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.

Attorney General Endangers Women and Children with New Restrictions to Asylum Law

Attorney General Sessions’ decision concerning Matter A-B- reverses decades of asylum law and puts at tremendous risk the lives of women and children who have suffered horrendous domestic violence in their home countries. Read our statement.

Our Statement

Sanctuary for Families stands with survivors of violence in condemning yesterday’s announcement by U.S. Attorney General Sessions to overturn Matter of A-B- — a case which he referred to himself and one in which he directed immigration judges to deny asylum to survivors of domestic violence.

That heartless decision reverses decades of asylum law and puts at tremendous risk the lives of women and children who have suffered horrendous domestic violence in their home countries. It also leaves vulnerable victims of other human rights abuses including forced marriage, female genital mutilation, and violence based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

The United States has long been a safe haven for immigrants who have been persecuted and cannot rely on their own governments to protect them. This decision by A.G. Sessions eviscerates that safe haven, limiting the types of cases in which immigration judges can grant asylum and thereby increasing the likelihood that women, children, and others will be sent back to their persecutors.

Hon. Judy Kluger, Executive Director of Sanctuary for Families, stated:

“At Sanctuary for Families, too many of our clients bear the scars of unrelenting intimate partner violence that occurs in countries where no government or authorities will intervene. For many, a forced return to their nation of origin will be nothing short of a death sentence.”

Lori Adams, incoming Director of Sanctuary’s Immigration Intervention Project, said:

“This callous move by the Attorney General threatens the lives of those seeking refuge in the United States, after having suffered tremendous violence and believing that this country would stand by its promise to protect those who cannot find safety in their own countries. It is a huge step backward for this country and an atrocious way to treat vulnerable immigrants who came here seeking our help.”

This decision was issued in the wake of other brutal immigration changes including a sharp increase in the criminal prosecution of asylum-seekers for “illegal entry” and a practice of separating mothers from their babies and young children at the U.S.-Mexico border to detain them in separate immigration jails, for the stated purpose of deterring families from making the journey north to seek protection in this country. It is cruel and inhumane to treat mothers and children as pawns in a political game.

Sanctuary for Families and other legal services and human rights organizations will continue to work together to push back against this incremental erosion of the rights of asylum-seekers to seek protection in this country. We invite you to stand with us and to fight for the rights of all survivors of gender-based violence.

Take Action

Donate to support Sanctuary’s Immigration Intervention Program

Call your Senators and Congressional Representatives and use the script below:

“Hi, my name is NAME, I’m from CITY, STATE, and I’m a constituent of SENATOR / REPRESENTATIVE NAME. I’m calling today to ask SENATOR / REPRESENTATIVE NAME to stand up for victims of gender violence, those escaping gang warfare, and LGBTQ+ people, and demand that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions reverse his decision on the Matter of A-B-. Sessions’ decision to deny asylum to those persecuted by private actors is a cruel step backwards for our country. Please speak out. Thank you.”

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.

Wachtell Team Works Tirelessly to Stop Client’s Deportation

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring two Wachtell attorneys, John Savarese and Courtney Heavey, for their tireless representation of Michael, a green card holder from Liberia who battled removal proceedings for four years.

Michelle Miao is a corporate associate in the New York office of Kirkland & Ellis LLP, and a member of Sanctuary for Families Pro Bono Council.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring two Wachtell attorneys, John Savarese and Courtney Heavey, for their tireless representation of Michael, a green card holder from Liberia who battled removal proceedings for four years.  John and Courtney successfully secured cancellation of removal for Michael, enabling him to return to the life he had built prior to his nightmarish ordeal.

Facing deportation to a country he barely knew

Born in Liberia right before the outbreak of the First Liberian Civil War, Michael lived through some of the war’s worst atrocities before his family fled to a refugee camp in Ghana when Michael was just four years old.  After six years living in and around the refugee camp, Michael immigrated to the United States with his father and siblings as derivative asylees under his mother’s asylum status.

In the summer of 2012, Michael left the United States briefly to attend the funeral of a family friend in West Africa. Upon his return to the United States, immigration authorities took his green card and placed him in deportation proceedings. Thus began four long years wherein Michael faced the possibility of being deported from the United States, where he had lived with his family and friends for 16 years, and of being returned to a country where he had last lived when he was little more than a toddler.

Wachtell took on the case two years after removal proceedings were originally initiated against Michael, not knowing their client’s ordeal would drag on for another two years, that scheduled hearings would not materialize, or that immigration authorities would decide along the way that their client should be detained.  When Courtney first became involved in the case, a hearing for the Immigration Court to consider cancelling Michael’s deportation was on the horizon. When the hearing was pushed back, the Wachtell team delved into further preparations and collected additional statements of support from Michael’s family members and friends.

The stakes get even higher

In the midst of case preparation, and less than a month before the rescheduled date of the cancellation of removal proceedings hearing, Michael was picked up by ICE and taken to a detention facility in Buffalo, NY ICE simultaneously proposed to transfer Michael’s case from New York City to Buffalo, NY, a Court where there was little chance Michael would be granted clemency.  John and Courtney leapt to submit emergency papers to oppose the transfer and, against all odds, won the motion.

John and Courtney then worked on getting Michael transferred from the detention facility in Buffalo, NY, where ICE had warehoused their client, to a facility closer to New York City and Michael’s family. They ultimately succeeded in securing Michael’s transfer to a detention center in New Jersey. The relationship of trust that John and Courtney had built with Michael and his family remained unassailable in the face of these dire unanticipated events.  Courtney, who spoke to her client each week throughout the case and visited him countless times while in detention, recalls how grateful she was that throughout this nightmare situation Michael remained positive, calm, and full of faith in his legal team.  Over the course of seven months of inhumane detention, during which Michael was never allowed even a bond hearing, Michael’s confidence in John and Courtney never wavered.

Michael’s confidence was well-placed. After two years of motion practice and a long and arduous merits hearing, which included calling numerous witnesses, John and Courtney won a ruling from the bench granting their client relief: Michael was reissued lawful permanent residence. The next morning, after Courtney received a call confirming that the government would not appeal the ruling, Michael was allowed to go home. Upon receiving the good news, Courtney raced to the detention center to pick up her client and finally bring him home to his family.

Reflecting on a successful outcome

In describing his experience, Michael said,

“words cannot express my gratitude of what Courtney did for me. She went above and beyond what many attorneys would do. I spent 8 stressful months in ICE custody not knowing my fate.  There were many sleepless nights worrying about potentially being deported, to a place I barely knew-a place I had left at the age of 5 in fear for my life.  During this difficult time, Courtney visited me often, providing emotional support to lift my spirits, as well as, provide essential legal assistance . . . I will forever be grateful for the diligent work that she, and the law firm have done for my family and me.” 

 Fortunately for Michael, he had many people in his life who supported him throughout his multi-year ordeal. His close-knit family helped maintain his apartment during his months in detention and his former boss welcomed him back as well. Thus, on the day Courtney escorted Michael out from the New Jersey detention center, Michael was not only able to recover his legal status, but also resume his life much as it had been before the immigration authorities had upended it. Reflecting on the case, Courtney stated,

“helping Michael remain in this country where he worked so hard to build a life for himself and keeping him united with his family was an incredibly rewarding experience and I am so thankful to have been a part of this case.”

John and Courtney are enormously grateful to Carmen Rey from Sanctuary for Families, whose tireless dedication to this case played a critical role in the successful outcome.

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