Davis Polk Attorneys Help Trafficking Victim Tell Her Story, Secure T-Visa, and Aid in the Successful Prosecution of Her Traffickers

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, we’re honoring a team of attorneys from Davis Polk & Wardwell, LLP for their dedicated advocacy on behalf of their client, “Jie,” in her successful T-Visa application. Read to learn more.

Sam Zeidman is a Software Developer at Red Rabbit, LLC in New York. From 2012 through 2017 he was an associate at Davis Polk & Wardwell in the Litigation Department.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of attorneys from Davis Polk & Wardwell, LLP for their dedicated and powerful advocacy on behalf of their client, “Jie,” in her successful T-Visa application. The team consisted of former associate Lisa Doolittle, Associates Hanbing Zhang and Iris Hsiao, Partner Po Sit, and Special Counsel for Pro Bono Sharon Katz.

A Nexus of Vulnerability: From Domestic Abuse to Trafficking

Jie was living in China, married with children to an abusive husband. After their divorce her ex-husband took custody of their children because Jie lacked the financial resources to raise them. Jie sought employment so that she could earn money to win back custody of her children. She found what she thought was a promising job cleaning houses in the U.S. Despite not speaking English and having no connections in the U.S., she took the job.

Upon arrival in the U.S., it immediately became clear to Jie that the job she was promised was a sham. Instead, she was expected to engage in sexual acts in hotels and massage parlors. From the moment of entry to the U.S., every aspect of Jie’s life was controlled by her traffickers; unable to speak the language and with no one to reach out to, she felt helpless.

Despite the painful and frightening circumstances, Jie persisted in seeking a way out and never gave up hope that she would one day escape her traffickers.

After an Arrest, Another Legal Avenue

Jie was arrested on vice charges and was referred to New York’s Human Trafficking Intervention Court, where she was referred to Sanctuary’s Queens Trafficking Intervention Pro Bono Project (QTIPP) that, among other things, allowed her to meet with lawyers to discuss possible legal and immigration options.

Lisa Doolittle and Hanbing Zhang were the QTIPP volunteer attorneys for Jie’s legal consultation. Doolittle credits Zhang, a native Mandarin speaker, for forging a strong connection in a short time, which helped them gather enough information to determine that Jie was a good candidate for a T-Visa and quickly volunteered to represent her.  Lori L. Cohen, the Director of the Anti-Trafficking Initiative at Sanctuary for Families, supervised the team and agreed Jie had a compelling case:

“This is a woman who was clearly trafficked, promised a job that didn’t exist, charged fictitious fees, kidnapped, held in a hotel, and raped by men paying to have sex when she did not agree.”

After an extensive series of meetings with Jie to establish their relationship, the DPW team began to advocate on her behalf as she cooperated with law enforcement into the investigation, arrest and prosecution of her traffickers, an emotionally challenging process. Sharon Katz noted that Jie “was initially very wary, even distrustful” of her new attorneys, understandable given her situation.

In addition to participating as a victim-witness in the criminal case, she was skeptical about the US immigration system, particularly the T-Visa process; like many other victims, she already had engaged an attorney who had filed an asylum application and said it was making progress. As Doolittle put it, “In her mind, why would attorneys who worked for free be high quality attorneys, especially compared to her paid attorney who repeatedly assured her he was making advancements in her asylum case?” (The team did not believe the asylum claim would prevail. Cohen said it was common for unscrupulous attorneys to charge women like Jie exorbitant fees up front but deliver very little. Because of the fees, women are drawn deeper in debt and may feel they need to continue working at massage parlors in order to pay it off.)

Meanwhile, the T-Visa process took time and required Jie to share information about some of the worst experiences of her life in great detail and to overcome cultural norms against speaking out about one’s bosses and revealing shameful events.  Moreover, she worried about retribution.

Patience and Persistence from Attorneys and Client

Over the course of a year, with great perseverance, the DPW team gradually gained Jie’s trust. Cohen said the team’s approach was key to making her comfortable with the process.

“They treated her with dignity, respect, patience, and compassion. Their humanity for this woman really came through as they quickly put together a strong, moving, powerful application.”

For their part, the attorneys believe Jie herself deserves most of the credit. Zhang stated,

“She was hesitant to share her story but also believed it was wrong for women to be treated as she was. She had a strong sense of justice and felt that the situation could not go on forever.”

Jie’s T-Visa application was eventually granted and her traffickers convicted.  The effect on Jie was noticeable. Katz said,

“A different part of her came through. She was smiling and outgoing, a change from the initial meetings.”

Iris Hsiao, who is working on the derivative visas for Jie’s children, noted that,

“[Jie] seems extremely hopeful and has more confidence in the process. Before she thought the application was pointless and would take forever, but she saw that waiting paid off in the end.”

As Doolittle put it,

“A burden was lifted. She has T-visa status and no longer has to live every day with the fear over her head that she will be sent back to China.”

Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on November 13, 2018, at the RUMI Event Space, 229 W 28th St, New York, New York as we honor this Davis Polk 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.

Stroock Team Comes to the Rescue of Labor Trafficking Survivor

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of attorneys from Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP for their brilliant and effective advocacy on behalf of “Diane.” The Stroock team worked tirelessly to help Diane not only apply for legal status but also negotiated with law enforcement to ensure Diane received the legal restitution she deserved.

Neda Hassanzadeh is a graduate student at Columbia University.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of attorneys from Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP for their brilliant and effective advocacy on behalf of “Diane.”  The Stroock team worked tirelessly to help Diane not only apply for legal status but also negotiated with law enforcement to ensure Diane received the legal restitution she deserved.

 This dedicated team included partners Kevin Curnin and Claude Szyfer, and associates Joy Baskin, Ben Smyser, and Jonathan Konig.

The Dream of Coming to America Turns into a Nightmare

Diane came to the United States from Nigeria under the impression that she would be working for a wealthy and powerful Nigerian family to fulfill their housekeeping needs.  Much to her dismay, her documents and all of her money were taken from her upon arrival. A heartless husband-wife team of labor traffickers worked her nearly to exhaustion and serious illness, forbidding her from leaving the home and paying her very little and inconsistently, sometimes not even paying her at all.

Diane worked for her traffickers for five long years. Due to the horrendous labor conditions, Diane developed pitting edema and started coughing up blood. The family took her to the hospital a few times, but kept her under close watch. They threatened that if she said anything about her working conditions, she would get deported.

One day she asked the husband, “What happens to people who get sick and don’t have papers?”  He looked at her and sternly responded, “They die.” At that moment, Diane very bravely decided that she was not going to die like this. And so, she planned her escape.

A Plan of Escape Gone Awry

After five long years of maltreatment, Diane fled to a neighbor’s home and revealed everything the family had done to her.  From there, she was sent to a shelter but she ended up being moved to the home of a friend of her traffickers.  Unsurprisingly, her traffickers were quickly alerted to her presence. Thanks to the quick work of Diane’s caseworker, Diane was able to escape to a safe shelter.

Stroock Steps In

Partner Kevin Curnin founded the Public Service Project at Stroock 16 years ago and has been working with Sanctuary for Families for years. When Lori Cohen, Director of Sanctuary’s Anti-Trafficking Initiative, brought Diane’s case to Curnin’s attention, he quickly assembled a team.

Kevin, Claude, Joy, Ben, and Jonathan got to work immediately. The committed and dedicated pro bono attorneys put in many hours gaining Diane’s trust and preparing her for meetings with law enforcement. Thanks to their work and Diane’s cooperation, prosecutors were able to secure a guilty plea from her traffickers. A guilty plea would have been a great victory in and of itself, but the Stroock team went even further and ensured that the prosecutors put safeguards into place requiring upfront payment of a portion of the monetary restitution owed to their client as part of the plea deal.  Lori Cohen enthused,

“This legal team is tenacious! While other teams would have rightly been proud to help secure a guilty plea from a husband-wife team of heartless labor traffickers, Stroock went the extra mile in ensuring that their formerly enslaved client got true justice in the form of compensation.”

 Since the conclusion of the criminal case, the Stroock team has filed a T nonimmigrant status application for Diane, so she can have long-term legal status in the United States. Diane is enjoying her life as a freed person and now spends her Sundays at church attending services and volunteering, an experience Diane’s captors took away from her.

Reflecting on her experience working with Diane, Joy Baskin said,

“It’s been a labor of love—long and very hard, but it’s been wonderful.  In these projects, you feel like you’re getting more than you’re giving.  Our client is a wonderful, wonderful woman.”

Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on October 17, 2017 at the Highline Ballroom as we honor the Stroock team’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.

Cohen & Gresser Attorneys Reinstate Critical Public Benefits for Trafficking Survivor

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of pro bono attorneys at Cohen & Gresser LLP for their bono work fighting to make sure “Camilla,” a victim of trafficking, received the public benefits she was entitled to.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of pro bono attorneys at Cohen & Gresser LLP for their bono work fighting to make sure “Camilla,” a victim of trafficking, received the public benefits she was entitled to.  

Cut off from public benefits

Camilla, a victim of human trafficking from Mexico and a monolingual Spanish speaker, originally came to Sanctuary for immigration assistance.  But last summer when Camilla checked her public benefits card she realized that, for some reason, she had not received her cash assistance or her food stamps and could not buy groceries for her family.  Camilla, like many of Sanctuary’s lowest income clients, relies heavily on her monthly public benefits to meet basic living needs, like food and clothing.  But these critical benefits are often cut off, or drastically reduced, for no legitimate reason and/or with no appropriate notice.  This sudden lack of resources is devastating for our clients, and it was devastating for Camilla.

Camilla went to her local welfare center to find out what happened and discovered that her benefits case was closed, without any notice, because she had allegedly failed to recertify her case (public benefits recipients must periodically recertify their eligibility to receive benefits).  Camilla contacted Sanctuary for assistance and Sanctuary reached out to Cohen & Gresser, who had recently hosted a Sanctuary for Families Public Benefits training at their firm.

Cohen & Gresser attorneys step in

Scott D. Thomson
Scott D. Thomson

Cohen & Gresser attorneys Scott D. Thomson, who speaks Spanish, and Matthew V. Povolny volunteered immediately to represent Camilla at her fair hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) to determine if her benefits should be reinstated.  Neither had ever done a public benefits fair hearing before, but they both got up to speed on the law and the procedures incredibly quickly.  Their first fair hearing was a success:  Camilla’s much-needed benefits were restored, she was awarded retroactive benefits from the time they were cut off, and she received another opportunity to recertify for her cash assistance and SNAP (i.e., food stamps) benefits.

Matthew V. Povolny
Matthew V. Povolny

Although Scott and Matthew had successfully wrapped up Camilla’s fair hearing, they maintained close contact with her to ensure that the Human Resources Administration (“HRA”) complied with the fair hearing decision.  Thanks to their diligence, they soon discovered that Camilla was not receiving adequate benefits for her household. In fact, HRA was only providing benefits for her minor son, who is a US citizen.  But, even though she is not a US citizen, HRA should also have been providing benefits to Camilla, who qualified to receive benefits due to her status as a certified victim of trafficking under the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Scott and Matthew jumped right in and filed a fair hearing request for Camilla to argue that her cash assistance and food stamps amounts were inadequate. Not only did they win the fair hearing, they educated the ALJ and the HRA representative about a non-US citizen’s eligibility for benefits if they are a certified victim of human trafficking.  Says Scott:

“I was impressed by the Administrative Law Judges.  They really wanted to get to the bottom of what was going on, and they pushed the agency representative to do the right thing. The agency representatives came around once we helped them understand the issues.”

Joy and stability

As a result of their committed advocacy, Camilla received over $2,200 in retroactive benefits and will see an increase in benefits going forward.  The success brought immense joy and stability to Camilla, who, prior to this experience, was reaching her breaking point with the complicated welfare system and wanted to give up fighting and just hope for the best.  Matthew and Scott both agreed that seeing the very personal effect that their successful representation had on Camilla was one of the most rewarding parts of working on a public benefits pro bono case.  Said Scott:

“We knew how much she needed that money to use for food and her son’s expenses.  It was really great to have a direct tangible effect on someone’s daily life.”

They both plan on continuing to do pro bono work at the firm, which has a strong commitment to pro bono.  Matthew explained:

“There is a tremendous feeling of what a great opportunity pro bono gives you to help people in the city that you pass by in the streets every day.  It’s always a great feeling to give back.”

Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on October 19, 2016 at the Highline Ballroom as we honor Cohen & Gresser’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.

Nicole Fidler is the Pro Bono Supervising Attorney at Sanctuary for Families.

5 Harmful Myths about Human Trafficking

When it comes to human trafficking, it’s hard to separate myth from fact.

Human trafficking is complicated. It’s kept under wraps, overlooked, and often ignored. Few reliable studies exist about its prevalence. As a result, it’s often hard to separate myth from fact when trying to understand this horrific abuse of human rights.

Read on to see some myths about human trafficking dispelled, and during Human Trafficking Awareness Month, take the opportunity to learn, share – and take action. 

1) MYTH: Human trafficking only happens in countries far away from the United States.

FACT: Human trafficking occurs around the world, in the United States, and right here in New York City. The National Human Trafficking Resource Center received over 16,600 calls for help last year. At Sanctuary, we regularly serve survivors of sex trafficking and human trafficking from the five boroughs. Our clients include both immigrants and native New Yorkers.

2) MYTH: Only women are victims of human trafficking.

FACT: Anyone, regardless of gender, can be a victim of human trafficking. In fact, studies have indicated that 45% of victims of human trafficking are men and boys. Men and boys can be victims of both labor trafficking AND sex trafficking.

3) MYTH: Human trafficking requires physical force or restraint to be considered trafficking.

FACT: Traffickers can use many kinds of tactics to coerce victims, including threats to a victim’s family; exploiting a victim’s vulnerability, such as lack of immigration status; using psychological tactics, like shaming, mental abuse, and isolation; and using debt bondage against a victim.

4) MYTH: Human trafficking is a small, underground industry that doesn’t affect many people.

FACT: 20.9 million people around the world are victims of human trafficking. Human trafficking is a $150 billion global industry. There are no reliable numbers on human trafficking victims in the United States, but the reality is pretty clear – this crime is widespread and affects millions of people around the world and at home.

5) MYTH: There is nothing I can do to end human trafficking.

FACT: Everyone can take action to end human trafficking. You can volunteer with Sanctuary, make a donation, or sign up to receive advocacy updates. You can also make smart decisions about how you spend your money and what you buy – check out slaveryfootprint.org to see how your consumer decisions might be supporting human trafficking, and what you can do to make change.