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.
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.