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

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.