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.
COMPASSIONATE CARE & ZEALOUS ADVOCACY
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.”
CONCERNS ABOUT INADMISSIBILITY
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.
OVERCOMING T-VISA APPLICATION CHALLENGES
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.