Freshfields Team Fights for Survivor of Labor Trafficking and her Family

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, we’re honoring a team of attorneys from Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer for their dedicated advocacy on behalf of “Anna,” a labor trafficking survivor from Guatemala. Read to learn more.

Carolin Guentert is a clinical teaching fellow in the Domestic Violence Clinic at Georgetown University Law Center. She is also a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of attorneys from Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer for their dedicated advocacy on behalf of “Anna,” a labor trafficking survivor from Guatemala. Anna endured significant abuse at the hands of her trafficker: he held Anna captive in his home for nearly a year, raped her repeatedly, and forced her to turn her wages over to him. She finally escaped with the help of a restaurant co-worker, “Miguel,” whom she later married.

The Freshfields team included counsel Anahita Thoms (formerly of), senior associates Lupe López and Mia White (formerly of), associates Kathy Ibarra and Christopher Stucko (formerly of),and paralegal Whitney Hoyos (formerly of). The team represented Anna and Miguel in their applications to obtain T-visas.  After they were approved for T-visa status, the trafficker found and confronted Anna and her husband. The Freshfields team remained dedicated to keeping Anna and Miguel safe and helped ensure a conviction against the trafficker.

Trafficked

Anna was a single mother in Guatemala and struggling economically. When a man from her village offered her a job in a restaurant in the United States, Anna agreed to move to support her family. Unfortunately the man turned out to be a trafficker, who subjected Anna to extreme abuse.

After Anna’s grueling 40-day journey to the United States, her trafficker immediately took her captive. He locked her in his house for almost a year, forcing her to do cooking and housework for him with no pay. He repeatedly raped Anna and monitored her every move.

Anna’s trafficker told her that she owed him money for the cost of being brought to the United States, and that she could pay off her debt by working in a restaurant. She had to turn over all of her wages to him and was charged significant interest.

Escape and T-Visa Application

After nearly a year of living in fear and isolation, Anna confided in her co-worker, Miguel, who was a cook at the restaurant. Miguel ended up helping Anna escape, and let her stay in his home. After surviving this experience, Anna and Miguel eventually fell in love and had a baby together. They got married at a ceremony held in Sanctuary’s office, officiated by Sanctuary’s Executive Director Judge Judy Harris Kluger.

Lori Cohen, Director of Sanctuary’s Anti-Trafficking Initiative, referred Anna’s case to Freshfields, who quickly put together applications for T-visa status for Anna and Miguel. With the dedicated help from the Freshfields team, Anna and Miguel were approved for T-visa status in 2017.

Freshfields was also able to obtain T-visa status for Anna’s children, and is currently working to bring the children to the United States. Kathy Ibarra, an associate on the Freshfields team, recalls,

“Anna’s case was my first pro bono matter when I joined Freshfields, and it’s been great representing her ever since and forming a relationship with her.”

Confronted by Her Abuser

While Anna’s application for T-visa status was still pending, her trafficker found her and began harassing her and Miguel. But whenever Anna and Miguel tried to get help from law enforcement, they were met with resistance, likely because law enforcement was unfamiliar with labor trafficking.

The Freshfields team helped Anna and Miguel file complaints against Anna’s trafficker, accompanied them to multiple hearings, and advocated to the judge and prosecutor. The trafficker was eventually convicted of harassment, which, Kathy recalls, “empowered the client. It was important to her to be in court, to see that justice was brought against her trafficker.” Says Lori Cohen,

“Freshfields did a great deal to educate the judge and the prosecutor on the issue of labor trafficking, and created a safety net for this client.”

Reflecting on her experience, Kathy explained,

“Both Lupe and I are children of immigrants. It’s been so important to us to help other immigrants navigate the legal system, especially in light of the current immigration crisis in this country.”

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Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on November 13, 2018, at the RUMI Event Space, 229 W 28th St, New York, NY as we honor Freshfields’ outstanding pro bono work.  You can buy tickets here

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

WSGR Team Triumphs in Trafficking Case

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, we’re honoring a team of attorneys from Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati for their committed and compassionate advocacy on behalf of “Elizabeth”, a trafficking survivor. Read to learn more.

Claire Stubbe is a Senior Associate in Arnold Bloch Leibler’s Litigation and Dispute Resolution group Melbourne, Australia. She is also a Master of Laws Candidate at the University of Melbourne, Australia.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of attorneys from Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati for their committed and compassionate advocacy on behalf of “Elizabeth”, a trafficking survivor. 

The WSGR team has worked tirelessly with Elizabeth for more than three years, assisting her and her husband to obtain T nonimmigrant status and to vacate multiple criminal convictions that Elizabeth accrued as a result of being trafficked.

The WSGR team continues to advocate passionately for Elizabeth. They plan to assist her and her husband to apply for lawful permanent residency and they continue to facilitate her cooperation with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement in its human trafficking investigations.  

The WSGR team includes Tonia Klausner (Partner), Justin Cohen (Associate), Jason Mollick (Associate), Lee Ann Almeida (Paralegal) and Melisa Desperak (Paralegal).

Elizabeth’s Story

Elizabeth was lured to the United States from Mexico by her trafficker, a man from her neighborhood whom she believed was her loving boyfriend. After arriving in the United States, however, Elizabeth’s dreams were shattered. Her “boyfriend,” an experienced trafficker, forced her into prostitution using brutal tactics of abuse and manipulation. Elizabeth eventually escaped her trafficker but was tragically deceived and trafficked by a second pimp who beat her viciously and drove her back to prostitution.

After years of abuse and exploitation, Elizabeth was arrested and deported to Mexico. Elizabeth returned to her hometown but was ruthlessly stalked and threatened by her first trafficker and his family. Fearing for her life and the safety of her family in Mexico, Elizabeth fled to the United States, where she was ultimately connected with Sanctuary for Families and, subsequently, with WSGR. 

Rebuilding with WSGR

The WSGR team began working with Elizabeth in 2015 to help her obtain T nonimmigrant status. At that time, Elizabeth was severely traumatized as a result of her horrific trafficking experiences. Elizabeth was terrified of men and, in particular, men she perceived as holding positions of power. Because of her trauma, at first Elizabeth did not feel comfortable discussing her experiences with the WSGR male attorneys.

Over time and with the assistance of Sanctuary for Families, WSGR worked tirelessly but sensitively to gain Elizabeth’s trust and to learn and understand her struggle and story. While the process was slow and delicate, WSGR ultimately forged a strong and fruitful relationship with Elizabeth. By her choice, Elizabeth began to work with the entire team and became empowered as she forged mutually respectful relationships with the male associates.

When reflecting on the early days working with Elizabeth, WSGR Associate Justin Cohen commented:

“It was certainly a challenge working with Elizabeth at the outset. She had suffered so much trauma and there was such incredible fear underlying her whole case. We needed to establish a bond and earn her trust. It was a slow process but, eventually, she looked to us as a resource to help rebuild her life; it was a remarkable transformation.”

With WSGR’s help, Elizabeth obtained T nonimmigrant status in the United States. She was also able to establish a strong and loving relationship with a man who is now her husband and the father of her two little boys. Happily, WSGR also succeeded in securing Elizabeth’s husband T derivative status, so that the couple can continue to build a life together in the United States.

Jessica-Wind Abolafia, a Senior Staff Attorney at Sanctuary for Families who supervised the team remarked:

“From the beginning, the Wilson Sonsini Team demonstrated great initiative, sensitivity and dedication. They have been a ‘dream team’ to work with and an ideal match for the client.”

The Partnership Continues

WSGR is still advocating relentlessly and passionately for Elizabeth. More recently, the team has helped her to vacate her prostitution-related convictions in New York State and is now seeking vacatur of similar convictions in New Jersey.

As WSGR Associate Jason Mollick explains,

“We filed successful vacatur motions in New York and have a further motion pending in New Jersey, which is one of the first applications of its kind in that State. We are hopeful that, soon, Elizabeth’s entire record regarding trafficking-related offenses will be entirely clean, as it should be. For Elizabeth, this is a completely unanticipated but very welcome development; it is an important part of rebuilding her life and forging a future here in the United States.”

WSGR is also assisting Elizabeth to cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in its ongoing investigations of large scale human trafficking rings.  Finally, the WSGR team is committed to continuing to represent both Elizabeth and her husband in their applications for lawful permanent residency in the future.

In short, despite numerous hurdles, WSGR’s commitment to Elizabeth’s plight did not falter. The team showed tremendous dedication to their client and as a result of that persistence and passion, WSGR has achieved incredible outcomes for Elizabeth.

Looking back at WSGR’s work with Elizabeth, Partner Tonia Klausner reflected,

“Elizabeth’s case was the first trafficking work our office had taken on. We were incredibly eager to help Elizabeth, but also a little nervous, given we did not have an established track record in the area. Initially, we only envisaged assisting Elizabeth with the T-visa application process but, before long, we had all fallen in love with her. She is one of the strongest most resilient people I have ever met. Since then, we have worked to support Elizbeth in a variety of different ways. We are committed to continue that relationship as she moves towards the T-adjustment application process.”

A Promising Future

Elizabeth continues to heal from her trauma and rebuild her life in the United States. She has completed vocational training and English courses through Sanctuary for Families, is in a happy and stable relationship with her husband and is a proud mother of their sons. For the first time in as long as she can remember, Elizabeth is a free woman looking forward to her future with her family.

Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on November 13, 2018, at the RUMI Event Space, 229 W 28th St, New York, NY as we honor WSGR’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.

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.

 

Former Skadden Associate Michael Van Hulle Honored for His Work with Survivors of Gender Violence

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring former Skadden litigation associate Michael Van Hulle for his pro bono work on behalf of six Sanctuary clients, all survivors of gender violence, whose lives were put on hold as they waited for years for their asylum office interviews to be scheduled.

michael-van-hulleAt this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is  honoring Michael Van Hulle, a former litigation associate at Skadden,  for his pro bono work on behalf of six Sanctuary clients, all survivors of gender violence, whose lives were put on hold as they waited for years for their asylum office
interviews to be scheduled. 

Fleeing gender violence, asylum seekers find themselves in limbo

In early 2015, Sanctuary for Families reached out to Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP with a unique request –   a mandamus action against U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”).  Sanctuary had six asylum clients who had been waiting years for their asylum interviews.  The clients fled from various forms of gender violence abroad, from female genital mutilation (“FGM”) and forced marriage to domestic violence and trafficking, to seek protection from the U.S. government.

Although federal regulations require that USCIS grant interviews to asylum applicants no later than 45 days after the date their application is filed, backlogs at the asylum offices have led to an average wait time of two to three years for interviews in New York and New Jersey.

As a result of these significant delays, asylum seekers find themselves in limbo, remain separated from family members still at risk of violence overseas, and struggle to make ends meet due to ineligibility for public assistance, housing, and even Medicaid in certain states.

Dania Lopez Beltran (former Sanctuary attorney) and Sanctuary attorney Sayoni Maitra reached out to Skadden regarding the possibility of filing a mandamus complaint on behalf of Sanctuary’s clients. Dania and Sayoni had learned that Michael recently worked on a similar matter for Immigration Equality and therefore had the expertise needed for this particular lawsuit.  This was Michael’s first Sanctuary matter, and he was excited to get involved again on behalf of deserving asylum clients who needed legal representation.

Changing USCIS policy

Michael moved quickly.  He drafted and filed under seal a complaint seeking a writ of mandamus in the Southern District of New York against the New York and Newark Asylum Offices on behalf of Sanctuary’s clients.  The complaint alleged that USCIS was statutorily required to interview each asylum applicant within 45 days.

After the complaint was filed, Michael heard back from an Assistant United States Attorney in the Southern District of New York.  Up until early 2015, USCIS had been utilizing a “last in, first out” system of scheduling asylum interviews.  This meant that applicants who had submitted their applications most recently were scheduled interviews before those who filed years before.

However, just around the time Michael filed the mandamus complaint on behalf of Sanctuary’s clients, USCIS switched to a “first in, first out” policy, so that those cases dating back to around 2012 would now be scheduled interviews at the New York and Newark Asylum Offices. While a welcome change, the policy shift did not reduce the average wait times facing asylum applicants, and those who filed after 2012 continued to languish in purgatory while their interviews remained unscheduled.

USCIS’s new approach to scheduling asylum interviews benefited some of Sanctuary’s clients.  Two of Sanctuary’s clients, however, remained in limbo after the policy change and could not afford to wait another year or two for an interview.  They were in particular need of immediate assistance, and it was on their behalf that Michael’s advocacy and perseverance paid off.

Campaigning on his clients’ behalf

The first client, Ms. A, had daughters back in her home country who were at an age when most girls in their community have already been subjected to FGM.  In 2013, after Ms. A’s husband and children went into hiding, Ms. A fled to the United States to seek asylum, hoping that she could then apply for her husband and children to join her.  As time passed, however, Ms. A feared more and more that her daughters would be located by her family and forced to undergo FGM.  Scheduling her asylum interview therefore became critical.

The second client, Ms. B, had been repeatedly raped for years by her trafficker until she was finally able to escape from him.  As a result of the sexual abuse that she was subjected to, Ms. B experienced medical symptoms that worsened over the years and required immediate medical care by the time she was in the United States in 2013.  However, in New Jersey, where she was located, individuals with pending immigration applications are ineligible for Medicaid, and without Medicaid, Ms. B remained unable to obtain the treatment that she desperately needed.

Michael diligently and passionately advocated on behalf of Sanctuary’s clients, through letters and phone calls, explaining the urgency that was now facing each woman.  He told each woman’s story, of why USCIS’s utter failure to abide by the 45-day rule was creating an increasingly dire situation. 

Eventually, his campaign led to settlement negotiations with the Assistant U.S. Attorney, pursuant to which all six Sanctuary clients, including Ms. A and Ms. B, were finally able to get what they’ve been fighting for:  their interview dates.  Having been granted asylum, Ms. A has applied for her children to join her as asylee derivatives, and Ms. B was enrolled in Medicaid to receive the health care she needed for so long.

Heroes among us

Reflecting on the phenomenal outcome of his negotiations and efforts, Michael stated that he was proud to have been able to make a real difference in the clients’ lives.  When he initially took on the matter, he read through each woman’s asylum application.  He marveled at the strength demonstrated by each woman, and the adversity that they had to overcome to escape their circumstances.  He remarked,

“There aren’t heroic people doing heroic things anymore; but here, I would read these affidavits, and think, ‘Wow, that is actually heroic.’ [It was hard to read through these applications without], getting a little teary eyed.”

The emotions became even more poignant when the settlement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office was signed in late 2015.  He felt “good,” remarking, “It really was difficult to beat the raw emotional impact of getting to do this type of work.”  His hard work brought about a positive change to the lives of six women who had survived – with a heroic level of grace and courage – acts of incomprehensible cruelty and horror.  His advocacy also held the government accountable for their decisions not to abide by a clear statutory requirement, by pointing out the costs and consequences that were at risk.  It was a touching end to his time at Skadden.

Being able to see the matter to conclusion was also an emotional victory for Michael on a personal level.  Steve Kolleeny, former Special Counsel and the head of Skadden’s pro bono asylum program, had been the person who reached out to Michael and encouraged him to take on the government to seek justice on behalf of asylum seekers.  He had been a personal and professional mentor to Michael, and a source of inspiration in his dedication to providing unparalleled advocacy on behalf of asylum applicants.

Shortly before Michael began working on the mandamus complaint for Sanctuary’s clients, however, Steve passed away.  Michael was particularly proud and honored to have had the opportunity to follow in the large footsteps of his mentor in his fight on behalf of deserving asylum clients.

 

Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on October 19, 2016 at the Highline Ballroom as we honor Michael’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.

Etienne Barg-Townsend is Senior Legal Counsel at KGS-Alpha Capital Markets, L.P., a New York-based institutional fixed income broker-dealer.  She was formerly a litigation associate at Shearman & Sterling LLP, Cahill Gordon & Reindel, LLP, and Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP.  She has worked on several pro bono matters with Sanctuary, and is in the process of developing a pro bono program at KGS-Alpha.  She is a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council and is Co-Chair of this year’s Above & Beyond gala.