Our Voices

From Rapid Defense Network to RFKHR: Sarah Gillman’s Fight for Justice

On the evening of September 25, 2019, Sarah Gillman stood on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, New York. She had been calling the United States District Court all evening to try to present an emergency request for a stay of deportation to a judge on an emergency basis. Gillman finally was able to speak with Court staff who advised that a judge would be notified about the request. Amid the din of traffic, blaring police sirens, and commuters, Gillman was on the phone waiting to connect to a judge to request a stay of deportation for a group of clients who were facing imminent deportation. Unknown to her, she was about to reach Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, who would later become the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court. When Justice Jackson spoke on the other side of the line, Gillman apologized for the noise on the street and explained that she was not in her office. Justice Jackson assured Gillman that it was not a problem and to proceed. Gillman did so amidst the background noise. She presented the case and Justice Jackson granted a short administrative stay that prevented her clients’ deportation that evening and allowed the case to go forward. “I’ll never forget that night,” Gillman said in a recent interview.

That encounter with Justice Jackson encapsulates 16 years of Gillman’s work as a lawyer focused on the practical realities of the law beyond its intellectual appeal. “That’s what’s really inspired me to do the work,” she said. “I know that there’s such a non-level playing field for so many people. And so, my efforts, I hope, in some small way will contribute to trying to make the playing field a little bit more level.”

Gillman’s background is characterized by resilience and courage. Her paternal grandfather and his family fled Lithuania due to persecution against Jews, while her maternal grandfather and his siblings were forcibly removed from Armenia during the Armenian genocide and lost their parents, who were killed. Against the odds, both families made their way to the United States. These experiences influenced Gillman’s decision to become a lawyer, and she ultimately earned a Juris Doctor degree from the City University of New York School of Law in 2000. “I feel very fortunate that I’m able to do the work that I do, and it is all driven by my family’s experience,” she said.

A recent highlight of her work is the case of Gambian immigrant Baba Sillah which was featured in ‘Guerrilla Habeas’ an MSNBC documentary that showcased the intricacies of the U.S. immigration system.

Before joining Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, Gillman established Rapid Defense Network, which focused on emergency response efforts for detained immigrants during the Trump administration. “After (dealing with) the Trump administration, the work became different in that we were able to focus more on systemic issues impacting people who were in immigration detention or people who have been deported from the United States,” she said. Gillman emphasized the importance of creating a network of partners as part of the Rapid Defense Network, viewing it as a collaborative endeavor. “And I think the strongest response against unlawful conduct by the government in the area of immigration is a collective response with partners who are similarly situated in terms of their thoughts and ideas and positions on how we push back against what we say is unlawful treatment.”

In her new role as Director of Strategic U.S. Litigation at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, Gillman is integrating her work with Rapid Defense Network into RFKHR’s existing networks and interventions. “I didn’t feel so devoted to the idea of having my own organization because I thought if I could find a partner that would really benefit the work and the clients that we had, and I hope to have in the future,” she said.

At RFKHR, her work encompasses litigating cases, legal writing, expanding and strengthening existing partnerships, and building new ones. Gillman finds the historical significance of Robert F. Kennedy and the organization’s strong presence in the international advocacy space exciting. “I was not alive when Robert F. Kennedy was alive and doing the work he was doing, but I really think that his power was in giving voice to the voiceless, and also, challenging the established quo,” Gillman said. “And I think it’s really exciting to have that historical background to move in.”