Cesar Vargas, Safe Passage Attorney of the Month

Cesar is an immigration rights activist and the first undocumented immigrant to be granted admission to the New York State Bar. In 2014, he began volunteering with Safe Passage as an interpreter while he and his pro bono legal team were litigating his right to be an attorney. Upon receiving his law license to practice in New York, Cesar was incredibly eager to give back.

One of the first cases he took as an admitted attorney was a Safe Passage pro bono case. Cesar feels that working with children is difficult in and of itself, but, working with children who have experienced trauma adds another layer of complexity. Cesar explained that when he first met his client it was hard to get him to open up as his client was very reserved and did not want to talk to anyone. Cesar decided to tell his client his own story of coming to the United States. “I saw my story in his story,” Cesar said. “Although his journey was more difficult crossing the border, our stories were the same in that it is a story of families reuniting.” Cesar felt that by describing what he himself had been through, his client was able to more readily confide in his attorney: “He began to trust me and was able to tell me not only his past, but his present, and his future aspirations.” Cesar explained that the case was very challenging, both legally and emotionally. He believes that the ongoing support of the Safe Passage staff, who reviewed documents and connected Cesar and his client with translators, social workers, psychologists, and subject matter experts, was a “critical ingredient for the success of the case.” Ultimately, Cesar helped his client obtain asylum, and Cesar is proud that his client now has a secure immigration status within the United States.
Cesar feels that he is still trying to find his approach as a legal practitioner after working in advocacy and politics for several years. But, no matter what, Cesar explained that pro bono will always be an integral part of his legal practice due in large part to the time people invested in supporting him in his own legal case: “Pro bono pushes your boundaries as a person, advocate, and lawyer.”

Cesar is an inspiration to the Safe Passage team and we are so proud of everything he has accomplished and will in the years to come. According to Deputy Executive Director, “Safe Passage is proud to have partnered with New York’s first undocumented attorney. Cesar is an inspiration to the organization, our clients, and is one of the most impressive people I have ever met. We are lucky to consider him part of the Safe Passage Family.”

Thank you Cesar for your unfailing dedication and hard work for your client and all the children you have worked with over the years at Safe Passage. We feel extremely lucky to have such a smart, empathetic, and dynamic pro bono advocate in our ranks. We look forward to continuing to partner with you on future cases for many years to come!

Attorney of the Week

The Safe Passage Project is proud to recognize Steven Kent as our Attorney of the Week! Over the past 2 years, Steven has become an invaluable part of our pro bono team. His hard work and dedication have had a profound impact on the lives of his clients, who are now on their way to obtaining legal status and achieving their dreams of leading happy, healthy lives in the United States.

Steven, a graduate of Georgetown University and St. John’s Law School, has been working at Wilson Elser in New York City for over 30 years. Steven’s legal specialties include legal malpractice defense and commercial litigation. In 2015, Steven started volunteering with Safe Passage through a program established with Wilson Elser. After learning about the incredible need for attorneys to represent child immigrants, Steven felt motivated to offer his assistance and legal experience to help further Safe Passage’s mission.

Steven found his initial experience with Safe Passage so rewarding that he decided to continue volunteering with us. Steven stated that he was really impressed with the quality of representation as well as the dedication of Safe Passage employees. To this date, Steven has represented five immigrant children with the Safe Passage Project. All of his cases have involved helping his clients obtain Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (“SIJS”). One challenge that Steven said he has encountered in this work has been the language barrier, since all of his clients come from Central America and speak Spanish. He said it was a really humbling experience because in all his years of being an attorney, the ability to easily communicate with his clients was something he took for granted. He really appreciated Safe Passage’s assistance with interpreting during his client meetings, and wanted to especially thank Elizabeth and Marilyn for their time and effort with these cases.

Finally, Steven wants to encourage all attorneys to volunteer with the Safe Passage Project and get involved in immigration and asylum law. He stated that this type of work is more important now than it has ever been. He finds the work not only personally fulfilling and intellectually stimulating, but also views it as a way to use his legal skills to help the country.

Thank you Steven for your continued dedication to your clients and for setting an example for all attorneys to follow and strive for!

Attorney of the Week

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Safe Passage is excited to announce that this week’s Attorney of the Week is Sam Koch. And special thank you to Ruthie Abel for her photography of Sam.

It was Sam’s passion for working with children that brought him to Safe Passage—prior to law school Sam taught at an elementary school in Harlem. And in his own words, when it comes to working with kids, “there’s nothing more rewarding”.

When Sam started his pro bono work with us, he had never worked on immigration law before, but now he lists this experience among the most rewarding of his legal career. Entering this process, the recognition of how important his contributions would be to his client’s immigration status made him nervous. However, reflecting on his experience he explained, “the staff at Safe Passage put my fears to rest…Because of their help, [I] felt confident in my ability to advocate for my client, and [I] felt prepared for each court appearance.”

Sam considers this experience a prime example of lawyers’ unique ability to empower others. Looking back, Sam considers that even for him—after having gone to law school, passing the bar, clerking for a judge, and working for a law firm that provides great training—there are rules and procedures underlying our judicial system that he still has difficulty navigating. In his words, he “can’t imagine how scary it would be to try to navigate all that as a non-lawyer or without representation, let alone for a child that just arrived in this country.”

And now, with this experience under his belt, Sam is looking forward to giving back more. He describes his new knowledge of the SIJS process and recognition of his abilities to navigate these legal systems as motivation to keep serving. And after seeing how overloaded Safe Passage’s docket is, how many children out there need help from qualified attorneys, and having such a wonderful experience with his client and her family, he wants to make sure he’s putting his qualifications to good use.

Coming out of this process Sam has something he wants to share with other lawyers thinking of doing pro bono work with Safe Passage: “Don’t worry if, like me, you have no previous experience with immigration law. Safe Passage is there for you! The staff is patient and responsive; they’ll answer all your questions and do whatever it takes to make sure you feel prepared to advocate effectively for your client.”

Thank you Sam, for your hard work and dedication—we look forward to working more with you in the future!

Attorney of the Week

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The Safe Passage Project is proud to announce that Harry Shulman is this week’s Attorney of the Week. Harry has been volunteering with Safe Passage for over six years and has assisted us in many different ways. From representing clients in asylum and SIJS cases to conducting client intakes at immigration court, Harry has contributed greatly to Safe Passage’s mission of providing quality representation to children facing deportation.

Harry is an active member of the immigration law network here in New York City, demonstrated in particular through his involvement with the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). In addition to volunteering with AILA and attending many of their events, Harry was the co-chair of AILA’s pro bono committee in 2013 with Kristy Dalling. Harry has had a fascinating career path with many interesting experiences that have led him to continue pursuing volunteer work in this field. After graduating from Tulane University in New Orleans, Harry worked in New York City trading commodities for a decade before attending law school. He received his J.D. from Cardozo Law School in 1993.

Harry’s interest in immigration law was sparked during law school when he took a course on immigration taught by the distinguished immigration lawyer Leon Wildes, who represented John Lennon and Yoko Ono in their deportation proceedings in the 1970s. During law school, Harry participated in an immigration clinic at Catholic Charities, where he learned firsthand about asylum law and was and continues to be inspired by immigration attorney Mark Von Sternberg and all the other dedicated and self-sacrificing attorneys and staff who work in this area of the law.

Over the past 15 years, Harry has dedicated much of his time to advocating for the rights of immigrants. Harry has represented immigrants on a pro bono basis in partnership with AILA, KIND (Kids in Need of Defense), and Safe Passage. From representing a Chinese man who was persecuted due to his involvement in the Falun Gong community, to assisting with intakes of detained immigrants at the Varick Street Detention Center, Harry has a wide range of experience in this field. For Harry, one of the biggest rewards he receives from this work is the connection he makes with the clients. In particular, Harry remembers one of his clients calling him non-stop on September 11th to make sure that he was safe after the World Trade Center was attacked. This touching, close human connection is what inspires Harry continue to volunteer his time and assist these clients.

Harry also really enjoys staying in touch with clients and seeing what their lives are like after their cases have been resolved. For Harry, it is such a great feeling to see his clients living successful, happy, lives. Even for clients who continue to have difficult lives, Harry appreciates that he could contribute to taking at least one burden – having to worry about their immigration status – off of their shoulders.

In reflecting on his relationship with Safe Passage, Harry stated “I really appreciate the support that Safe Passage has given me throughout the entire process. The people at Safe Passage not only helped me with a lot of the heavy lifting, but also just genuinely cared about the case and the client we were helping.” Harry has found the cases he worked on with Safe Passage to be very interesting and complicated, often with lots of surprises and lessons along the way. Despite the complexities of this field of law and the cases, Harry says that it is an extremely cooperative environment and that everyone he has met through this work has been so helpful and genuine. He stated, “I feel so lucky to be in a position to help the Safe Passage Project.” We at the Safe Passage Project feel lucky to have Harry on our team! Thank you, Harry, for all of the time, effort, and energy that you contribute to enriching the lives of the Safe Passage clients and team!

Attorney of the Week

The Safe Passage Project is proud to feature Sofia Dee as this week’s Attorney of the Week in recognition of the recent victory in her client’s asylum case and Sofia’s continuous efforts towards achieving the Safe Passage mission of creating a safe and stable life for immigrant children.

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Over the past five years, Sofia has worked tirelessly to assist Miguel,* a 21-year-old male from Guatemala, with his claim for asylum. Since Sofia first took on the case in 2011, the government has presented an uphill battle at every stage of the process. Although it has been a challenging experience, the immigration judge finally granted relief this past Tuesday – making every hour and year devoted to the case worth it for Sofia. With this grant of asylum, Miguel’s future is bright: he will be able to find more stable work, re-enroll in school, and eventually pursue citizenship and bring his parents to the United States. Reflecting on this experience, Sofia stated, “Miguel is a great kid and deserves to be happy and safe. I am glad I could be a part of the team that made it possible.”

In addition to Miguel’s case, Sofia has worked extensively with Safe Passage over the years by conducting numerous client intakes at the surge dockets in immigration court as well as assisting another Safe Passage client with her asylum case. Sofia is drawn to this work because she enjoys giving back to the immigrant community and helping immigrants navigate the complex and confusing immigration system. Sofia, a New York Law School graduate, also has a strong relationship with the staff of the Safe Passage Project. Sofia stated, “Lenni Benson was my mentor in law school and is really the reason why I chose to enter this field.” Sofia, now an experienced immigration attorney herself, followed Ms. Benson’s example and has helped mentor Ms. Benson’s students. Sofia explained: “I think it is essential to help this next generation of young lawyers and expose them to as much real world experience as possible.”

Sofia is an Associate Attorney at the Law Offices of Harold Dee, where she specializes in immigration and visa law. After graduating from Fordham University, Sofia received her law degree from New York Law School in 2008. While in law school, Sofia gained experience in immigration law through interning at non-profit organizations, where she helped low-income individuals file VAWA and asylum applications. Sofia also has experience interning with business immigration firms and has assisted clients with various types of employment-based visas. As a Senior Litigation Associate at Yerman & Associates, Sofia represented over 500 clients before USCIS and the immigration courts, with a focus on asylum and Cancellation of Removal cases. Sofia’s legal background demonstrates both her expertise in this field and passion for assisting immigrants throughout the United States.

Safe Passage is so grateful for the incredible work and dedication that Sofia has provided our clients with over the years and we look forward to continuing to have Sofia as part of the Safe Passage family in the future.

 

* Name has been changed to protect the client’s privacy.

Attorney of the Week

This week, Safe Passage Project is proud to feature two of our dedicated attorney volunteers: James O’Malley and Natalie Bello of O’Malley and Associates.

Ms. Bello, an NYLS graduate, volunteered with Safe Passage Project during her time in law school and was excited to take on the case and act as a liaison with Safe Passage Project again. She said, “Essentially when I joined O’Malley and Associates, I took on the case because I was familiar with Safe Passage Project and that type of case.” Mr. O’Malley, also an NYLS graduate, had volunteered with Safe Passage Project before and was happy to take on this case when Professor Lenni Benson called for volunteers.

The team from O’Malley and Associates recently successfully concluded their case, and their client, R.G., was granted relief from removal and lawful permanent residency!

In September of 2012, Ms. Bello and Mr. O’Malley took on the case to help an immigrant child, R.G., from El Salvador. Mr. O’Malley and Ms. Bello thought about seeking asylum for the child, but decided that SIJS was a more probable option. The two worked tirelessly to secure SIJS status for R.G. They worked closely with Greg Peters, as he represented R.G. in family court, while Mr. O’Malley and Ms. Bello represented R.G. in immigration court. Mr. O’Malley explained that their main challenge was getting the I-360 submitted before R.G.’s 21st birthday. Ultimately, they were able to submit the I-360 petition three months before R.G. turned 21 in January of 2015.  After years of dedication, R.G. was granted lawful permanent residency based on his SIJS in June of this year!

R.G. is doing great and recently graduated from high school and started a new job.

Mr. O’Malley explained, “Professor Benson is just such a great mentor and role model for all of us. I’m a graduate of New York Law School also, so it’s kind of a no brainer really. We almost always have one active pro bono case in some form of another in the office.” Ms. Bello decided to take on the case because she explained, “I have always been interested in this area of law since college. I took a lot of classes in immigration law and I come from immigrant parents so it is a great motivation to help other immigrants come to the United States.”

As for a piece of advice to other attorneys thinking about working with Safe Passage Project, Mr. O’Malley and Ms. Bello said to have patience and always make sure that their client knows what is going on and doing what they are suppose to do at all times. We are very thankful to Mr. O’Malley and Ms. Bello for all of their hard work and dedication to Safe Passage Project!

Mr. O’Malley studied at the Northern University of Ireland and is a graduate of New York Law School. He is a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) and is admitted to practice in the State of New York, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court. Mr. O’Malley has been practicing U.S. Immigration for over 25 years. He has been honored by Irish America Magazine in 1992 as one of the 100 most important Irish Americans and later again in 2008 as one of the top 100 Irish American Lawyers. His areas of specialty include executive and managerial transferees, investment visas, outstanding researcher, professional and specialty occupation visas, extraordinary ability, entertainment visas, permanent residence and issues of dual citizenship.

Ms. Bello received her Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science and Business Administration from Fordham University, Lincoln Center. She attended New York Law School and is admitted to practice in New York State. Ms. Bello is fluent in Spanish and is a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). Her areas of experience include professional and specialty occupation visas, trainee and intern visas, entertainer and performer visas, and Prosecutorial Discretion and DACA applications.

 

Attorney of the Week- Christopher Gregorio

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Christopher Gregorio is an associate attorney at the law firm Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Lowey, LLP. He obtained a JD from Fordham University School of Law in 2013 and a BA from Boston College in 2010. He joined Fragomen as an associate in November of 2013 and his main practice area is business immigration law.

Christopher became a volunteer with the Safe Passage Project in November of 2014. Prior to joining Safe Passage, he was a volunteer with the Lincoln Square Neighborhood Children’s Law Project, a student-run program that teaches children, grades 3 through 7, about law, citizenship, and literacy. Chris enjoyed giving back to the community by mentoring young children and when he became an immigration attorney, it was a natural transition to assist minors in deportation proceedings through the Safe Passage Project.

Christopher is a regular volunteer at our surge and juvenile dockets at the New York Immigration Court. He has been assisting our staff in screening unaccompanied minors for almost two years. Christopher meets with the children and their families, explains the Master Calendar Hearing process, and then conducts an in-depth interview to determine what form of legal relief the child may pursue. Christopher was surprised to learn that children are not appointed legal counsel, and are expected  to navigate this difficult and confusing process on their own. This motivated him to appear before immigration judges as a “friend of the court” on behalf of children without legal representation.

Christopher has provided invaluable help to the Safe Passage Project by dedicating his time to our cause. The Safe Passage team is proud and grateful to have Christopher Gregorio as one of our volunteer attorneys.

Attorney of the Week feature written by Safe Passage Fellow, Elena Scripnicov

Sam Newbold, Attorney of the Week

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EB-4 STORY OF SAM NEWBOLD’S CLIENT

Following the changes announced by the Department of State on retrogression of the EB-4 visa category for applicants from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador seeking Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, immigration attorneys all over the country were suddenly faced with an array of unforeseen challenges. Emergency filings and deadlines were added to already overburdened calendars.

Samuel Newbold, a Senior Associate at Barst Mukamal & Kleiner LLP and Board Member of Safe Passage Project, successfully overcame this challenge. He shared his story with us.

Mr. Newbold’s client, C.J.*, a 19-year-old from Honduras, has been through a lengthy and complicated immigration process over the past two years. C.J.’s story is heartbreaking. He lost his father at the early age of 6. He endured abuse and violence at the hands of gangs in his home country, and at the age of 16 decided to seek a better life in the United States.

In 2014, Mr. Newbold helped C.J. apply for asylum. It was a difficult process for the youth, as he had to learn how to trust a team of attorneys and staff from Safe Passage Project and the law firm. C.J.’s ability to remain in the United States was jeopardized when his asylum claim was denied. Despite Mr. Newbold’s assurances that there were other options for him, C.J.’s hopes were crushed.

Since C.J. arrived in the United States he has spent many hours pursing his true passion, soccer. He began playing in early childhood and had never stopped. He aims to play soccer at the professional level someday.

When C.J. received the news about his asylum claim not being approved he lost interest in following this dream and he sought refuge with a group of friends who did not have a positive influence on him.

In the meantime, Mr. Newbold, continued to seek options to help C.J. After more than a year of working together, the relationship extended beyond mere legal representation. Mr. Newbold told C.J. “anything unfortunate that happens to an undocumented child, can jeopardize his entire life.” The two had a difficult and heartfelt conversation, at the end of which C.J. acknowledged he had given up hope. Listening to Mr. Newbold made C.J. realize he was not alone – the first defeat does not have to be final. C.J. developed a new appreciation for the enormous amount of work these professionals were putting into his case and his future.

After a reassessment of C.J.’s case, Mr. Newbold decided to seek Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. This set the beginning of a new series of challenges, bringing an experienced business immigration attorney into the family court. Mr. Newbold worked with C.J. and his family through a complicated process involving numerous submissions, new deadlines, multiple client meetings, and the most recent obstacle – the EB-4 visa category retrogression. A process generally completed within two months was finalized by Mr. Newbold in a short two weeks.

Coincidentally, Mr. Newbold had to file C.J.’s petition during a time when his law firm duties were consuming all of his working hours. He recalls it being an extremely challenging time, because when a pro bono case “becomes engulfing and bleeds” into an attorney’s practice, an ethical choice must be made where daily duties are measured against a person’s life. Mr. Newbold volunteered additional hours and resources, working to ensure the last step towards securing legal status for C.J. was executed properly.

Today, Mr. Newbold is proud to report C.J. was admitted to a great community college and after finishing high school this summer, he will continue his education in the fall. C.J. also rediscovered his passion for soccer and is currently planning to join a professional team. The story of C.J. and Mr. Newbold is a great example of the extraordinary impact Safe Passage pro bono attorneys have on the lives and futures of young clients.

*Name has been changed to protect the client’s privacy.

– Elena Scripnicov

 

 

Safe Passage Attorney of the Week- Nexus U. Sea, Associate at Baker Hostetler, LLP.

 

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Mr. Sea is an associate attorney working at Baker Hostetler and his main focus is on complex commercial litigation, product liability, and tort litigation. He attended Rutgers University School of Law and graduated in 2007.

Mr. Sea started to volunteer with the Safe Passage Project in the beginning of 2015 when he decided to become a pro bono attorney for an unaccompanied minor child from Honduras. Since then, Mr. Sea worked extensively in order to secure legal status for the child. Mr. Sea first secured the child Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, but then after consulting the client decided to pursue an asylum claim because he felt that it would grant the child many more benefits. He was very concerned about the child’s best interests and that makes him an exceptional attorney.

Mr. Sea did a great service by helping a child. He says that working with Safe Passage was a good experience and he was particularly grateful to Desirée Hernandez. He says, “Desiree was excellent and having someone like her to help me was key.” Nevertheless, this case would not have been possible without Mr. Sea’s direct representation and hard work.

Mr. Sea explains that working with his client was very rewarding and he encourages other attorneys to help out and take a case pro bono. He further encourages pro bono attorneys who have a case with Safe Passage to push as hard as possible for the client. It’s a bit of extra work, but it is “definitely worth it” and because of it, Mr. Sea made a huge difference in a child’s life. In the end of the case, Mr. Sea recalls seeing the smile on his client’s face and telling him to stay in school and to always keep his head up.

Mr. Sea is inspiring because he’s an excellent advocate and motivator. He says he will probably take another case in the near future and hopes to be as successful as with his first client.

Matt Minnella, Safe Passage Attorney of the Week

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Mr. Minnella first learned about Safe Passage Project in July 2014 when he attended a Continuing Legal Education event at the Practicing Law Institute, where Lenni Benson spoke about the immense need for quality legal representation for children in Immigration Court Proceedings. During that same summer, large numbers of children were fleeing their home countries because of gang violence, domestic abuse, and poverty. As Matt heard their stories, he knew that he had to help in some way. Matt has experience with both service and advocacy in the nonprofit realm through his volunteer work with Habitat for Humanity. His passion for people and standing up for their rights is what lead to his recent success on his Safe Passage case. Last month, Mr. Minnella helped his Safe Passage client successfully obtain asylum.

According to Mr. Minnella, “the asylum process was at times confusing, and there were a number of challenges, but with the support of Safe Passage attorneys and interpreters, I was able to successfully represent my client and help him gain asylum”.
For Mr. Minnella, learning about the asylum application process and the United States immigration system was certainly useful, but Matt says that the most success came when he was able to develop a good rapport with his client.  This helped him to stay even-keeled regardless of how hard it was to hear the most difficult parts of his client’s story multiple times.


Towards the end of the asylum process, Matt’s client asked him if he would be able to stay with his family if he gained asylum. Matt never considered that this might even be a question, but realized that if his client still had this fear, even with all the support his client’s family received from Safe Passage Project and from Matt himself, then he couldn’t imagine how much more fear all the children who don’t have any legal support must experience.
Safe Passage is incredibly grateful to Mr. Minnella for all of his hard work on behalf of his Safe Passage client.
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