Safe Passage Pro Bono Attorney Cesar Vargas featured in Huffington Post

Link to article:

NEW YORK ― When attorney Cesar Vargas first met his teenage client Ivan Ruiz, a newly arrived undocumented immigrant from Honduras, he noticed Ruiz seemed to wear the weight of his traumatic childhood on his sleeve.

Ruiz, 15 at the time, rarely spoke, returning questions about his life in Honduras with long stares and heavy nods. It was only over the course of a year that Vargas would learn the extent of abuse Ruiz suffered while living with extended family members after his parents immigrated to the United States for a better life. Ruiz was barely fed, forced to work long hours and beaten ― even whipped with tire rubber ― as punishment.

The abuse became too much to bear. After trekking through Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador, Ruiz crossed the border into the United States in spring 2016. His journey wasn’t over, though, and a year ago he was ordered to appear in immigration court.

With Vargas’ help, Ruiz recently won a life-changing victory: He was granted asylum. He now spends his days in summer school, soaking up new English words and the novelty of life with only low-stakes, teenage worries. He recently took two girls to the prom and is delicately balancing the affections of another. He is looking forward to the day when he can join a Manhattan-based soccer league, but the $180 joining fee is currently too steep.

His case is remarkable for two reasons. At 16, Ruiz is representative of a class of highly vulnerable undocumented minors living under a presidential administration that is pushing people like him out. Even more remarkable is the person who helped get Ruiz to this point ― his lawyer, who also happens to be New York state’s first openly undocumented attorney.

It’s the type of legal win that motivated Vargas to work in immigration law. It’s also one that is bittersweet. It means that Vargas’ immigration status, as a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, could now be in more danger than that of his client. DACA, as it is known, is an Obama-era initiative that protects immigrants who came to the country as children from deportation, but its fate under President Trump remains ambiguous.

“As an attorney it’s just incredible to make sure that I can successfully win a case on behalf of my client based on the circumstances,” said Vargas, 33. “The other emotion is a mixed emotion. My client is probably going to have a much more permanent immigration status than his attorney.”

Ruiz’s story of getting to America was a familiar one for Vargas, who crossed the border from Mexico as a 5-year-old. Vargas was admitted to the bar association in February 2016, after passing the bar exam in 2011. He fought a years-long battle to receive this recognition as a person without legal status.

Vargas’ advocacy may have made all the difference for Ruiz, especially in the current political climate. Vargas connected with the teen as a pro bono volunteer with Safe Passage Project, a nonprofit that provides free legal representation and assistance to unaccompanied minors.

Undocumented people are significantly less likely to face deportation when they receive legal representation in immigration court. While immigrants are under nearly constant attack from President Donald Trump and government officers are increasingly hostile to their plight, happy endings like Ruiz’s are rare.

Safe Passage attorneys are working with about 700 children in the New York City area. It’s only a small slice of the children who need legal help, said Gui Stampur, deputy executive director and co-founder of the group.

In Vargas, Ruiz was able to find an advocate and a friend, too.

This month, on a sunny day at Safe Passage’s downtown office, Ruiz eagerly told Vargas about his adventures in teenage romance. He squirmed with youthful energy while explaining that he likes “everything” about his new life ― from his summer school classes to his new wardrobe. Back in Honduras, his cousins used to wear his shirts and underwear, he said. It wasn’t unusual for him to go without undergarments.

With Vargas translating, Ruiz said he loves living in New York, readily grinning when he correctly guessed a word in English and bragging about having received a new work authorization card. His mood shifted when he briefly touched on the intense physical and emotional abuse he endured in his home country.

My client is probably going to have a much more permanent immigration status than his attorney. –Cesar Vargas

Ruiz is a member of the Garifuna ethnic group, an Afro-indigenous people who are often subjected to intense discrimination, including from the police. This lack of protection allowed Ruiz’s abuse to go unchecked.

Vargas learns more details about this abuse nearly every time they talk. On the day of Ruiz’s last hearing in June, Vargas watched as his sweet, buoyant teenager client broke down when he was asked to go into details about the violence.

“That day, to see him completely shut down and relive those moments was very difficult,” said Vargas.

It made his client’s victory more sweet.

“It’s not just like a [legal] settlement, like here’s a million dollars. It’s like, here’s your life,” said Vargas.

It’s been a busy year for Vargas since he gained admission to the bar. He traveled around the country as Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign adviser on immigration policy and Latino issues. He started working to represent undocumented service people and their spouses. Now he’s also working to organize residents in Staten Island to push for immigration reform.

Ruiz describes Vargas and his work as inspiring.

“He does beautiful work. He’s always there for me, every day,” said Ruiz.

Safe Passage Project Featured in LinkedIn Article

The Founder and CEO of BorderGab, Maneesha Mukhi spoke highly of Safe Passage Project’s work in her article “No Child Should Face Immigration Court Alone.” This short Linkedin pierce describes the value of Safe Passage Project in aiding the influx of undocumented children. Mukhi notes,”The current climate has led to large groups of people mobilizing to defend our rights and that mobilization is both heartening and effective. With the judicial system at our disposal and the willingness of the people to work together, there is hope. Bureau Chief of the Civil Rights Bureau, Lourdes Rosado, said: “Now… is THE time for lawyers for social justice.”

Safe Passage Project featured in Medium

Felicity Conrad, Co-Founder of Paladin, recently published an article in Medium that featured Safe Passage Project. In this article, Conrad expresses the value of Safe Passage Project’s efforts in providing representation for undocumented children.

Click here to read the full article. 


NYC Mayor’s Office Honors Safe Passage

Last week, the New York City Mayor’s office  recognized and celebrated Safe Passage Board Members, Careen Shannon, Susan Henner, and Lenni Benson, as well as Safe Passage Pro Bono Attorneys, John Ryan, Joe Francoeur, and Steve Kent, for their commitment to service through the NYC Mayoral Service Recognition Program. Careen, Lenni, John, Joe, Steve, and Susan have contributed over 5,000 hours of pro bono time to Safe Passage in the last year and Safe Passage is so grateful. Lenni Benson, Rich Leimsider, James Stejger, and Gui Stampur attended the awards ceremony at 1 Municipal Plaza, where First Lady Chirlane McCray addressed the award winners.
According to award winner and Pro Bono attorney, John Ryan, “I am very honored to have been recognized by the Mayor’s office for my pro bono work with the immigrant community in New York. I know that I have been blessed in so many ways through my involvement with Safe Passage in its mission to provide legal services to undocumented children as they navigate the very complicated immigration system in this country. My clients have inspired me and so has Safe Passage. The children I have represented, and those I now represent have risked everything for the hope of forging a new and meaningful life in this country. Their stories replicate those I read about in text books describing those who came to America with the hope of forging a new life and helped build a stronger nation.”
Safe Passage salutes Careen, Lenni, John, Joe, Steve, and Susan for all they have done for Safe Passage and our clients.
Read the NYC Mayor’s Office Press Release here:

Safe Passage calls on DHS and ICE to Ensure Protections for Immigrant Survivors of Violence

Safe Passage Project has joined over 560 organizations to call on DHS and ICE to ensure that immigrant survivors of violence can access safety and protections.

The letter may be read in its entirety HERE.

Lenni Benson on WNYC

What it Means That Trump Wants to Limit ‘Unaccompanied’ Status for Minors Crossing the Borders

by Sarah Gonzalez, reporter for WNYC

Lenni Benson, Founder of Safe Passage Project 

Sarah Gonzalez discusses the potential consequences of President Donald Trump looking to limit ‘unaccompanied’ status for immigrant children. Tune in here to listen to Sarah Gonzalez interviewing Lenni Benson, founder of Safe Passage Project, and to read the full article.

Rex Chen, Safe Passage Mentor Attorney, Comments on New Deportation Policy

Please see below for an English translation of the article. 

La nueva política de deportaciones será difícil de batallar en los tribunales

Las nuevas directrices migratorias en Estados Unidos convierten a todo inmigrante ilegal en objeto de expulsión. Los expertos prevén un aluvión de detenciones.

AMANDA MARS, Nueva York 22 FEB 2017 – 22:04 CET


Habrá juicios, detenciones, manifestaciones. También conflictos entre el Gobierno federal y esas llamadas “ciudades santuario” -Nueva York, Los Ángeles o Chicago- que hacen la vista gorda con los inmigrantes sin papeles. Pero el corazón de las nuevas directrices de la Administración de Trump sobre las deportaciones será difícil de batallar en los tribunales, al menos, por el momento: la política de prioridad en la expulsión es una potestad presidencial y, además, los documentos publicados este miércoles no especifican los procedimientos de la puesta en marcha.

“Muchas partes del memorando que hemos conocido hoy hablan de que se tiene que crear un comité para ver cómo implementan las medidas, con lo cual es muy difícil llevarlo ante un juez, porque aún no se ha puesto en marcha. Lo que pasó con el decreto del 27 de enero [el que vetaba temporalmente la entrada a los llegados de siete países de mayoría musulmana] es que el Gobierno lo puso en marcha inmediatamente y se pudo parar. Ahora hay que ver cómo todo eso entra en vigor”, explica Rex Chen, miembro de Safe Passage Project, una asociación de abogados sin ánimo de lucro de Nueva York que ayuda a los miles de menores de edad que entran cada año solos y de forma irregular.

Las directrices conocidas este viernes mantienen la protección a los llamados dreamers, jóvenes que llegaron como niños a Estados Unidos y que han crecido en el país sin papeles. Pero Chen advierte de que “esto solo significa que aún no hay una decisión tomada al respecto, Trump dijo que era un asunto muy complejo y necesitaba tiempo, pero no se sabe aún qué hará”.

Faye Hipsman, del Instituto de Política Migratoria, una organización independiente para estudio de los movimientos migratorios, recalca que detener, en bloque, las nuevas directrices “es muy difícil, aunque probablemente veremos muchos litigios, porque el presidente es el que tiene la autoridad a la hora de fijar las prioridades en las deportaciones”. Hipsman coincide con Chen en que la situación de los dreamers, los que un día fueron niños migrantes, no está clara todavía.

El principal cambio de la guía de actuación de Trump es que es esfuerzo en la detención y expulsión de los inmigrantes sin papeles -se calcula que hay unos 11 millones en Estados Unidos- ya no son aquellos con delitos a la espalda, sino que “todo el mundo en situación irregular puede ser expulsado”.

Para aquellos en situación irregular que lleven menos de dos años en el país, además, se ha abierto la puerta a las expulsiones inmediatas, sin pasar por el tribunal. El problema de un extranjero sin papeles que sea detenido será poder demostrar que lleva más tiempo en Estados Unidos y para eso es necesario tener localizados rápidamente documentos que lo justifiquen. “No creo que tengan que llevar las pruebas encima todo el tiempo, pero sí es importante que sus familiares o amigos sepan muy bien dónde están y puedan entregarlos enseguida”, apunta Chen.

Llevar a cabo las deportaciones será costoso, de momento, el departamento de Seguridad Interior ha anunciado que contratará 15.000 nuevos agentes. William A. Stock, de la Asociación Americana de Abogados de Inmigración, advierte de que “el incremento masivo en detenciones requerirá miles de millones en fondos que el Congreso tendrá que imponer a los contribuyentes”, y la falta de recursos para contratar a los jueces de inmigración y los agentes de asilo “significa que el sistema se volverá más lento y disfuncional”.

Algunas organizaciones sostienen que el giro en la política de deportaciones ya se empezó a ver en las últimas semanas. Hace dos, de hecho, una operación de cinco días por parte de la agencia encargada de aplicar las leyes migratorias se saldó con centenares de detenidos en al menos seis Estados de todo el país.


The new deportation policy will be difficult to deal with in court.

The new immigration guidelines in the United States make any illegal immigrant subject to expulsion. Experts predict a barrage of arrests.

AMANDA MARS, New York FEB 22 2017 – 22:04 CET


There will be trials, detentions, demonstrations. Also conflicts between the federal government and those so-called “sanctuary cities” – New York, Los Angeles or Chicago – that turn a blind eye to undocumented immigrants. But the heart of the Trump administration’s new guidelines on deportations will be difficult to battle in court, at least for the time being: the priority policy on expulsion is a presidential power, and in addition, the documents released this Wednesday do not specify start-up procedures.

“Many parts of the memorandum that we have known today speak of a committee having to be set up to see how they implement the measures, making it very difficult to bring before a judge because it has not yet been set in motion. Decree of January 27 [the one that temporarily vetoed the arrival of the newcomers of seven countries of Muslim majority] is that the Government started it immediately and it was able to stop. Now it is necessary to see how all this enters into force,” explains Rex Chen, a member of the Safe Passage Project, a New York nonprofit law association that helps the thousands of children entering every year on their own and in an irregular manner.

The guidelines known this Friday maintain the protection of so-called dreamers, young people who arrived as children to the United States and who have grown up in the country without papers. But Chen warns that “this just means that there is still no decision made, Trump said it was a very complex matter and needed time, but it is not yet known what he will do.”

Faye Hipsman of the Institute of Migration Policy, an independent organization for the study of migratory movements, stresses that blocking the new guidelines “is very difficult, although we will probably see a lot of litigation, because the president is the one that has the authority to set the priorities in the deportations.” Hipsman agrees with Chen that the situation of dreamers, who once were migrant children, is not clear yet.

The main change in Trump’s action guide is that it is an effort to arrest and expel undocumented migrants – an estimated 11 million in the United States – are no longer those with crimes on their backs, rather “everyone in an irregular situation can be expelled.”

For those in irregular situations that have been in the country less than two years, in addition, the door has been opened to immediate expulsions, without going through the court. The problem of an undocumented foreigner being detained will be to prove that he has been in the United States for the longest time, and for that it is necessary to quickly locate documents that justify it. “I do not think they have to take the evidence on them all the time, but it’s important that family members or friends know where they are and can deliver them right away,” Chen notes.

Carrying out the deportations will be costly, so far the Department of Homeland Security has announced that it will hire 15,000 new agents. William A. Stock of the American Immigration Lawyers Association warns that “the massive increase in detentions will require billions in funds that Congress will have to impose on taxpayers,” and the lack of resources to hire immigration judges and asylum agents “means that the system will become slower and more dysfunctional.”

Some organizations argue that the shift in deportation policy has already begun to emerge in recent weeks. Two days ago, in fact, a five-day operation by the immigration enforcement agency resulted in hundreds of detainees in at least six states across the country.


Lenni Benson, Safe Passage Founder, Quoted in The New Yorker and City Limits

Safe Passage staff and affiliates have been incredibly busy providing educational and legal clarity to immigrant communities as new announcements continue to spark fear and uncertainty throughout the city.

Among those hard at work is Professor Lenni Benson, founder, who attended a February meeting of the Brooklyn community group Darfur People’s Association. Afterwards, Benson stayed to assist Sudanese attendees in better understanding their own unique immigration situations.

Her time speaking with attendees is quoted in the article Sudanese Refugees After the Ban from the 3/6/17 edition of The New Yorker and may be read in its entirety HERE.

Benson is also quoted a recent article in City Limits, where she discusses the relationship between New York City’s record of protecting immigrant data and the Trump administration’s insistence that it will sanction municipalities who refuse to cooperate with immigration officials.

“The importance of the details matter,” Benson says. “Until the federal government articulates rules and programs and specifics, I don’t think people should stay away from safe housing because they are afraid the city would have to turn over their records.”

The 2/24/17 article, Shelter System and Other NYC Services Should Be Safe For Migrants, Experts Say may be read on the City Limits website HERE.

Safe Passage Project Press Release in Response to Immigration Policy Memos



New York, NY – February 21, 2017 – Safe Passage Project is concerned that two policy memoranda dated February 20, 2017 and signed by John Kelly, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), will put unaccompanied children from Central America and other countries at risk of serious harm and will prevent children from obtaining immigration relief they qualify for.

The memoranda would, for certain children, eliminate protections under the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, and would subject children to the horrors of expedited removal. The memorandum entitled “Implementing the President’s Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements Policies” (the “border security memo”) suggests that the government may seek to remove the designation “unaccompanied alien child” from children who have parents or legal guardians in the United States, even if they are in fact unaccompanied at the time they cross the border and face DHS officials.

Imagine an 8-year-old who crosses our borders seeking protection. Unless she is able to convince a Department of Homeland Security officer that she has a fear of returning to her home country or intends to apply for asylum, she will be removed from the U.S. on an expedited basis. She will not have the opportunity to talk to a lawyer or see a judge; she will simply be sent back. This is an unjust process that should never be employed against a vulnerable child, and yet the memoranda propose doing just that.

The border security memo also provides that DHS may direct enforcement resources toward the parents of children who made the dangerous journey to the United States to flee violence and persecution in their countries of origin. Specifically, the memo seeks to initiate removal or even criminal proceedings against parents that have directly or indirectly assisted their children to enter the U.S.

While these provisions purport to “protect alien children from exploitation and prevent abuses of our immigration laws,” we are concerned that these policy changes will have the detrimental effect of discouraging parents from claiming their children who arrive at our borders seeking protection from violence and other abuses. It may discourage the reunification of a child with a parent or legal guardian in the United States who is available to provide adequate care. By keeping parents away from children, these policies may deprive children of caretakers who would be best positioned to care for and assist them in the preparation of their legal claims. It may also result in an increased number of unaccompanied children who are forced to remain in detention indefinitely.

Implementation of the two new policy memoranda needlessly puts vulnerable unaccompanied children and their families at risk. Parts of the memoranda purport to be aimed at the elimination of child trafficking, but in fact, the result will be increased fear and child exploitation.


Safe Passage Project Dives into an Unprecedented Immigration Law Challenge

We are very proud and inspired by our colleagues Alex Rizio, Claire Thomas and Founder Lenni Benson for the roles they have played in response to the recent executive orders on immigration and refugees.

The following post appeared originally on New York Law School’s website. Click HERE to read it there. Since this posting, a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) has been issued against key components of the executive order and is currently making its way through the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Claire Officers

Claire R. Thomas speaking with officers at JFK January 28th.


It was late Friday, January 27 when their phones lit up with emails and calls. As New York Law School’s nationally recognized immigration law Professor Lenni Benson and Adjunct Professor Claire R. Thomas ’11, who lead the School’s immigration law courses, sifted through urgent notifications, they learned that dozens—possibly hundreds—of international travelers were in detention and facing deportation at JFK International Airport and other airports throughout the country. News of President Donald Trump’s Executive Order halting immigration from seven countries—Libya, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, Iran, Iraq, and Somalia—was rapidly spreading through New York City’s network of immigration lawyers.

Across campus, Professor Deborah N. Archer, who co-directs the School’s Impact Center for Public Interest Law, teaches its Civil Rights Clinic, and leads its Racial Justice Project, began hearing from students who were eager to help. There was barely any time to plan as the names of affected families began to trickle into Professor Archer’s Facebook and email inboxes.

NYLS has long been active in legal advocacy and representation involving the nation’s most pressing immigration law issues, which often affect New York City. This time was no different, except for the glare of international media.

By Saturday, the situation intensified. Travelers from the seven countries whose flights had been in transit when the Executive Order was signed continued to arrive at JFK Airport. Thomas threw her phone charger and a hard copy of the Immigration and Nationality Act into her bag and hopped onto the A train, bound for the airport. The Air Train was eerily devoid of travelers with luggage; instead, Thomas found herself surrounded by sign-carrying protesters. She kept Professor Benson on speed-dial.

Soon after she entered JFK Airport’s Terminal One, Thomas began fielding questions from Yemeni and Iranian families anxiously awaiting news about relatives detained after landing. She connected with representatives from the New York City Mayor’s Office for Immigrant Affairs and shared immigration law knowledge with volunteer attorneys drafting habeas petitions on behalf of those detained. Soon after, Professor Vicki Eastus and Justin Meeks 4L Evening, who are also part of the Impact Center, arrived and set to work answering family members’ questions and connecting them with attorneys. Professor Benson fielded calls all day and throughout the following night, sleeping with her cell phone under her pillow.

Meanwhile, from points throughout the city, Professor Archer and her students were relaying the names and contact information of affected families to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which is representing many of the detainees. The group was also working closely with detainees’ relatives, including a man whose wife was refused entry to the U.S. and sent back to Qatar, where she had been visiting family. Throughout, Professor Archer and her students kept in close touch with Thomas and others at JFK Airport, performing research and rapidly proofing habeas petitions remotely.

That night, when a federal judge from the Eastern District of New York issued an order halting some portions of the Executive Order, the NYLS team scanned the first copy they could get—a photograph of the decision posted to Twitter.

Six habeas petitions and countless legal questions later, Thomas left the airport. It was around 2 a.m. on Sunday. Shortly after, she learned that one of the detainees she’d worked with, a green card holder from Iran, had finally been released. After a brief respite, the NYLS team was back at work drafting petitions and making referrals. The pace of work is unlikely to slow: news reports reveal that more than 100,000 visas have been revoked since the Executive Order was issued. ~

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