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.

We stand with DREAMers and all immigrant survivors

Our statement on the Trump administration’s decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

On behalf of all of us at Sanctuary for Families, I am writing to express my profound disappointment at the Trump administration’s decision to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA).

Since its implementation in 2012, DACA has provided close to 800,000 young people who were brought to the U.S. as children with work authorization and temporary protection from deportation. The Trump administration’s decision to terminate the program in six months’ time and gamble the futures of these talented and ambitious young people is cruel, senseless, and strikes at the core of our values as an agency.

Over the last five years, Sanctuary’s Immigration Intervention Project (IIP) has assisted 127 clients with DACA status. 60 of these clients have received more permanent forms of immigration relief, but 67 remain in limbo. Our clients are both the children of gender violence survivors and young survivors themselves. Their families fled to the U.S. to escape pervasive poverty and gender-based violence. All are true survivors, showing great courage and resilience in the face of abuse, systemic discrimination, and injustice.

Watch our Q&A with IIP Deputy Director Carmen Maria Rey to learn more about what revoking DACA would mean for our clients >

Today, Sanctuary for Families reaffirms its commitment to immigrant survivors and families. In anticipation of DACA’s expiration this March, our immigration attorneys will be working double-time, prioritizing the cases of those dependent on DACA and looking for alternative forms of relief. Our agency will be working with community organizations and city and state officials to protect undocumented survivors and families in New York, but we know that will not be enough.

You can help. I hope that you will join me in contacting your representatives on both national and state levels and encouraging them to protect these vulnerable young people.

In solidarity,

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

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.

Stories of Courage and Empowerment

Economic Empowerment Program graduates share stories of struggle and perseverance.

This past June, Sanctuary for Families’ Economic Empower Program held its semi-annual graduation ceremony to celebrate the achievements of forty-three strong and inspiring women, all survivors of domestic violence. With friends, family and Sanctuary staff in attendance, the women accepted their diplomas thereby marking the start of a new stage in both their personal and professional lives.

To honor the occasion the class elected fellow graduates to speak on their behalf. The speeches delivered by Coleen, Rebecah, and Yijie reflect many of the challenges that an estimated 25% of women in the U.S. have/will face in their lifetime. Follow the links below to read their speeches and hear their remarkable stories.

Coleen’s Story

Finding opportunity in every difficulty

“Just a few weeks into the program, I had the craziest thought, ‘What if I were selected to speak at graduation?’ ‘What would I say?’ Right there and then I commenced writing what I wanted to say. Today, here I am delivering [my speech] to you.”

Read on here.

Rebecah’s Story

Another chance at life

“Thinking [back on] a time when I sat in my unit at the shelter thinking to myself I am a single mother, jobless, and who the hell cares  I never thought I would be standing here basking in my own achievements. I didn’t want to constantly be a burden to people who had their own worries, so I shared a little and kept everything else to myself.”

Read on here.

Yijie’s Story

I am not a victim

“Even though I was free from abuse, my freedom was a harsh experience of shelter and struggle – I lost hope and wanted to give up. But I didn’t. I kept going. This program has allowed me to improve myself as well as my professional skills. I was a professional in my native country of China. Now I feel confident and ready to be a professional again in America. Most importantly, I feel human again.”

Read on here.