The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) allows immigrant survivors of domestic violence to self-petition for legal status in the United States without relying on their abusive U.S. citizen spouses to sponsor their adjustment of status (i.e., “green card”) applications. VAWA self-petitioners must prove that they are persons of “good moral
Proskauer was privileged to host a panel presentation with Her Justice this month to raise awareness of economic and legal obstacles facing women who are living in poverty in New York City during the COVID-19 pandemic. The panel was moderated by Proskauer associate Elizabeth Siegel, a member of the Her Justice Junior Advisory Board, and featured Her Justice attorneys Hamra Ahmad, Anna Maria Diamanti, and Prathiba Desai. With support from pro bono lawyers at Proskauer and other law firms, Her Justice provides family law and immigration representation to women of limited means, most of whom are mothers and survivors of intimate partner violence.
Among other obstacles, the panelists highlighted the many hurdles the public health crisis has caused for low-income women seeking legal relief in family court. Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, accessing family court was challenging for Her Justice’s clients because the court required them to appear in person. Clients often had to wait several hours even for a brief appearance, which was particularly difficult and financially burdensome for those who needed to arrange for child care or time off from work. At the beginning of the pandemic, in March 2020, the New York City Family Court closed except for “essential services” such as emergency proceedings for orders of protection, which are being heard virtually. While the ability to obtain orders of protection during the pandemic is critical for vulnerable women, participating in virtual hearings has created yet another set of challenges for women living in poverty who may not be able to access the technology needed for remote hearings. The lack of access to a stable internet connection and a confidential location to safely discuss sensitive legal issues has proven to be especially difficult.
As COVID-19 ravages communities across the United States, another serious public health crisis is also escalating: gun violence. Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit organization and longtime Proskauer partner dedicated to ending gun violence, has been examining the impact of COVID-19 on the gun violence epidemic, as well as making important recommendations.
In a recent report, Everytown found that there was a major spike in gun sales between March and May of 2020 in comparison to previous years, as well as a corresponding rise in gun deaths. As a result of these sales, there has been a corresponding sharp increase in requests for background checks, which puts immense stress on the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). Everytown notes that the primary and most dangerous consequence of this strain on resources is the so-called “Charleston loophole.” While federal law mandates that licensed gun dealers run a background check on any prospective gun buyer, this loophole allows any purchaser, even one with an incomplete background check, to proceed by default with their gun purchase if three business days have elapsed since the background check request was submitted – the technicality through which Dylann Roof was able to secure a firearm to kill nine Black churchgoers in South Carolina. As a result, a significant number of gun sales (potentially over 90,000) have been processed during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic thus far without complete background checks.
I recently joined the board of Her Justice, a nonprofit legal services organization in New York City and longtime partner of Proskauer that provides assistance to women and their families living in poverty who have high-stakes legal needs.
I was introduced to the organization by a friend and former colleague, and over the past few years have come to understand their mission and approach. Seeing the many women in our city experiencing pain and fear due to unaffordable housing, parenting children with insufficient income or job prospects, abandonment, and abuse, I felt compelled to become more involved.
The staff lawyers at Her Justice train and supervise thousands of volunteer lawyers who are mobilized to help women in need throughout New York City. In 2018 alone, Her Justice organized more than 76,000 volunteer hours helping nearly 10,000 women and children.
Off a side street in a small town in central Mexico, the shelter entrance was hard to find until we noticed a young family sitting under a tree near a gate with a worn sign welcoming “migrant brothers and sisters.” We walked through the gate into a dusty courtyard surrounded by makeshift structures in the shadow of a church, where we were greeted warmly by the shelter’s director. He explained they were currently accommodating approximately 30 migrants from Central America, and that we had just missed 120 others who left to catch the train going north. The shelter, with a staff of five and several volunteers in and out during the day, has served over 3,000 people so far this year. This is a substantial increase over last year, and most notably, they are serving an increasing number of families.
We spent last week in Mexico providing asylum presentations and individual consultations in partnership with the Institute for Women in Migration, IMUMI. The biggest takeaway from our experience was the prevalence of violence. Everyone described stories of domestic violence or gang violence (or both) in their home countries of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, and the lack of any protection from government authorities. Everyone also described the great danger they faced along their journey through Mexico, detailing robberies, assaults and even an attempted kidnapping.
U.S. immigration policy has changed quickly and substantially in the past two years. While a handful of policies have received the majority of media attention—such as the separation of families at the border—the Department of Homeland Security has implemented numerous, far less visible changes that have dramatically impacted the ability to seek immigration relief in this country. These policy changes have transformed the way in which lawyers and their pro bono clients must navigate the immigration system.
Accounting for Unpredictability
As a result of the exceedingly fast changes to immigration policy, it has become increasingly challenging to predict a client’s likelihood of obtaining certain types of immigration relief or to assess the risks associated with attempting to do so.
For example, in October 2018, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) began implementing a new policy that mandates USCIS to issue Notices to Appear (NTA) in immigration court removal proceedings upon making an unfavorable decision on an immigration application where the applicant is an undocumented immigrant. This far-reaching guidance would, for instance, encompass vulnerable undocumented victims of domestic abuse seeking humanitarian-based relief, thus creating a perverse disincentive for them to come forward and cooperate with law enforcement. In June 2018, the Attorney General’s decision in Matter of A-B- purported to make it harder for immigrants to qualify for asylum based on gang or domestic violence, a decision that was, in turn, blocked in December by a federal judge in Washington, D.C.
Last month, Proskauer filed an amicus brief on behalf of Sanctuary for Families — a leading non-profit organization advocating for victims of domestic violence and sex trafficking —specifically to advocate for allowing criminal prosecutions based on lawfully recorded telephone calls that abusers in pretrial detention use to coerce victims not to testify.
According to some reports, up to 80% of victims of domestic abuse and sex trafficking recant their testimony of the abuse and refuse to cooperate with police. Decades of social-science research, along with recent academic studies and reputable reporting, show that many domestic violence and sex trafficking victims recant because they are suffering from acute psychological trauma akin to Stockholm Syndrome: by combining psychological manipulation with incidents of physical violence, abusers achieve “coercive control” of their victims and successfully instruct them not to testify. Abusers in pretrial detention are particularly incentivized to coerce their victims not to testify because, often, the victim is the only available witness to the crime.
Recent events have created an urgent need for an independent Immigration Court separate from the Department of Justice. On October 17, Proskauer hosted a panel discussion in its New York office co-sponsored by Sanctuary for Families, the New York Immigration Coalition, and the Federal Bar Association’s Immigration Law Section entitled, “Lives in the Balance: Eviscerating Asylum Protection for Victims of Gender Violence.” The speakers included The Hon. Carolyn Maloney, U.S. Representative from New York’s 12th Congressional District, the Hon. Amiena Khan, Executive Vice President, National Association of Immigration Judges, Lori Adams, Director, Immigration Intervention Project at Sanctuary for Families, and Lisa Koenig, a Partner at Fragomen.
The immigration lawyers on the panel provided different perspectives on Matter of A-B, a consequential decision from last summer where the Attorney General purported to overrule Immigration Court precedent, and thereby limit the availability of domestic violence as a basis for asylum. Aside from placing the law on asylum in flux, the AG’s action raises the important question of how a cabinet-level, executive branch official could claim the authority to reverse a court’s decision.