In the past two years, over a thousand attorneys changed their registration status to “emeritus” and have joined the Attorney Emeritus Program. The growth of the AEP is encouraging, especially considering the large number of civil legal pro bono hours AEP volunteers can contribute to the community. Since the AEP accepts only senior attorneys with over ten years of experience, clients are able to receive assistance from proficient attorneys devoted to New Yorkers in need. AEP volunteers not only serve clients with low incomes who might otherwise not have had access to legal assistance but also mentor and train the next generation of attorneys in the different AEP host organizations.
As an AEP volunteer, Yolanda Villa is making a difference by assisting vulnerable clients. Villa has greatly surpassed the AEP requirement of 60 pro bono hours, contributing hundreds of pro bono hours to the community in the past year alone. She shared with us some reflections about her incredible commitment.
Tell us, why did you decide to join AEP?
I retired from The Worker Justice Center of New York on April 1, 2015, and at that point had already decided to continue working with my ten clients and their families whose immigration matters were still ongoing, and as a member of our project’s trafficking team, mentoring the two attorneys who would be taking on new U and T visa cases going forward. (U and T visas provide immigration relief to victims of human trafficking and other crimes.) It just made sense to formalize it, and I had previously been made aware of the AEP program, so in January 2016 I finally got around to actually joining the AEP.
Please describe the project you are working on.
WJCNY has been doing a wide range of anti-human trafficking work for many years and helped form the Western New York Human Trafficking Task Force in 2005. The organization has been able to provide representation on T and U visas for victims of trafficking and other crimes starting in 2011. In 2012, a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice for Specialized Legal Services for Victims of Human Trafficking enabled our anti-trafficking work to expand. Now, the project also investigates suspected cases and represents foreign-born victims, as well as providing other legal services as needed. The project is also continuing to develop regional task forces across the state as well as conducting outreach and education on human trafficking.
What has been the most rewarding experience?
The most rewarding experience has been being able to make a substantial contribution toward a real and positive change in the lives of families. For example, six of my clients were all lawfully here in the United States on contracted-for-work visas, yet they were virtually enslaved and forced to work long hours for little to no wages, while living in abominable and crowded housing; they nearly starved. Their wives and children suffered as well because the wages my clients had planned to send home for their support went unpaid. With certification from the U.S. Department of Labor as to their involuntary servitude, I was able to help each family obtain U visas and follow their progress as they returned to the United States. They have now been able to obtain decent employment and make new lives for themselves. Another outstanding example was being able to finally reunite a mother, who had been trafficked into the U.S., with her six-year-old son, who had been held for years by the trafficker’s family abroad as one of the primary means of coercion. Now mother and child are together again because, in collaboration with an organization providing family court legal services in my client’s home country, we were able to obtain custody of her child and then bring the child here as a derivative of his mother’s T visa.
What drove you to dedicate so many hours as an AEP volunteer?
Immigration cases span many years, with U visas for crime victims, for example, taking as much as three to four years for approval now, even though T visas for trafficking victims may get approved much more quickly, in about six months to a year. But even after approval come issues such as family reunification and consular processing for clients or family members who were waiting abroad during the approval process, the ongoing need for advice and counsel during resettlement and on other various issues related to being immigrants in the United States, and then eventually adjustment of status to permanent residency. This requires completion of three years of continuous residence in the U.S. after approval in most cases. I simply did not want to abandon clients and their families whose cases were still ongoing in various stages of the process when I retired. Doing this kind of work, involving the need to marshal detailed facts and in-depth client histories, fosters such a close relationship between client and attorney that I just couldn’t leave my clients to another attorney. Further, I am so aligned with WJCNY’s mission and work that it is part of who I am.
Would you recommend the program to other attorneys?
Lewis Papenfuse, the executive director of Worker Justice Center of New York, tells us about the organization and Villa’s contribution. Papenfuse described the host organization as follows:
The Worker Justice Center of New York is the merger of Farmworker Legal Service of NY and the Workers’ Rights Law Center. Our merger builds on decades of achievement in providing direct legal services to low-wage workers, empowering communities, and advocating for institutional change. FLSNY was created by the New York State Bar in the late 1970s to address the unmet need of legal representation for migrant and seasonal farm workers. Yolanda Villa first served on our board of directors for over 20 years until she retired from her day job as a Monroe County public defender. She then came to work with us in 2007 as a member of our Domestic Violence/Sexual Assault Program and segued into representing victims of human trafficking to achieve immigration relief. Upon retirement in 2015, Yolanda remained with the organization as an emeritus attorney providing not only mentorship to our newer attorneys but also maintaining a full caseload. Yolanda has been an amazing advocate and an incredible supporter of our organization. It has been an honor to know her and to work with her.
We thank Yolanda Villa and The Worker Justice Center of New York for their service to the community!