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.

Cleary Gottlieb Computer Donation Impacts Clients’ Lives

Lauren Altus is a communications intern at Sanctuary and a recent graduate from Johns Hopkins

Lauren Altus is a communications intern at Sanctuary and a recent graduate from Johns Hopkins University.


In December of 2017, longtime partner law firm Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton LLP donated 60 refurbished desktop computers to Sanctuary with the special help of Partner Francesca L. Odell, Pro Bono Immigration Attorney Kyle Dandelet, and Global IT Special Project Leader Lenis M. Santos. Because of this generous donation, 60 survivors and their families were able to use these computers for a wide array of activities that helped them stabilize their lives as well as prepare for the future.

Many of the families Sanctuary works with are immigrants, low income, or live in shelters. These computers have provided resources that many people take for granted in their day to day lives.  The computers went to families currently engaged in services through Sanctuary’s Clinical Department (18), Economic Empowerment Program (10), and Legal Department (32).

Here are some ways in which the computer donations have impacted the lives of the families we’re working with:

Starting a New Business

35-year old David lives in Brooklyn and is currently the sole provider for his sister, brother, and disabled mother and father. Sanctuary’s Immigration Intervention Project (IIP) attorneys are helping David formalize his immigration status through asylum. In the interim, David has a work permit which IIP is helping him renew. The desktop computer he recently received will help him launch his new construction business.

Obtaining a High School Equivalency Diploma

Natasha was born in Guinea and is a single mother to her daughter. In August 2017, months after receiving her Green Card, Natasha enrolled in Sanctuary’s Economic Empowerment Program (EEP) at the age of 42. Although she was clearly motivated and eager to learn, one of Natasha’s first barriers to obtaining a living wage job was her lack of a High School Equivalency (HSE) diploma.

While in EEP, Natasha worked incredibly hard and since graduating, she has remained dedicated to her goals. Natasha is currently enrolled in a complimentary workforce development training program offered through SUNY’s Advanced Technology and Information Network (ATTAIN) and is working on getting her HSE. She recently took the predictor for the HSE and passed nearly all sections.

The desktop computer Natasha received has allowed her to complete homework assignments and follow-up MS Office Suite trainings so she can finally receive her diploma and move forward with her vocational skills and eventual career. After working as a Home Health Aide for the past 6 years, Natasha hopes to use the skills she learned in EEP to find a job in an office or administrative setting.

Helping Children with School

At the age of 34, Lauren is a single parent and sole supporter of two teenage sons and an infant. Originally from El Salvador, today, they live together in New Jersey.

Currently, the family’s finances are tight as Lauren’s infant son has many medical problems due to a congenital heart condition. Lauren is engaged in comprehensive immigration services with Sanctuary’s Immigration Intervention Project, and has a work permit connected to her pending asylum petition. Lauren reports that the desktop computer she received will help her children succeed in school by enabling them to complete homework assignments and eventually apply to college. Without the computer, her children would struggle to research homework questions, type assignments, and complete projects for their classes. Now that they have a computer, her children’s access to education is one less concern for Lauren.

Learning English

Originally from Mexico, Lorenza is a single mother and the sole provider for her household. Recently, she and her 2-year-old daughter moved from one of Sanctuary’s confidential shelters into a NYCHA apartment in Manhattan. Sanctuary’s Immigration Intervention Project attorneys are also helping Lorenza apply for U Visa status.

To make ends meet, Lorenza currently works part-time as a housekeeper, and also depends on the cash and SNAP benefits she receives on behalf of her daughter. Lorenza is a monolingual Spanish-speaker, and to improve her English proficiency she is attending ESL classes. The desktop computer Lorenza received is helping her practice English and complete her homework. Lorenza also plans to explore the Microsoft Office programs which will allow her to apply for office jobs in the future.

Job Training

Originally from Venezuela, Andres is working with Sanctuary to apply for asylum. Both his initial work permit and petition for asylum are pending but Andres reports that in the interim, the desktop computer he received is helping him work toward his goals of job training, beginning a meaningful career, and eventually achieving self-sufficiency.

Working Safely

Sadie, 32, currently lives with and supports her 2-year-old daughter. This past July, Sadie escaped the abusive relationship she had been in for the past six years after her ex-partner’s erratic and violent abuse towards her, their daughter, and their family pet escalated. Throughout the relationship, her abuser was possessive and controlling, going so far as to call her coworkers and employers to make sure she was at work. He often drove the family while under the influence, and he used illegal substances while caring for their infant daughter. Sadie fled to Ohio where she felt she would be safe with her family. Ensuing court orders, however, forced her to return to New York without most of her belongings.

With help from Sanctuary’s Courtroom Advocates Project (CAP), Sadie obtained a Temporary Order of Protection against her abuser in October 2017 and is currently engaged in a contentious custody/visitation matter. Sadie is also participating in counseling offered through Sanctuary’s Clinical Department.

The computer donation has made it possible for Sadie to work remotely, giving her the flexibility she needs to care for her daughter and eventually return to school. With the long-term stability of her family in mind, Sadie hopes to return to City University of New York in fall 2018.

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We are so grateful for our longstanding partnership with Cleary Gottlieb, one that goes far beyond pro bono representation. To the team at Cleary, and on behalf of all the families who benefitted from this donation, thank you for this generous gift. We can’t wait to see what the future has in store for the recipients of these computers.

Cleary Gottlieb Attorneys Seek Asylum for Survivor of Female Genital Mutilation

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton attorneys for their pro bono work on behalf of Sanctuary client “Ms. G.”

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of Cleary Gottlieb attorneys for their pro bono work on behalf of Sanctuary client “Ms. G,” a survivor of female genital mutilation, sexual violence, and torture. The Cleary Gottlieb team of associates S. Ellie Norton, Clayton Simmons, Jessica Thompson, and Marion de Meslon have championed Ms. G’s asylum claim throughout three years of immigration proceedings to prevent Ms. G from being deported to her persecutors in Burkina Faso.

Finding Sanctuary

Ms. G was living in a crisis domestic violence shelter when she first met Ellie, Clay, Jessica, and Marion. She suffered from repeated infections and hospitalizations caused by the female genital mutilation (FGM) she was forced to undergo as a young child. She had also been kidnapped, tortured, and raped by political groups in her home country of Burkina Faso.

After fleeing to the United States, Ms. G suffered further physical, sexual, and emotional abuse by her husband. Undocumented and unable speak or understand English, Ms. G. understandably felt scared and alone. Without friends or family members to help her, she turned to her doctors who referred her to Sanctuary for Families. Sanctuary helped Ms. G find shelter and connected her to her pro bono team at Cleary Gottlieb for legal representation.

Certain that Ms. G’s life would be in danger if she were forced to return to Burkina Faso, the Cleary Gottlieb pro bono team quickly filed an affirmative application for asylum on Ms. G’s behalf.

The team advocated that Ms. G must be granted asylum in the United States because she had endured severe persecution and horrific human rights violations in the past and would face further persecution if returned to Burkina Faso, due to political violence and the high rates of FGM and gender violence against women in Ms. G’s ethnic group in Burkina Faso.

Claiming asylum

Ms. G presented a strong claim to asylum at her asylum office interview in 2014, but to the pro bono team’s surprise, the asylum officer rejected her application merely because it lacked a copy of her marriage certificate, which was in the possession of her abusive husband. Ellie explained:

“The only copy of Ms. G’s marriage certificate available in the United States was in the hands of her abusive husband, who refused to turn it over to us.”

Although the pro bono team attempted to procure another copy of Ms. G’s marriage certificate directly from Burkina Faso, it unfortunately did not arrive in time for the interview and the asylum officer was unwilling to wait.  As a result, Ms. G was directly placed into deportation proceedings.

Disappointed but undeterred, the Cleary Gottlieb associates began preparing Ms. G to present her asylum claim before an immigration judge. According to Clay:

“We tried to be sensitive to Ms. G’s emotions and give her as much support as possible because we knew that having to relive the traumatic experiences of her past by telling her story yet again would be very challenging for her.” 

Ms. G and the pro bono team were confident and ready to argue the merits of her case at her first scheduled immigration court hearing, but unfortunately the hearing was adjourned.

Moving forward

The merits hearing finally took place in 2016, nearly two years after her asylum office interview. At Ms. G’s merits hearing, opposing counsel made the surprising decision to defer to the judge for a decision without requiring Ms. G to testify.

The judge remarked that the team’s presentation of Ms. G’s asylum application was so strong he would grant it on the existing record alone, pending routine security clearances. The team is hopeful that Ms. G will finally be granted asylum at her next hearing later this year.

Sayoni Maitra, the Immigration Intervention Project Staff Attorney at Sanctuary for Families who worked with the Cleary Gottlieb pro bono team, shared that Ellie, Clay, Jessica, and Marion are being recognized because of the “great compassion, encouragement, and emotional support” that they provided to Ms. G “[t]hrough a long and arduous immigration process.” Sayoni added that “the team’s outstanding preparation of Ms. G’s asylum application was so impressive that even opposing counsel agreed to forego testimony, sparing Ms. G the trauma of retelling her painful past in court.”

When asked to reflect on the most meaningful part of their experience as Ms. G’s pro bono attorneys, the Cleary Gottlieb team marveled at Ms. G’s tremendous strength and growth as an individual. “Ms. G has remained resilient, calm, and composed throughout an extraordinarily difficult process,” said Jessica.

“She graduated from college in Burkina Faso and has since been taking additional classes in the United States to learn English and develop a career here. With counseling from Sanctuary for Families, Ms. G has gotten back on her feet. Seeing her remarkable progress over the years has been so rewarding.”

When asked to reflect on her experience working with the Cleary Gottlieb pro bono team, Ms. G said “I want to thank Clayton, Ellie, Jessica, and Marion for the work they did for my case. They were helpful in many ways in my life in the United States and I will always be grateful to them.”

Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on October 19, 2016 at the Highline Ballroom as we honor Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton’s outstanding pro bono work.  Learn more about the event 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.

Erin Meyer is the Pro Bono Manager at Proskauer Rose LLP and was formerly a senior associate at Hogan Lovells US LLP.  She is also a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council and Co-Chair of this year’s Above & Beyond event.