Queens Criminal Court Judge Toko Serita speaks at a press conference Thursday to introduce the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Pro Bono Project.
Queens Criminal Court Judge Toko Serita speaks at a press conference Thursday to introduce the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Pro Bono Project. (NYLJ/Tania Karas)

Some of the defendants who appear before Queens Criminal Court Judge Toko Serita (See Profile) in her weekly human trafficking intervention court are as young as 13 years old. Many have previous prostitution convictions.

But their situations are made all the worse by the fact that most are foreign-born, often living and working in the United States illegally. Typically, the women have legal representation in their criminal cases. But they usually aren’t represented on any potential immigration issues—which, if left unresolved, may leave them with nowhere to turn but to their traffickers.

Now, however, a new project is recruiting volunteer attorneys to help trafficking victims obtain legal immigration status. Approximately 90 attorneys have been trained so far for the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Pro Bono Project.

“[The victims'] vulnerability is a generally recognized concern among everyone dealing with these women,” Serita said Thursday after a press conference to introduce the program. “Many foreign-born defendants might be undocumented or under debt-bondage to smugglers.”

Forty-seven percent of Queens’ population is foreign-born, according to city statistics. And since immigrant communities are at higher risk for trafficking, Queens is home to a disproportionate chunk of the city’s sex trade, according to city officials at the press conference.

Pro bono attorneys can help defendants with federal immigration remedies such as applications for T-Visas, which offer protection to human trafficking victims. Under a 2010 state law, attorneys can also help trafficking victims vacate convictions resulting from their exploitation.

“We want to do more than just say ‘We’re going to free you from your trafficker.’ We want to make sure they won’t be re-trafficked,” said Jennifer Kroman, director of pro bono practice at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton who volunteered at the Queens court earlier this month.

In addition to consultations, Cleary has agreed to take on one client for direct representation.

Other participating firms are Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld; Davis Polk & Wardwell; Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher; Kirkland & Ellis; Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom; and Simpson Thacher & Bartlett. The firms are taking turns sending about six attorneys each to the Friday intervention part in Queens.

The pro bono lawyers are trained in cultural sensitivity and immigration law. Consultations are voluntary for the defendants. Since many do not speak English, foreign language translators are available if needed.

“The result will be to enhance our efforts and to assist trafficking victims … to make it easier for them to obtain the legal advice and the services that they need to move on with their lives,” Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said at Thursday’s press conference.

Over the past three Fridays, volunteer lawyers have advised 12 women. Several more have scheduled future consultations.

Partners in the Queens pro bono project are the New York City Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence and legal services nonprofit Sanctuary for Families, which helps human trafficking and domestic violence victims and their children.

In September, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman announced eight new human trafficking intervention special court parts statewide, adding to pilot programs in Queens, Nassau County and Manhattan’s Midtown Community Court. The courts help identify trafficking victims and refer them to services such as housing, drug treatment, healthcare and job training. Individuals who complete a six-session intervention program can potentially get their charges reduced or dismissed.

The Queens court was the first in the state, started a decade ago by Serita’s predecessor, Acting Justice Fernando Camacho, who is now based in Suffolk County. It handles prostitution and related offenses, such as solicitation, loitering and unlicensed massage.

There’s a “huge amount of misinformation” within immigrant communities about sex trafficking, said Lori Cohen, a Sanctuary for Families staff attorney and director of its anti-trafficking initiative.

“Often they don’t know they’re crime victims,” Cohen said. “They don’t know what trafficking is and that this is a crime and that they’re eligible for legal representation.”

When the immigrant women appear in court on prostitution charges, their attorneys are sometimes paid for by their traffickers, Cohen said, which affects their legal outcomes. The pro bono project affords them the chance to speak confidentially with a pro bono lawyer unconnected to their pimps and johns.