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.

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.”

 —

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.