Pro Bono Volunteers Needed: Help Human Trafficking Survivors

By Rebecca Melnitsky

May 31, 2024

Pro Bono Volunteers Needed: Help Human Trafficking Survivors


By Rebecca Melnitsky

Lawyers looking for pro bono work have many opportunities to help survivors of human trafficking. A Continuing Legal Education course presented by the New York State Bar Association detailed the immense need for volunteers to aid survivors with legal assistance on issues such as immigration, housing, credit, criminal proceedings and much more.

The speakers were:

  • Estelle C. Davis, assistant director at the New York State Bureau of Refugee Services.
  • Amy Marques, senior immigration attorney at My Sisters’​ Place.
  • Carmen Maquilon, director of immigrant and refugee services at Catholic Charities of Long Island.

Margaret J. Finerty, partner at Getnick & Getnick, moderated the discussion.

The Scope of Human Trafficking

Trafficking is the use of force, fraud or coercion to compel an individual to work or perform commercial sex acts. Contrary to popular belief, trafficking does not necessarily involve crossing borders or state lines.

As of 2021, approximately 27.6 million people worldwide were in forced labor, including labor trafficking, sex trafficking and forced marriage, according to the International Labor Organization.

“Those numbers also went up during the pandemic,” Davis said. “As there is global catastrophe, people at the margins are harmed more.”

Also in 2021, the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline identified 16,554 individuals who were trafficked – with nearly three-quarters of them trafficked for sex.

In New York State, 322 individuals were identified as being trafficked in 2023.

Davis said that this data comes with the caveat that “We only know cases that have been identified.” She continued, “We are increasing identification of labor trafficking. But there are a lot of individuals who may have experienced that who would meet the legal definition but are not necessarily identified.”

The most vulnerable people in society are, not surprisingly, the most vulnerable to being trafficked. “When somebody has been discriminated against, they are more likely to be vulnerable to the type of manipulation and exploitation we’re talking about,” said Davis.

For example, a boss may threaten an undocumented worker with deportation, or hold on to an immigrant’s passport so they cannot leave. A runaway youth may be told to have sex with a homeowner’s friend to stay in housing. A woman may be told she would be helped with a modeling career, only to be forced into prostitution.

Traffickers often try to isolate their victims, saying that no one will listen or believe them. “So that they don’t disclose what’s going on,” said Davis. “Because that disclosure is often what leads to them getting help.”

Davis added that it is important to counteract these messages of isolation with messages of support, treating individuals in need with respect and empathy, and empowering them to make their own choices.

How Attorneys Can Help

Agencies that help trafficking survivors need volunteers to assist with legal aid, especially visa applications. Organizations will give attorneys guidance and training as needed.

“Being able to liberate that person is such a great experience,” said Maquilon. “We will provide you the guidance, the training necessary to do the case… You will always have somebody that is able to guide you through the process.”

Attorneys interested in volunteering can email [email protected] with their name, contact information, resume, and any relevant experience. Or see available opportunities at this link:

Interested attorneys can also reach out to the following:

Catholic Charities of Long Island

My Sister’s Place (Westchester County) 

Safe Horizon Anti Trafficking Program (NYC)

  • Name: Amelia (Amy) Shogan, supervising attorney
  • Email[email protected]
  • Type of Pro Bono Opportunities: Applications for T nonimmigrant status; Applications for green cards for T nonimmigrants; Interpretation – especially Spanish to English and Bengali to English

The seminar was sponsored by the Committee on Immigration Representation and the Committee on Civil Rights. View the full program here.

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