Simpson Thacher team fights for trafficking survivor whose testimony led to successful prosecution of international trafficking ring

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team from Simpson Thacher for their dedicated advocacy on behalf of Maria, a trafficking survivor who was instrumental in helping U.S. law enforcement successfully prosecute members of an international trafficking syndicate.

Sarah Pfuhl is a former partner in WilmerHale’s Investigations and Criminal Litigation group.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team from Simpson Thacher for their dedicated advocacy on behalf of Maria, a trafficking survivor who was instrumental in helping U.S. law enforcement successfully prosecute members of an international trafficking syndicate.

For more than six years, the Simpson Thacher team has worked tirelessly to obtain T-visas, and later legal permanent residency, for Maria and her young daughter, Estella. With Simpson’s guidance, Maria provided invaluable evidence and testimony to the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and prosecutors from the Eastern District of New York during the course of two major criminal investigations, ensuring that the man who trafficked her and other senior members of his trafficking ring were extradited from Mexico and brought to justice. 

The Simpson Thacher team included pro bono counsel Harlene Katzman; partner Mark Stein; associates Matthew Levy, Kristina Green, Alyssa Watzman (formerly of Simpson), Lara Pomerantz (formerly of Simpson), and Jonathan Lieberman (formerly of Simpson); former pro bono specialist Carola Beeney; and former pro bono coordinator Hillary Chadwick.

Breaking free from her traffickers

After being trafficked to the U.S. from Mexico by the notoriously brutal Granados-Hernandez sex trafficking syndicate, Maria spent more than ten years being victimized by her pimp and other members of the syndicate. Finally, fearing for the safety of her young daughter who was still in Mexico, Maria found the courage to flee to the Mexican consulate in New York.  The Mexican consulate reached out to Sanctuary for Families and Sanctuary’s immigration and anti-trafficking staff immediately mobilized, moving Maria into a Sanctuary shelter to keep her safe.

A law firm able to help Maria – and help take down a trafficking syndicate

The next steps would be complicated, as the Director of Sanctuary’s Anti-Trafficking Initiative, Lori Cohen, explained:

“In addition to her own legal and immigration issues as a trafficking victim stranded in the U.S., we realized Maria brought with her a huge trove of potential evidence against the Granados-Hernandez trafficking ring.  We needed a law firm that could not only handle the immigration issues Maria was facing, but also wade through a mountain of evidence and help Maria assist the U.S. authorities in what could potentially be a huge take-down of an international trafficking syndicate.  We knew Simpson Thacher would be able to handle this kind of complex case.”

The Simpson team dug into Maria’s case, helping her navigate meetings with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Department of Homeland Security investigators, as well as federal prosecutors from the Eastern District of New York, as they all worked to develop criminal cases against members of the syndicate with Maria as a key source of information.  At the same time, Simpson worked to successfully obtain a T-visa for Maria, and T-derivative status for her daughter, who had been paroled into the U.S., ensuring that they were reunited and could remain in the U.S. together legally.

Justice is done

The information Maria provided was instrumental to the charges announced at the end of 2012 by the then-U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, Loretta Lynch, against multiple members of two Mexican trafficking rings, including Maria’s own trafficker, Antonio Lira-Robles.

Despite already successfully obtaining a T-visa for Maria and T-derivative status for her daughter, the Simpson team continued working with Maria to help her prepare a victim impact statement and were at her side when she stood up in Brooklyn District Court to speak at the 2014 sentencing hearing of her trafficker.  The Simpson team was at Maria’s side again two years later when she spoke at the sentencing hearing of the mastermind of the trafficking ring, Paulino Ramirez-Granados.  Ultimately, both Antonio Lira-Robles and Paulino Ramirez-Granados were sentenced to fifteen years in federal prison and ordered to pay restitution to Maria in the sum of $1.2 million each.

In the midst of all of this, Maria learned she had Stage III breast cancer.  The Simpson team didn’t waver, working to quickly finalize and file permanent residency applications for both Maria and Estella while Maria underwent chemotherapy.  Tireless advocates for their client, the Simpson team coordinated with Maria’s doctors and provided Maria with critical emotional support.  When Maria and her daughter’s permanent residency applications were filed in October 2014, Simpson requested expedited review, unsure whether or not Maria’s cancer treatment would be successful.

Rebuilding

By the time Maria and her daughter’s permanent residency applications were granted nine months later, Maria’s cancer was in remission and she and her daughter had started to rebuild their life.

For more than six years the Simpson team fought for Maria and her daughter every step of the way.  Today Maria is cancer free.  She has witnessed her trafficker successfully prosecuted and sent to jail (along with other members of his trafficking ring), and seen her daughter flourish.

Earlier this year, in a fitting end to Maria’s brave journey, members of the Simpson team were on hand to celebrate as Maria got married.  The Honorable Judge Pamela Chen, who had been one of two lead E.D.N.Y. prosecutors on the team that put Maria’s trafficker in jail, officiated at the wedding.

Reflecting on his experience working on Maria’s case, Simpson associate Matthew Levy, said:

“Maria was extremely brave to endure the case after what she has been through.  I am glad that our team was able to play a part in helping Maria and Estella get their lives back.”

Maria is certainly glad as well. When asked about her legal team, Maria praised their skill and commitment saying:

“I am grateful to the Simpson Thacher legal team for helping me with such a long and complicated case. It has been so many years, but Simpson has supported and protected me at every turn. Thanks to them, I have been able to start a new life with my husband and daughter.”

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

 

Simpson Thacher Associate Caroline Gross Honored for Her Commitment to Sanctuary’s Anti-Trafficking Work

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring Simpson Thacher associate Caroline Gross for her outstanding commitment to supporting survivors of sex trafficking.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring Simpson Thacher associate Caroline Gross for her outstanding commitment to supporting survivors of sex trafficking. Caroline was a key member of the Simpson Thacher team that worked to get Sanctuary’s Human Trafficking Intervention Court Pro Bono Project off the ground, and has been an incredible advocate for victims of trafficking identified through that Project. Caroline’s enthusiasm, warmth, and language skills have enabled her to gain the trust of women who have faced extreme hardship, and her continuing representation of these clients has made an incredible impact on their lives. 

Launching the Human Trafficking Intervention Courts Pro Bono Project

caroline-grossIn 2013, the New York State judiciary launched the Human Trafficking Intervention Courts (HTICs), a pioneering initiative to help survivors of sex trafficking break the cycle of exploitation. Through the HTIC, survivors are connected to legal and social services including counseling, case management, public benefits advocacy, and housing assistance. The guiding principle of the HTICs is that individuals arrested on prostitution charges should not be treated as criminals, but as victims and survivors of commercial sexual exploitation, and screened for human trafficking.

Soon after the HTICs began operating, Sanctuary partnered with several law firms in New York City, including Simpson Thacher, to launch the Human Trafficking Intervention Court Pro Bono Project. Under Sanctuary supervision, pro bono attorneys from these law firms meet at the New York City Family Justice Center in Queens to provide in-depth immigration consultations to the large number of foreign-born defendants who pass through the Queens HTIC each month.

The success of Sanctuary’s HTIC Project in Queens is due in large part to the dedication of pro bono attorneys like Caroline. Since the Project’s inception, Caroline has been a critical advocate and organizer at Simpson Thacher—recruiting and coordinating numerous Simpson Thacher attorneys to participate, generating enthusiasm among her colleagues, and ensuring that the HTIC pro bono clinic in Queens is fully staffed by trained, compassionate pro bono attorneys.

Advocating for all

Caroline has conducted many screening interviews of HTIC defendants over the past two years, often in Spanish (in which she is fluent), and has had multiple clients open up about their experiences—something which is quite difficult to do with traumatized victims of trafficking who are caught up in a criminal justice system they may not understand or trust. Melissa Brennan, the Deputy Director of the Anti-Trafficking Initiative at Sanctuary, added that,

“Of the more than 200 lawyers who volunteer with Sanctuary’s Trafficking Intervention Pro Bono Project, Caroline stands out for her unwavering dedication to our work as well as her natural ability to build rapport with clients. Displaying great humility and compassion, Caroline has managed to win the trust of even the most fearful immigrant victims of sex trafficking.”

Securing “T nonimmigrant status”

Caroline’s commitment to assisting trafficking survivors extends well beyond the screenings she conducts through the HTIC Project. Presently, Caroline represents two clients that she identified through HTIC Project screening who are eligible for “T nonimmigrant status,” a form of immigration relief for undocumented survivors of trafficking who cooperate with law enforcement in the investigation and prosecution of their traffickers. Both clients confided in Caroline about their experiences during their intake interviews, and it became clear to her and Sanctuary that these clients had strong claims for immigration relief.  “It’s exciting when you’re doing the intake and can see that there is actually something you can do to help,” said Caroline.

Gender identity and name change

Caroline and others at Simpson Thacher have been working hard to prepare strong applications for both clients, and have assisted them with other legal issues that have come up. For example, when her transgender female client expressed interest in legally changing her name to reflect her gender identity, Caroline quickly agreed to assist.

Vacating fines and criminal charges

She also successfully advocated for the same client when she found out that the client owed a fine of several hundred dollars in connection with a prostitution-related offense in Florida, which was a direct result of her being trafficked. Caroline and her teammate’s advocacy led to the Florida judge waiving the outstanding fine and effectively erasing what had been a major stressor in this client’s life.

For another client from Mexico, Caroline and others at Simpson Thacher have been helping her navigate the process of having her criminal charges dismissed, as well as the process of trying to reunite her with her daughter who lives in Mexico and whom she has not seen in 8 years. For Caroline, being able to reunite this family is an exciting and incredibly rewarding part of her pro bono work.

“Working on pro bono matters with Sanctuary has provided me with opportunities to make a difference in the lives of individuals. I enjoy working with Sanctuary because of their dedication to helping clients in all facets of their lives.”

Caroline particularly enjoys working with victims of trafficking because, “trafficking is such a huge issue facing our world today.” To work on these matters, Caroline says, is to be “reminded of why we wanted to be lawyers—to be involved in helping to change people’s lives for the better.”

Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on October 19, 2016 at the Highline Ballroom as we honor Simpson Thacher’s outstanding pro bono work. 

Jaclyn Neely is a litigation associate at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP.  She works on a number of pro bono matters with Sanctuary, including the Human Trafficking Intervention Court Pro Bono Project, and is a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council.

 

7 Perspectives on Prostitution the New York Times Didn’t Publish

Last weekend, NYT Magazine asked: “Should Prostitution Be a Crime?” but excluded the viewpoints of survivors who know firsthand the deep harm perpetuated by the commercial sex industry.

Last weekend, the New York Times Magazine’s cover feature asked the question: “Should Prostitution Be a Crime?” 

The article courted controversy and failed to include the viewpoints of survivors, activists and service providers who know firsthand the deep harm and gender inequality perpetuated by the commercial sex industry. 

Today, the Times published letters in response to the article. Here are a few letters that didn’t make the LTE page, among them critically important perspectives from survivors that were left out:

To the Editor:
Re: Should Prostitution be a Crime?

If the small group of privileged “sex workers” highlighted in Bazelon’s article have their way, and prostitution is decriminalized around the world, every boy will grow up knowing it¹s acceptable to buy a body whenever he feels the urge. The result? The market for flesh will grow, delivering a windfall to traffickers and pimps and putting millions more women and girls in harm’s way. The standard PR line of the commercial sex industry is that we in the anti-trafficking community “conflate” consensual prostitution with trafficking. No, we don’t. Prostitution is the marketplace and trafficking is a primary way that product is delivered to buyers. It’s economics 101. Grow the market and trafficking increases.

Bazelon blithely disregards the harm inherent in prostitution. I’ve seen it up close, having been Director of the Human Rights Clinic at Mount Sinai. The stories from survivors of the sex trade are horrific. The violence in prostitution is staggering. The resulting physical and mental health problems are crushing. We need to adopt the Nordic model, which decriminalizes the prostituted person but criminalizes the traffickers, pimps and buyers. Creating an open market place for the use and abuse of women and girls (and men and boys) would be one of the most shocking human rights violations of our time.

Holly G. Atkinson, MD, FACP, FAMWA
Co-Director, Physicians Against the Trafficking of Humans,
American Medical Women’s Association
Past President, Physicians for Human Rights


To The Editor:

We are writing in response Emily Bazelon’s Should Prostitution Be A Crime? We are young, feminist and proud of our sexuality yet horrified by society’s continued commodification of it. As a community of dedicated high school activists who work alongside teen survivors of the sex trade, we have seen first hand the damaging, lifelong impact of commercial sexual exploitation.

Our generation wants progress, yet Amnesty and others respond with laziness. We want to move forward toward gender equality, well, the decriminalizing of pimping and buying would only push us back. Legitimizing the “oldest profession”–a profession of the patriarchy–is not progress, it’s giving up. We’d like “human rights” organizations and journalists to stop trying to selling us on the selling of our bodies. Instead of “regulating” oppression and passing it off as a “profession,” be the leaders we deserve, and end it!

Sincerely,

The members of The Arts Effect All-Girl Theater Company


To the Editor,

Since 1990, I have worked with thousands of prostituted women and girls. Unlike the woman highlighted in the photo spread of “Should Prostitution Be Legal” (May 5, 2016), the vast majority of people I have worked with have been  African American women and girls and have stated that if they had any choice but prostitution, they would leave “the life” immediately.

In prostitution, purchasers don’t care about the pleasure or pain of the purchased. She exists as a hand, mouth, genitals, anus – not a human being. Sex buyers pay for the right to direct her to do whatever brings him to orgasm, no matter how humiliating the act. She is paid to play out the fantasy that she has power. In reality, she has none.

We can and should remove penalties imposed on people in prostitution, while implementing laws that hold pimps and buyers accountable. The women used in prostitution deserve our support, but we cannot continue to tolerate or promote this exploitive institution.

Vednita Carter
Founder and President, Breaking Free
Minneapolis, Minn


Re: the New York Times Magazine cover story Should Prostitution Be a Crime.

As a former judge and prosecutor, and now as the executive director of Sanctuary for Families, I have seen thousands of victims who have been exploited in the sex trade. Many of them were lured in by pimps and traffickers, most as children. Others have ended up in prostitution when conditions of extreme poverty and prior sexual abuse leave them with few options.

Ms. Bazelon inexplicably omits the experience of these victims, almost exclusively women and girls of color and undocumented immigrants. Instead, her primary focus is on the comparatively privileged, adult, mostly white “sex worker” as reflected in the cover photo, which creates a falsely benign picture of the world’s most brutal industry.

Prostitution is almost invariably a condition of gender inequality and frequently a violent and lethally dangerous form of abuse inextricably connected to sex trafficking. People in prostitution should not be criminalized and must be provided with services. If we fail to hold traffickers, pimps and buyers accountable, the sex trafficking industry will continue to expand, destroying the lives of new generations of victims.

Hon. Judy Harris Kluger
Executive Director
Sanctuary for Families


To the Editor:
Re: Should Prostitution be a Crime?

Emily Bazelon ‘s piece ““Should Prostitution Be a Crime?” makes a case for listening to the voices of those who have actually experienced the commercial sex industry. Unfortunately the voices left out of this piece are the women and girls who have not viewed this as ‘sex work’ but violent exploitation, the experiences of those under pimp control, (over 90 percent of the 400 plus girls and young women GEMS serves annually are or have been under the control of a pimp) and the hundreds of women who have now begun to step out of the shadows to publicly identify as ‘survivors’ of commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking.

These voices are overwhelmingly the voices of girls and young women of color, (the slide show is clearly overwhelmingly white women), of runaway and homeless youth, of women trapped in addiction and poverty. While the anti-trafficking movement can often over simplify or sensationalize these stories, the truth is both more nuanced and more horrific than any well-intentioned awareness campaign that isn’t survivor led or survivor informed.

As a survivor myself and having founded and run GEMS for 18 years, I’m aware that there are no easy solutions to this issue but at least the NYT could have provided a more balanced view by actually including the voices of those young people who are already marginalized and who view the sex industry as inherently violent and harmful, preying upon the most vulnerable in our society.

Rachel Lloyd
Founder and CEO
Girls Educational and Mentoring Services


To the Editors of The NY Times;

I am writing in response to Emily Blazelon piece “Should prostitution be a crime?” As a survivor of exploitation and a front line worker, I was disheartened at this one-sided piece.

I have worked with hundreds of women and girls caught up in the vicious cycle of indignity, pain and hurt. 82% of prostituted women have experienced childhood traumas, sexual abuse, neglect, physical abuse,poverty. Many survivors sell sex and out of desperation label it “choice.” But to have “choice”, you must have options. Most of these women and girls do not.

In Canada, 51% of trafficked women and girls in Canada are Indigenous, like me. Many are lured into the sex trade as young children. The age is even younger if the parent is in prostitution.

If Ms. Bazelon thinks that prostitution is legitimate “work” then she should put down her pen and give prostitution a try. I bet after she learned the real truths about the disgusting men who feel privileged to buy sex, the next article she wrote would directly contradict this one.

Sincerely,
Bridget Perrier
Survivor
Co-Founder/First Nations Educator
Sextrade101
www.sextrade101.com


To the Editor:

Contrary to Emily Bazelon’s claim in NYT Magazine (5/8), there was ample “recorded data on street prostitution” before Sweden’s criminalization of buyers and decriminalizing of prostituted persons. The decline is actually by more that 50% since 1999 — not just “as much as 50%” — and it is well documented by several independent sources.

Moreover, she omits that while online prostitution ads increased in Sweden, they increased much more in neighboring countries alongside increasing street prostitution, leading researchers around 2007 to estimate numbers of prostituted women as about 15 times higher per capita in Denmark and 9 times higher per capita in Norway compared to Sweden.

Compared to the rest of Europe, sex trafficking almost never happens in Sweden anymore. Bazelon focuses only on the law’s critics, ignoring prostituted women who have explained how the law empowered them to report buyers treating them badly, and who reject her claim that prostitution became more dangerous. She also omits research showing how legal brothels tacitly permit unsafe and dangerous sex since buyers have the upper hand and often want sex that others refuse them, while prostituted persons overwhelmingly have no other options.

Max Waltman
Assistant Professor, Political Science, Stockholm University, Sweden

It happens to boys, too: a story of sex trafficking in Thailand

45% of trafficking victims are boys and men.

Our memory works in funny ways, with a select few images flashing through our heads when we think back to a particular one. When I think back to my 10 days on the ground with Urban Light in Chiang Mai, it is one particular image from my first night that returns incessantly to mind.

The image that haunts me is that of a boy, barely 12, short and skinny, leaving a bar with a man, easily in his fifties, tall and overweight. The look on the man’s face spoke of entitlement, an air of dominance and anticipation. The way he led the 12 year-old across the street was more authoritarian than paternal. The look on the boy’s face was that of resignation, a numbed out expression of utter helplessness.

The boy was one of many led away by older men from bars across Chiang Mai that night, probably to a nearby motel or alleyway to provide sex for pay. I never learned that boy’s name, I don’t know where he is today, but I know that I will never forget the look on his face that night.

All this I saw from the back of a tok tok in an ostensibly residential neighborhood of Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second largest city. Together with Alezandra Russell, Urban Light’s founder, Brent Seely, the NGO’s Thailand director, and Montse Ferrer, a fellow pro-bono attorney, I was investigating places where boys are “sold.” From the back of that tok tok I would soon discover that, alongside Thailand’s highly public sale and exploitation of women, is a parallel but hidden network of bars, spas and cruising spots at which boys are “bought” and “sold” with impunity.

These boys, mostly teenagers, some as young as 10, have been trafficked from nearby Laos, Burma and Northern Thailand. The buyers are mainly white and Chinese “sex tourists” in their 40s to 70s. Local bar owners snarl these destitute boys with promises of good pay in return for “working” at their bars and then ply the boys with drugs so that survival sex becomes the only means for them to feed their addictions. The buyers, for their part, know that they can “buy” boys at will in Chiang Mai.

Despite the direness of the situation, trafficked boys remain one of the most under-served populations in Thailand. With many NGOs dedicated solely to the plight of girls trafficked into sex slavery and the boys themselves often reluctant to ask for help given the patriarchal nature of Thai society, the situation did not bode well for the boys of Chiang Mai.

Urban Light, the only NGO of its kind dedicated exclusively to helping boys, is changing the reality of these trafficked and exploited boys — offering them shelter, a daily hot meal they can rely on, medical testing, counseling, English and Thai classes, art relief and many other preventative and rehabilitative services.

Only a couple of blocks from Chiang Mai’s red light district, Urban Light runs a four-story drop-in center. It was within the walls of this drop-in center that I saw the promise of a better reality for Chiang Mai’s boys. I saw boys having a hot, healthy meal on the first floor, others participating in art relief classes on the center’s roof, still others waiting in line for medical and counselling appointments, and boys browsing the internet at the center’s computer room or simply taking a nap on the center’s comfy couches.

The boys treated the center as their home. They knew they were safe to take a nap without judgment, having probably gotten little sleep the night before. They knew they could count on the center’s doctor to see them when ill, and, when they were ready, they knew they could talk to a counselor to start their re-training to exit the sex trade altogether. The look in the eyes of every one of the boys at the center spoke of security – in the center they had found a refuge from the life they have been forced to lead outside its walls.

It is true that certain images become seared in our head, and, try as we might, we are unable to let them go. It is also true that we are capable of countering these images with other, hopeful ones. Urban Light’s center provided me with countless images of exploited boys taking charge of their lives again, helping me counter that one seared image. I can only hope that the boy I saw on that first night learns about Urban Light so that he too can have a shot at a different reality.

Ziad Reslan is an associate at Davis, Polk & Wardwell, currently assigned as a Legal Manager in Hong Kong. He shared his story with Sanctuary for Families after volunteering with Urban Light, and organization that helps boys who are survivors of sex trafficking in Thailand.