At 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.