Sullivan & Cromwell: Sanctuary Pro Bono Partner Spotlight

A spotlight on Sanctuary Pro Bono Partner Sullivan & Cromwell for their team’s outstanding work in securing T-Nonimmigrant Status for a Guatemalan survivor of sex trafficking at the hands of a Customs and Border Patrol agent.

Sanctuary for Families’ Pro Bono Project has the honor of working with hundreds of extremely dedicated and expert pro bono attorneys annually. As part of our new Pro Bono Spotlight, we’ll highlight some of the great work done by Sanctuary pro bono attorneys!

*Please note that this blog contains descriptions of physical and sexual abuse that could be triggering*

Assisting a Survivor Fleeing Domestic Violence and Trafficking

Beginning in 2020, Sanctuary for Families partnered with Sullivan & Cromwell (“S&C”) on an appeal on behalf of a survivor of trafficking at the hands of a Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agent who grossly abused his position of power over Ms. Aura Hernandez and her young nephew. In 2021, we learned that the appeal was successful and in 2022, Ms. Hernandez was granted T Nonimmigrant Status, which has put her on a pathway to citizenship. This was the culmination of over 15 years of struggle and courage on the part of Ms. Hernandez to ensure safety and security for herself and her family. Sanctuary is honored to have been able to support Ms. Hernandez on that journey, and forever grateful for the outstanding, creative lawyering of the S&C team who represented Ms. Hernandez on her challenging appeal.

Fleeing severe domestic violence in her home country of Guatemala in 2005, Ms. Hernandez and her nine-year-old nephew embarked upon a dangerous two-week journey to Texas that ended within the walls of a detention facility. Already traumatized and terrified, Ms. Hernandez was met with an abusive CBP agent who threatened deportation or family separation of her and her nephew if she did not comply with his forceful demands for sexual acts. In a small room at the detention facility, the CBP agent sexually assaulted Ms. Hernandez, and then failed to timely release her and her nephew. Despite this, Ms. Hernandez and her nephew were ultimately able to continue their journey to New York and she began to settle into a new life. Then, under the Trump administration, a new threat emerged: Ms. Hernandez was informed that she was to be deported back to Guatemala, regardless of the risk this posed to her life.

With this backdrop of fear, in 2018, Ms. Hernandez and her infant daughter moved into a Manhattan church for sanctuary. As she fought to remain in the United States, Ms. Hernandez’s case drew national attention, including coverage by The New York Times and other publications. She redirected that spotlight, becoming an incredible advocate for women and immigrants, speaking out about the inhumane conditions of ICE detention centers and the sexual violence that was rampant within their walls, as well as against the barriers that prevented her and her family from experiencing true safety. “I don’t intend to stand here with my arms crossed and do nothing,” she told The New York Times. “I have to stand up and raise my voice because an injustice is being committed to me and to us. I think I’m here for a reason.”

It was around this time that Sanctuary began working with Ms. Hernandez, helping her file for T Nonimmigrant Status. Sanctuary argued that she was a victim of trafficking at the hands of the CBP agent and that she had, as required to obtain a T-Visa, cooperated with the investigation into the sexual assault (though it had not resulted in any disciplinary action against the agent). However, the visa was denied, throwing Sanctuary into high gear, as notices of appeal and briefs in support must be filed within 90 days of the denial. Sullivan and Cromwell attorneys Olivia G. Chalos, Regina M. Roediger and Sharon Cohen Levin, a longtime Sanctuary pro bono partner and anti-trafficking advocate, jumped in to co-counsel with Sanctuary on the appeal and immediately set to work proving Ms. Hernandez’s eligibility.

Sanctuary Senior Staff Attorney Ines Chennoufi, who worked with the team, explained that the case was “particularly difficult because U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) argued that Ms. Hernandez did not meet any of the eligibility requirements for a trafficking visa. Typically, at the appeal stage of a case, we only have to argue one discrete area of law or facts. Here, the Sullivan & Cromwell team had to argue that Ms. Hernandez satisfied all of the eligibility requirements for T Nonimmigrant Status.” One of the critical elements that the team had to prove was that Ms. Hernandez was a victim of a severe form of trafficking.

“In order to be eligible for a T-Visa, an applicant must establish that they were a victim of a severe form of trafficking, which includes a ‘commercial sex act.’ USCIS denied Ms. Hernandez’s application in part because it found that the sexual abuse perpetrated at the border was not ‘commercial.”

Ines Chennoufi
Senior Staff Attorney, Sanctuary for Families

The Sullivan & Cromwell team demonstrated incredibly creative and pragmatic lawyering to establish that the sexual act here was coerced in direct exchange for something of immense non-monetary value—freedom from the detention center for Ms. Hernandez and her nephew, and a safer life in the U.S. The team used the decisions in the Harvey Weinstein prosecutions to establish that the definition of a commercial sex act is broad and encompasses more than just monetary gain or something of economic value. They pointed out that in one of the Weinstein decisions, the court found that value can include “promises of career advancement” or the opportunity to meet a world-renowned film producer. These arguments were clearly persuasive–the decision issued by the Administrative Appeals Office (AAO) found that Ms. Hernandez’s safety and liberty, her fear of deportation and her nephew, all constitute things of “value” to her and the CBP agent used them against her to force and coerce her into providing a nonconsensual sexual act.

In the winter of 2021, Ms. Hernandez was informed by the AAO that she had successfully demonstrated she was the victim of a severe form of trafficking and her application was remanded to USCIS. In July 2022, she received the approval notice, granting Ms. Hernandez T Nonimmigrant Status for a period of four years. In three years, she will be eligible to apply for Lawful Permanent Residence (a green card) and eventually for citizenship.

“We are thrilled with this outcome for Ms. Hernandez, and proud to have partnered with Sanctuary’s incredibly talented lawyers on this challenging case.”

Sharon Cohen Levin
Pro Bono Partner, Sullivan & Cromwell

Sanctuary is profoundly grateful to the Sullivan & Cromwell team for being a critical partner in Ms. Hernandez’s fight for safety and security in the U.S. and for all their work on behalf of survivors of trafficking.

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WilmerHale Attorneys Help Trafficking Survivor Secure T-Visa

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a team of attorneys from WilmerHale for their compassionate and devoted pro bono representation of “Julina,” helping her to obtain her T-Visa. 

Victoria O. Abraham is an associate in the Mergers & Acquisitions group at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in New York, a Co-Chair of the Above & Beyond Committee and a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council. 


At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a team of attorneys from Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP for their compassionate and devoted pro bono representation of “Julina,” helping her to obtain her T-Visa.  The team consisted of partner Dan Schubert and attorneys Jenny Pelaez, Sara Maldonado, Olga Kamensky, and Ken Brady.  Former WilmerHale partner Sharon Cohen Levin worked extensively on this matter, as did former WilmerHale attorneys Lisabeth Mendola-D’Andrea, Marguerite Colson, Sarah Mortazavi, and Carrie Montgomery.  Senior paralegals Lauren Kennedy and Joseph Ciraco also provided invaluable assistance.

In 2016, when she had just turned 18 years old, Julina went to a party where her future trafficker drugged her, kidnapped her, and then sex trafficked her out of a hotel room in New York. Julina managed to escape from him when he left her alone in the hotel room. She ran to another hotel down the street where she used a stranger’s cell phone to call the police. Despite going through this extremely traumatic and challenging trafficking experience, Julina was able to be a key witness in the case against her trafficker. Julina, with the help of her WilmerHale attorneys, Lisabeth Mendola-D’Andrea*, Sharon Cohen Levin*, Sarah Mortazavi*, and Jenny Pelaez participated in a series of interviews with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York and was instrumental in helping them bring charges against her trafficker. He ended up pleading guilty and was sentenced in 2019.

After the successful resolution of her trafficking case, the team of current and former WilmerHale attorneys, consisting of Dan Schubert, Sharon Cohen Levin*, Lisabeth Mendola-D’Andrea*, Sara Maldonado, Ken Brady, Olga Kamensky, Jenny Pelaez, Marguerite Colson*, and Carrie Montgomery*, took Julina on as an immigration client to help her with her T-Visa application. Julina had come to the U.S. from Mexico, undocumented, when she was just two years old.  Julina’s T-Visa case was not straightforward and required the team to put together a supplemental application in response to the government’s Request for Evidence (“RFE”).

“What stood out to me about this case was that their representation of the client was really multi-faceted. They took on so many different kinds of representation – witness cooperation, obtaining Continued Presence and applying for and obtaining T nonimmigrant status,” said Jessica-Wind Abolafia, Director of the Anti-Trafficking Initiative at Sanctuary for Families. “It was legally complex – during the pendency of the T application, the government issued an RFE dealing with the intersection of immigration and criminal law. It was a particularly challenging RFE given the policies of the current administration. The team skillfully drafted a compelling response that was ultimately successful.”

“Sometimes the systems that are put in place to help people who have been trafficked may make help out of reach. It is unimaginable from our point of view how someone could fill out this application on their own,” Sara said. “We had initially been frustrated when we received an RFE asking her to explain why she should be admitted after having engaged in prostitution.  But we were able to explain the nexus to the trafficking component of her story and that she had not engaged in prostitution on a voluntary basis, and we were glad to see that they understood and credited Julina’s story.”

The COVID-19 pandemic presented additional logistical challenges for the team in terms of managing the process, navigating the court system and obtaining the necessary records. With all these challenges, the team was still able to approach the case in a holistic way that was supportive of Julina and respectful of her healing process.

“The way the team was there for her on an emotional level was so key and so crucial. Their compassionate approach led to the client being able to get through a really challenging time in a way that was manageable and respectful of her limits. They really struck the right balance.” — Jessica-Wind Abolafia, SFF Anti-Trafficking Initiative Director.

“She helped me to figure out different ways to interact with clients and how to respect where she is as a person. This has been a learning and growing experience for me. I was working with someone who experienced trauma that I could not even imagine,” said Sara.

The government granted Julina’s T-Visa in June 2020, and since then Julina has been focused on rebuilding her life with her two young children and her partner.

Join us at our virtual Above & Beyond virtual celebration on October 29, 2020, as we honor the outstanding pro bono work of Dan, Sharon, Lisabeth, Sara, Ken, Olga, Marguerite, Sarah, Carrie, Jenny, Lauren, and Joseph. Click here to RSVP for free.

If you can’t join us, but would like to support Sanctuary for Family’s work, please consider making an Above & Beyond donation here.

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.



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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.