Cleary Gottlieb Team Secures T-Visa for Immigrant Survivor of Sex Trafficking

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a team of attorneys from Cleary Gottlieb for their compassionate and devoted pro bono assistance on behalf of their client “Alicia” in their successful application of a T nonimmigrant visa. The team consisted of Jennifer Kroman, Sharon Barbour, Jessica Dwinell, and Michael Athy-Plunkett. 

Todd Schmid is 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 is honoring a team of attorneys from Cleary Gottlieb for their compassionate and devoted pro bono assistance on behalf of their client “Alicia” in their successful application of a T nonimmigrant visa. The team consisted of Jennifer Kroman, Sharon Barbour, Jessica Dwinell, and Michael Athy-Plunkett. 

International youth often arrive in New York City hoping, above all, to progress, to find a way forward: a good school, a secure job, stability after leaving home behind. For “Alicia”, a transgender Sanctuary for Families client whose childhood in Colombia was marked with abuse, NYC embodied opportunity. Yet their initial hopes were stolen when, at age 12, they were sold into a Queens brothel and drugged by the brothel’s keepers so adult men could engage in commercial sex with them. Alicia eventually escaped, only to find their social support network pulled out from under them. Still only a teenager, Alicia had nowhere to go but the streets.

The Port Authority, illuminated day and night by the radiant lights of nearby Times Square, is home to the busiest bus terminal in the United States. It is a permanent scene of comings and goings, of not only transience, but homelessness. Often times, LGBTQ youth engage in trading sex for basic necessities, also known as “survival sex”. This can lead to exploitation and trafficking, which is what happened in Alicia’s case.

Starting as a one-time request, youth are groomed by more frequent asks to exchange sex for money as a way to contribute financially to a relationship, with appeals to a victim’s sense of loyalty. Exploiters thus seek out particularly vulnerable youth, who are homeless or runaway; or who have poor social supports. As these vulnerable youth become further removed from their social supports over time, the traffickers gain even more control. In Alicia’s case, intense emotional trauma ran deep, and it took time to come to terms with the fact that the person who provided them with opportunities to stop  living on the streets also put them in extreme danger and exploited them.

Finding Sanctuary, Alicia’s T visa case was soon presented to Jennifer Kroman, Sharon Barbour, Jessica Dwinell, and Michael Athy-Plunkett, the Cleary Gottlieb team whose skilled legal representation and trauma-informed advocacy will be recognized at this year’s Above & Beyond event. As with many Sanctuary clients, Alicia was repeatedly arrested for prostitution-related offenses, and with a prior immigration proceeding, their representation presented challenges that might give other attorneys pause. Yet Cleary jumped at the opportunity to educate USCIS about the devastating impact left by sex trafficking. The team worked tirelessly with their client to overcome the many hurdles the case threw in their way. As the nominators of their award made clear,

“They worked with a client that had suffered extreme trauma. They also dealt with an ever-changing political climate that complicated the immigration application. In the end, they dealt with each hurdle professionally, accurately and compassionately.”

The client came to Sanctuary feeling hopeless, but, working hand in hand with Alicia every step of the way, the attorneys on the case helped Alicia achieve results that were transformative. Michael Athy-Plunkett recalls the case as “having taught him what it means to be a true advocate.” As Sharon Barbour reflects,

“Several aspects of Alicia’s case were extremely challenging, but it was extremely rewarding—not only because we had a tremendous outcome, but also because throughout this experience we gained Alicia’s trust and got to know what a strong, courageous, and resilient person they are.”

As the case progressed, the team proved their dedication by expertly replying to two difficult Requests for Evidence from USCIS because of Alicia’s prior record resulting from their victimization within a six-month period. They never lost hope on the client or the case, and four years later Alicia received T nonimmigrant status.

“I’m very fortunate to have met a team of dedicated individuals at this organization,” reflects Alicia “By connecting with a group of lawyers — wonderful human beings who have helped thousands of victims of trafficking like me and without hope, to find a better life. I lived an existence that seemed so dark but is now shining like a beacon of hope that others can see.”

Alicia’s efforts to obtain steady work were further complicated without documentation, resulting in a barrier to stability. Yet with the team’s steadfast legal representation and Alicia’s acceptance to Sanctuary’s Economic Empowerment Program during their representation, Alicia thrived, and today, Alicia has the tools needed to find long-term stability in the United States.

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 the outstanding pro bono work of Sharon, Jessica, Michael and Jennifer. 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.

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.

ESCAPING TRAFFICKING

Min-ji

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.

Hana

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.

COMPASSIONATE CARE & ZEALOUS ADVOCACY

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.”

CONCERNS ABOUT INADMISSIBILITY

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.

OVERCOMING T-VISA APPLICATION CHALLENGES

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.

Warmly,

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

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.