WilmerHale Attorneys Help Trafficking Survivor Secure T-Visa

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a team of attorneys from WilmerHale for their compassionate and devoted pro bono representation of “Julina,” helping her to obtain her T-Visa. 

Victoria O. Abraham is an associate in the Mergers & Acquisitions group at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in New York, a Co-Chair of the Above & Beyond Committee and a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council. 


At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a team of attorneys from Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP for their compassionate and devoted pro bono representation of “Julina,” helping her to obtain her T-Visa.  The team consisted of partner Dan Schubert and attorneys Jenny Pelaez, Sara Maldonado, Olga Kamensky, and Ken Brady.  Former WilmerHale partner Sharon Cohen Levin worked extensively on this matter, as did former WilmerHale attorneys Lisabeth Mendola-D’Andrea, Marguerite Colson, Sarah Mortazavi, and Carrie Montgomery.  Senior paralegals Lauren Kennedy and Joseph Ciraco also provided invaluable assistance.

In 2016, when she had just turned 18 years old, Julina went to a party where her future trafficker drugged her, kidnapped her, and then sex trafficked her out of a hotel room in New York. Julina managed to escape from him when he left her alone in the hotel room. She ran to another hotel down the street where she used a stranger’s cell phone to call the police. Despite going through this extremely traumatic and challenging trafficking experience, Julina was able to be a key witness in the case against her trafficker. Julina, with the help of her WilmerHale attorneys, Lisabeth Mendola-D’Andrea*, Sharon Cohen Levin*, Sarah Mortazavi*, and Jenny Pelaez participated in a series of interviews with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York and was instrumental in helping them bring charges against her trafficker. He ended up pleading guilty and was sentenced in 2019.

After the successful resolution of her trafficking case, the team of current and former WilmerHale attorneys, consisting of Dan Schubert, Sharon Cohen Levin*, Lisabeth Mendola-D’Andrea*, Sara Maldonado, Ken Brady, Olga Kamensky, Jenny Pelaez, Marguerite Colson*, and Carrie Montgomery*, took Julina on as an immigration client to help her with her T-Visa application. Julina had come to the U.S. from Mexico, undocumented, when she was just two years old.  Julina’s T-Visa case was not straightforward and required the team to put together a supplemental application in response to the government’s Request for Evidence (“RFE”).

“What stood out to me about this case was that their representation of the client was really multi-faceted. They took on so many different kinds of representation – witness cooperation, obtaining Continued Presence and applying for and obtaining T nonimmigrant status,” said Jessica-Wind Abolafia, Director of the Anti-Trafficking Initiative at Sanctuary for Families. “It was legally complex – during the pendency of the T application, the government issued an RFE dealing with the intersection of immigration and criminal law. It was a particularly challenging RFE given the policies of the current administration. The team skillfully drafted a compelling response that was ultimately successful.”

“Sometimes the systems that are put in place to help people who have been trafficked may make help out of reach. It is unimaginable from our point of view how someone could fill out this application on their own,” Sara said. “We had initially been frustrated when we received an RFE asking her to explain why she should be admitted after having engaged in prostitution.  But we were able to explain the nexus to the trafficking component of her story and that she had not engaged in prostitution on a voluntary basis, and we were glad to see that they understood and credited Julina’s story.”

The COVID-19 pandemic presented additional logistical challenges for the team in terms of managing the process, navigating the court system and obtaining the necessary records. With all these challenges, the team was still able to approach the case in a holistic way that was supportive of Julina and respectful of her healing process.

“The way the team was there for her on an emotional level was so key and so crucial. Their compassionate approach led to the client being able to get through a really challenging time in a way that was manageable and respectful of her limits. They really struck the right balance.” — Jessica-Wind Abolafia, SFF Anti-Trafficking Initiative Director.

“She helped me to figure out different ways to interact with clients and how to respect where she is as a person. This has been a learning and growing experience for me. I was working with someone who experienced trauma that I could not even imagine,” said Sara.

The government granted Julina’s T-Visa in June 2020, and since then Julina has been focused on rebuilding her life with her two young children and her partner.

Join us at our virtual Above & Beyond virtual celebration on October 29, 2020, as we honor the outstanding pro bono work of Dan, Sharon, Lisabeth, Sara, Ken, Olga, Marguerite, Sarah, Carrie, Jenny, Lauren, and Joseph. Click here to RSVP for free.

If you can’t join us, but would like to support Sanctuary for Family’s work, please consider making an Above & Beyond donation here.

Holland & Knight Team Helps Trafficking Survivor Vacate her Criminal Conviction

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of attorneys from Holland & Knight LLP for their compassionate and devoted pro bono assistance on behalf of  “Melanie,” an immigrant survivor of human trafficking.

Todd Schmid is Senior 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 for Families is honoring a team of attorneys from Holland & Knight LLP for their compassionate and devoted pro bono assistance on behalf of  “Melanie,” an immigrant survivor of human trafficking. The team included Rob Bernstein, partner, Holland & Knight LLP; Ellen Marcus, attorney, Holland & Knight LLP; Sheila Hayre, consultant and professor of law at Quinnipiac University; and Krishna Patel, consultant. 

While states have advanced laws to punish and deter human traffickers, shortfalls in the criminal justice system remain.

Too often, survivors find themselves burdened by criminal convictions which have a domino effect on their ability to rebuild their lives, even after escaping their traffickers. For non-citizen survivors, convictions adversely affect their immigration status (or ability to obtain relief) and can subject them to deportation risk. Survivors with a criminal record are often unable to secure meaningful employment, education, or housing, overwhelming their ability to move forward and build lives free from exploitation.

Sanctuary’s client Melanie, a Taiwanese trafficking survivor who was arrested in Connecticut for prostitution while being trafficked, was determined to vacate her conviction. “Melanie bravely took the initiative to cooperate with law enforcement to investigate her traffickers,” noted Amy Hsieh, Deputy Director of Sanctuary’s Anti-Trafficking Initiative. “She then successfully obtained a T nonimmigrant status.” Yet as Ms. Hsieh pointed out, Melanie still faced barriers resulting from her trafficking – a basic internet search for Melanie’s name still yielded conviction results, and only successful vacatur could clear her public record.

Holland & Knight’s Ellen Marcus and Rob Bernstein began working closely with Melanie in the fall of 2017 to request vacatur from the Connecticut court of a conviction tied to her trafficking. Despite its existence on the books, the vacatur statute had not yet been tested in the Connecticut courts, and there was no clear-cut procedure for placing this type of case on the state docket. When they brought Melanie’s well-researched case to the attention of the Connecticut Office of the State’s Attorney, the diligent work that Ellen and Rob put in paid off, and the state’s attorney, seeing its merits, took the case forward with the papers that the Holland & Knight team prepared, yielding a successful result for Sanctuary’s client. “Working on Melanie’s case highlighted how enormous this bureaucracy is and how difficult it is to navigate even for those with legal training,” noted Rob. Charting new territory required diligence, patience, and a thoughtful, collaborative approach.

In reflecting on their work, Rob and Ellen emphasized the lasting influence that pro bono work can have on clients. “This case underscores just how important it is for lawyers and law firms to do pro bono work,” said Rob. “Clients are not always going to find the right resources on their end. Many are dealing with threats to their health and safety and will never have the chance to dig themselves out. Lawyers are told to stay in their area, to not take risks.” Yet Ellen and Rob encourage fellow lawyers to roll up their sleeves and to be unafraid to act boldly on behalf of clients. “Even if it isn’t your primary area of expertise, with a bit of training, you can achieve rewarding results,” said Ellen. “Don’t hold back.”

Their story shines a light, too, on the power of collaboration. Ellen and Rob were keen to involve experts early on. To make Melanie’s case as strong as they could, they contacted Krishna Patel, a seasoned former federal prosecutor and an active member of numerous human trafficking task forces, and Sheila Hayre, professor of law at Quinnipiac University with expertise in immigration law and human trafficking, for their guidance and support. Seeing Melanie’s situation as a marquee example of the vacatur law’s true intent, both enthusiastically rose to the occasion. “There’s work to be done in training law enforcement that instead of thinking of someone as a ‘prostitute’ engaged in criminal activity, someone they find on the streets could be a trafficking victim,” Krishna observed. While the process of vacating a criminal conviction can itself be nuanced and sometimes contentious, the intrinsic link between Melanie’s victimization as a trafficking survivor and the conviction for prostitution made her case, in Krishna’s mind, an obvious one to take forward.

The pro bono team highlighted just how contagious Melanie’s collaborative spirit was. And Melanie was quick to shine a light on the effect their work will have as she continues to rebuild her life:

“Each of you made it a reality. I sincerely thank each of them for helping vulnerable people like myself. Because of the team, I will live a good life, and one day hope to pass on the love, kindness, and compassion that they have shown me.” — Melanie.

Join us at our virtual Above & Beyond virtual celebration on October 29, 2020, as we honor the outstanding pro bono work of Ellen, Rob, Krishna, and Sheila. Click here to RSVP for free.

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.

NY Must Do More for People in Prostitution, but Full Decriminalization Is Not The Answer

Our statement regarding the recently-introduced bill aimed at fully decriminalizing the sex industry in New York.

As service providers, advocates, and survivor leaders, we believe that people bought and sold in the sex trade should not be arrested, prosecuted, or criminalized. Though Senator Salazar’s and Assembly Member Gottfried’s bill (S.6419/A.8230) does decriminalize prostitution for victims of the sex trade, it also decriminalizes the most heinous and exploitative elements of this industry: sex buying and pimping. For this reason, Sanctuary for Families strongly opposes this bill. We urge legislators and advocates to dig deeper before supporting legislation that will promote pimping, sex buying, and the expansion of the sex industry.

Prostitution causes severe long term psychological and physical harm. An estimated 90% of people in prostitution in the United States are trafficked. Decriminalizing the system of prostitution would, in effect, sanction human trafficking because it would decriminalize all components of the sex trade. It would render illegal businesses, currently run by organized crime, legal. Brothel and illicit massage parlor owners would be deemed bonafide business owners or managers, and the profits they make off the sale of the bodies of women, children, the LGBTQ+ community and other marginalized groups would be legitimized.

We are better than this. We must ensure victims are protected, but cannot do so while extending the same protections to sex traffickers. Unfortunately, this bill does not take this nuanced approach, and it, therefore, should not become law in New York.


Hon. Judy H. Kluger
Executive Director, Sanctuary for Families