Sanctuary for Families

In the months since Proskauer hosted its immigration panel discussion in partnership with Sanctuary for Families this past January, the influx of migrants across the U.S. southern border has continued. So has the dire need for pro bono legal services for these new arrivals along with it. Recent U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Data indicates that the U.S. Border Patrol had almost 140,000 encounters with migrants crossing into the U.S. from Mexico in March 2024, down from a record high of nearly 250,000 in December 2023. According to the Wilson Center, 2023 marked the first year that more than half of the people reaching the border originated beyond Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. From our own recent experience, we have seen this trend continue.

Last week, Proskauer hosted a panel discussion focusing on the recent influx of migrants crossing the U.S. southern border and the urgent need for pro bono legal services. According to The New York Times, this past fiscal year nearly 2.5 million migrants crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, which is two and a half times greater than the number from four years ago. The large number of recent arrivals has overwhelmed an already strained system, as demonstrated by the current backlog of three million immigration cases — which has doubled since 2021 — pending before just 800 judges. 

Last week, the Proskauer community came together for the 14th Annual Golden Gavel Awards ceremony, a firm-wide virtual celebration to honor those lawyers and staff members who went far above and beyond to contribute to the Firm’s pro bono, corporate social responsibility, and diversity & inclusion initiatives this year. Congratulations

Proskauer was privileged to host a panel presentation this month on the topic of representing victim witnesses in cooperating with law enforcement investigations and prosecutions of human traffickers. The panel featured Jane Kim, Assistant United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York; Jessica-Wind Abolafia, Director of Sanctuary for Families’ Anti-Trafficking Initiative; Lori Cohen, incoming Executive Director of ECPAT-USA; and Bill Silverman, Proskauer’s Pro Bono Partner and former Assistant United States Attorney.

The panelists shared a number of insights from their various perspectives as attorneys within law enforcement, a nonprofit legal service provider, and a law firm’s pro bono program.  Several best practice tips emerged that will enable pro bono lawyers representing survivors of human trafficking to provide competent and trauma-informed legal assistance to their clients:

Thousands of women in the United States, who never knowingly or intentionally entered the sex industry, find themselves trapped in a world of unspeakable abuse. These women, whether in illicit massage parlors or other abhorrent situations, are routinely arrested despite being the victims – while traffickers and buyers with actual culpability routinely are not.

To understand their plight, imagine you are a single parent with three children, recently unemployed, and faced with mounting debt.  You see an online advertisement for a work opportunity in a neighboring country with a thriving restaurant industry.  You can split rent with other workers, send home earnings, and return to your children as soon as your debts are repaid.  To sweeten the offer, the employment agency covers airfare, handles immigration papers, secures an employer, and arranges housing, all at a fee that you can pay off over the course of your work engagement.  It seems your prayers have been answered; you leave hopeful and determined for the United States.

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.    

What I thought would be a simple bill signing ceremony for legislation intended to protect children from sex trafficking turned out to be something more. On August 15th in lower Manhattan, rock music blared in the community center gymnasium as hundreds of people found their seats amid TV cameras stationed in front of a make-shift stage with a large banner embracing the fight for women and girls.  As the New York Times reported, “[t]he event was ostensibly a bill-signing ceremony,” but it had all the trappings of a political rally.

The legislation that Governor Cuomo signed is significant. Prior to this law, a New York State prosecutor had to prove force, fraud or coercion to establish sex trafficking – regardless of whether the victim was a child. It made no sense that even though a child cannot legally engage in sexual activity, the State still had to meet that evidentiary burden. The legislation conforms New York law to that of 46 other states and federal law which recognize that all children involved in prostitution are victims of trafficking. According to Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr.: “By eliminating the need to prove force, fraud, or coercion for children under 18-years-old, we will be able to bring stronger cases, and spare young survivors from the trauma of having to testify mere feet from their traffickers.”