandon a survivor if they no longer participate in the sex industry, which can be particularly challenging if a survivor has been isolated and has no one else in their life. Traffickers might also threaten to disclose a survivor’s immigration status, medical conditions and/or sexual/gender identity. 

How does COVID-19 mirror Threats?

If you or someone in your home is sick, you might fear your children being taken away or losing a loved one. You might worry about who would care for your pet if you had to be hospitalized. You might also worry about the disclosure of your personal medical information.  Again, oftentimes when survivors feel similar to feeling to something they experienced while being trafficked, it can be very triggering.  In this case, the nature of COVID-19 can feel very life-threatening for oneself and loved ones.  

Tips on Coping with Threats

  • Please see our Guide to Safety Planning during COVID-19, which includes tips on identifying the safest room in the house and creating a peaceful space for yourself.
  • Please check out Clear Fear and Calm Harm, free apps for trauma-sensitive grounding exercises, recommended by a survivor of trafficking.

5. Moments of Hope

Traffickers often use promises, gifts, rewards and apologizing to enhance the trauma bond with the survivor.  By using occasional indulgences, a survivor might feel the trafficker can offer them glimpses of light in a world of darkness, which furthers the feelings of power and control the trafficker has over the survivor.  

How does COVID-19 mirror Moments of Hope?

With COVID-19, anything that might serve as a distraction from negative media and news can feel like a small reward or gift. These moments of positivity can be beneficial, but the challenge is when it feels they are holding more power than they should.  For example, survivors might be more vulnerable to re-exploitation if a new abuser can offer a sense of relief from the current climate of fear.  

Tips on Coping with Moments of Hope

Diversify your sources of positivity and healthy escape. It is okay to lean on loved ones during this time, but it is helpful to be aware of how someone might exploit their power dynamics during this time. Instead, have a few key trusted friends or family from whom you seek support.  Have a few positive outlets for your time, whether it is for self-care alone or through a virtual community.  

6. Intimidation

Traffickers may demonstrate control over the survivor’s fate, making them feel like no matter what the survivor does, the trafficker will get their way.  They often use privilege and real or false connections to powerful individuals or systems to intimidate survivors and make them feel there is no way out and their trafficker will find out about every move they make.  

How does COVID-19 mirror Intimidation?

The spread of the coronavirus can feel like you are not in control of your own fate.   

Tips on Coping with Intimidation

Assert the power you do have over your situation. Follow the recommendations from trusted sources about how you can minimize risk for yourself and your loved ones. If you feel out of control, remind yourself of the things you are doing to stay safe.  

7. Humiliation and Emotional Abuse

In the world of trafficking, survivors can experience verbal abuse, breaking down one’s spirit and self-worth.  Oftentimes, traffickers will break down a survivor’s self-worth and tie their sense of self to the trafficker’s opinion of them.  Traffickers and sex buyers also might involve survivors in degrading sexual acts or the harming of others, which can further impact one’s self-worth. 

How does COVID-19 mirror Humiliation and Emotional Abuse?

During this time with the coronavirus, we know many people are struggling with blame, physical abuse and verbal abuse and harassment due to their race, gender, and background. This feeling of verbal abuse and being put down or targeted can remind a survivor of how they felt when they were trafficked.  For many survivors, the verbal abuse takes the longest to heal from, so enduring verbal abuse during life after exploitation can be particularly triggering.

Tips on Coping with Humiliation and Emotional Abuse

It is not okay to be harassed or abused for any reason. The current situation is not an excuse for any form of abuse, racism, discrimination, or exploitation. Remember you are not alone.  Connect with safe and trusted loved ones to remind yourself of who you are. Write positive self-affirming statements and put them on your walls or write them on your mirror so you can be reminded daily of your strengths.  If you do not have safe or trusted people in your life, follow organizations and leaders you trusted online, such as Sanctuary for Families or our partner organizations. Even though we are not together in person, we are together in spirit.  Seeing positive, trauma-sensitive posts online can be another way to remember you are not alone. 

8. Unpredictable Expectations

Traffickers often expect and enforce rigid and unrealistic rules.  Their rules are often changing constantly, so a survivor never feels secure or is never sure if they are doing what they are supposed to.  Traffickers then often have unpredictable physical or verbal outbursts and incidents of violence for a survivor failing to comply with these unrealistic and ever-changing demands. Survivors often blame themselves, feeling they “deserved” the punishment or abuse because they failed to follow the rules.   

How does COVID-19 mirror Unpredictable Expectations?

The ‘rules” or recommendations around COVID-19 are constantly changing and can feel very similar to rules traffickers enforced when a survivor was being exploited.  For example, traffickers often have rules about not contacting or speaking with anyone outside of the trafficker and the sex buyers.  Social distancing can remind a survivor of times when their trafficker did not allow them to interact with others and controlled who they could contact and how. Survivors may feel high levels of anxiety around complying with social distancing recommendations and/or might feel a strong desire to not comply because it feels like someone else controlling your behavior. It might also be particularly frustrating to see others not complying with safety recommendations.  

Tips on Coping with Unpredictable Expectations

Keep a brief list of safety recommendations from a trusted source and if you feel the need to review it, remember you are in control of how you respond.  You can set a schedule for yourself, choosing to check it at a planned time each day or week.   

Remember: You Are Not Alone 

Most importantly, just remember if you are feeling particularly anxious or triggered during this time, you are not alone. Your feelings and experiences make sense after everything your body, brain, and soul have overcome. Give yourself a break, show yourself the empathy you would show your survivor community, and never forget how far you have come in your healing journey. The community of survivors of trafficking is thousands strong, and even if we cannot be together, we are with you.  


Baldwin, S.B., Fehfrenbacher, A.E., & Eisenman, D.P.  2015. Psychological Coercion in Human Trafficking: An Application of Biderman’s Framework. 

Biderman. 1957. Communist Attempts to Elicit False Confessions from Air Force Prisoners of War.  

Hopper & Hidalgo. 2006. Invisible Chains: Psychological Coercion of Human Trafficking survivors.  

Renick. 2012. Power and Control Comparison. National Network to End Domestic Violence.  

Cleary Gottlieb Team Secures T-Visa for Immigrant Survivor of Sex Trafficking

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a team of attorneys from Cleary Gottlieb for their compassionate and devoted pro bono assistance on behalf of their client “Alicia” in their successful application of a T nonimmigrant visa. The team consisted of Jennifer Kroman, Sharon Barbour, Jessica Dwinell, and Michael Athy-Plunkett. 

Todd Schmid is Legal Counsel at HSBC and Co-Head of HSBC’s U.S. Pro Bono Program. He is a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a team of attorneys from Cleary Gottlieb for their compassionate and devoted pro bono assistance on behalf of their client “Alicia” in their successful application of a T nonimmigrant visa. The team consisted of Jennifer Kroman, Sharon Barbour, Jessica Dwinell, and Michael Athy-Plunkett. 

International youth often arrive in New York City hoping, above all, to progress, to find a way forward: a good school, a secure job, stability after leaving home behind. For “Alicia”, a transgender Sanctuary for Families client whose childhood in Colombia was marked with abuse, NYC embodied opportunity. Yet their initial hopes were stolen when, at age 12, they were sold into a Queens brothel and drugged by the brothel’s keepers so adult men could engage in commercial sex with them. Alicia eventually escaped, only to find their social support network pulled out from under them. Still only a teenager, Alicia had nowhere to go but the streets.

The Port Authority, illuminated day and night by the radiant lights of nearby Times Square, is home to the busiest bus terminal in the United States. It is a permanent scene of comings and goings, of not only transience, but homelessness. Often times, LGBTQ youth engage in trading sex for basic necessities, also known as “survival sex”. This can lead to exploitation and trafficking, which is what happened in Alicia’s case.

Starting as a one-time request, youth are groomed by more frequent asks to exchange sex for money as a way to contribute financially to a relationship, with appeals to a victim’s sense of loyalty. Exploiters thus seek out particularly vulnerable youth, who are homeless or runaway; or who have poor social supports. As these vulnerable youth become further removed from their social supports over time, the traffickers gain even more control. In Alicia’s case, intense emotional trauma ran deep, and it took time to come to terms with the fact that the person who provided them with opportunities to stop  living on the streets also put them in extreme danger and exploited them.

Finding Sanctuary, Alicia’s T visa case was soon presented to Jennifer Kroman, Sharon Barbour, Jessica Dwinell, and Michael Athy-Plunkett, the Cleary Gottlieb team whose skilled legal representation and trauma-informed advocacy will be recognized at this year’s Above & Beyond event. As with many Sanctuary clients, Alicia was repeatedly arrested for prostitution-related offenses, and with a prior immigration proceeding, their representation presented challenges that might give other attorneys pause. Yet Cleary jumped at the opportunity to educate USCIS about the devastating impact left by sex trafficking. The team worked tirelessly with their client to overcome the many hurdles the case threw in their way. As the nominators of their award made clear,

“They worked with a client that had suffered extreme trauma. They also dealt with an ever-changing political climate that complicated the immigration application. In the end, they dealt with each hurdle professionally, accurately and compassionately.”

The client came to Sanctuary feeling hopeless, but, working hand in hand with Alicia every step of the way, the attorneys on the case helped Alicia achieve results that were transformative. Michael Athy-Plunkett recalls the case as “having taught him what it means to be a true advocate.” As Sharon Barbour reflects,

“Several aspects of Alicia’s case were extremely challenging, but it was extremely rewarding—not only because we had a tremendous outcome, but also because throughout this experience we gained Alicia’s trust and got to know what a strong, courageous, and resilient person they are.”

As the case progressed, the team proved their dedication by expertly replying to two difficult Requests for Evidence from USCIS because of Alicia’s prior record resulting from their victimization within a six-month period. They never lost hope on the client or the case, and four years later Alicia received T nonimmigrant status.

“I’m very fortunate to have met a team of dedicated individuals at this organization,” reflects Alicia “By connecting with a group of lawyers — wonderful human beings who have helped thousands of victims of trafficking like me and without hope, to find a better life. I lived an existence that seemed so dark but is now shining like a beacon of hope that others can see.”

Alicia’s efforts to obtain steady work were further complicated without documentation, resulting in a barrier to stability. Yet with the team’s steadfast legal representation and Alicia’s acceptance to Sanctuary’s Economic Empowerment Program during their representation, Alicia thrived, and today, Alicia has the tools needed to find long-term stability in the United States.

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 of Sharon, Jessica, Michael and Jennifer. 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.

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.

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.



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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.