Camille is a Summer Law Clerk at Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP and is currently enrolled at the University of Virginia School of Law.
At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of WilmerHale attorneys for their brilliant and dedicated advocacy on behalf of Rosa, whose worst nightmare was realized when her abusive husband abducted their two young girls and held them in Egypt for two unbearable years. The WilmerHale team worked tirelessly and overcame many obstacles to help Rosa reunite with her daughters.
This stellar team included partners Sanket Bulsara (currently at the SEC) and Sharon Cohen Levin, counsels Todd Blanche and Adriel Cepeda Derieux, senior associates Matthew Galeotti, Musetta Durkee, and Hanna Baek (currently at the NY Attorney General’s Office), associates David Yin, William Roth, Josh Vittor (formerly of WilmerHale), and Margaret Artz, and paralegals Vilmarie Alcaraz and Lauren Kennedy.
An International Nightmare
Between 2009 and 2013 Rosa and her two daughters alternately lived between Rosa’s native Mexico and New York City, where her husband John, a Legal Permanent Resident who later naturalized, lived. In 2013, Rosa’s husband encouraged her to take the girls back to Mexico for a visit, assuring her that he had applied for a green card for her and that she could return to the U.S. with no issues. This turned out to be a lie, and when Rosa arrived at JFK the next month she was denied entry. After that, Rosa and the girls lived in Mexico for over a year, with John visiting only occasionally.
In 2014, John decided to travel to his native country, Egypt, and invited Rosa and the children to join him for a vacation, imploring her that he very much wanted the children to meet their Egyptian family and pointing out that she and the children could no longer visit him in New York. Rosa bought three round-trip tickets for herself and her daughters with money John had sent her, fully expecting that they would all be returning to Mexico after this family visit.
But once Rosa and the girls were in Egypt, John confiscated their passports and return tickets, became physically abusive toward Rosa, and refused to let her leave the house unaccompanied or without his permission. Their short vacation turned into a long nightmare, made worse when Rosa’s mother became terminally ill. John permitted Rosa to travel back to Mexico to visit her sick mother but refused to let the children join her. While Rosa was in Mexico, John brought the children to New York, knowing that their mother was unable to enter the United States. Despite Rosa’s desperate pleas and John’s repeated promises to bring the children to Mexico, he never did.
In April 2015, John revealed his intention to take the children to Egypt permanently, telling Rosa that if she ever wanted to see her children again, it would have to be there. Still in Mexico, Rosa knew she needed immediate legal assistance, and started making desperate phone calls to attorneys in New York.
Answering the Call to Action: A Team Assembles
Rosa’s pleading message landed in the inbox of Lisa Vara, a senior staff attorney at Sanctuary for Families. Lisa recalls feeling “compelled to follow up further and see if there was any way Sanctuary could help.” Crucial at this point in time was the fact that the children were still in the United States—both Mexico and the United States are parties to the Hague Convention on International Child Abduction, which provides for children to be expeditiously returned after international parental abductions. If John followed through with his threat to send the children to Egypt, a country not party to the Hague Convention, this expeditious option would be lost and the chances of Rosa getting her children back would be grim.
Lisa and Dorchen Leidholdt, Director of Sanctuary’s Legal Center, understood the urgency of the situation and immediately thought of WilmerHale, who answered the call to action and put together a top tier pro bono team in record time that very afternoon. Unfortunately, they were not the only ones moving quickly—before the team could file a Hague Convention petition or obtain an order for the children to remain in the U.S., John had sent the children to Egypt.
“We knew from that day forward, this was going to be an incredibly complicated case because Egypt is not a party to the Hague Convention,” shared Matthew Galeotti, who worked the case from start to finish.
Because John had remained in New York, the team worked to get a court order instructing him to bring the children, in person, before a family court judge in Queens. “We overcame a number of challenges in getting that order, not least of which was the fact that our client was in Mexico and unable to physically appear before the Family Court,” reflected Lisa. But John refused to follow the court’s order and, using an Egyptian passport he had previously told the court did not exist, fled to Egypt in June 2015. Once in Egypt, he contacted Rosa, threatened her life and cursed her, her attorneys, and the Family Court judge handling the case.
Despite these devastating developments, the team did not give up, and worked to persuade the U.S. Attorney’s Office to open an international kidnapping case and issue a warrant for John’s arrest. They strategized constantly with Sanctuary about how to pressure John to come back and what to do once he returned, and they provided support and strength to Rosa.
“It was a difficult time to be without my daughters for two years, but I never lost hope that my children would be back in my arms sometime. Sanctuary and WilmerHale listened to me, helped me, and were by my side every step of the way although I was in Mexico and my legal team was in New York.” – Rosa
Finally, not knowing about the open federal warrant, John returned to New York with the children in August 2016 and was immediately arrested at JFK for International Parental Kidnapping and Conspiracy to Commit International Parental Kidnapping. With the children back on U.S. soil, the WilmerHale team was able to file a Hague Convention petition in federal court seeking the children’s return to their mother in Mexico.
Following John’s arrest, at least one member of the WilmerHale team attended every court appearance from arraignment to sentencing on Rosa’s behalf at the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. The team was in close contact with the Assistant United States Attorney handling the case throughout the proceedings, and prepared and submitted a victim impact statement on Rosa’s behalf for sentencing. Ultimately, John pled guilty to the conspiracy charge and was sentenced to a year and a day in prison with credit given for time already served and was given special conditions to his release, including not to threaten or harass Rosa and the children and to obey any family court orders.
Reunited At Last
In November 2016, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York ordered the children’s return to Mexico, and Rosa reunited with her daughters two weeks before Christmas. After tracking the children’s flight via Flight Tracker, Matthew Galeotti finally received a photograph of Rosa with her daughters at the airport in Mexico. “It was the most touching thing I have experienced as a lawyer,” he reflected.
Lisa Vara echoed similar sentiments, commenting, “I have had many rewarding experiences over the years while working at Sanctuary for Families, but this one was truly the most moving. This extraordinary outcome could not have happened without the hard work and dedication from the WilmerHale team. They truly went above and beyond in making this happen.”
Rosa knew that the return of her daughters “was something Sanctuary and WilmerHale worked so hard for, but it still seemed like being reunited with them would be a long way off.” In the end, she shared, “when I hugged my daughters upon being reunited with them at the airport, it was a miracle.”
Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on October 17, 2017 at the Highline Ballroom as we honor the WilmerHale 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.