Victims Suffer as T-Visa Denials Skyrocket

*The survivor story highlighted in this blog is based on actual survivor experiences, but is not an actual account.

Carla was trafficked by someone she believed to be her fiancé. He convinced her to leave Mexico and start a new life together in the US. Once they arrived, he told her he didn’t have the money to support them, and she would have to make money for them. He convinced her to sell sex “for a little while” until he could find a job to support them. She reluctantly agreed. She didn’t know anyone else in the US, was too embarrassed to ask for help from her family back home, and didn’t want to lose the only relationship she had.  The situation worsened. When Carla refused to “work” she was beaten.

Finally, she was arrested by a law enforcement officer who was trained in recognizing the indicators of Human Trafficking. Although she was distrustful and afraid, she told the officer her situation. He promised that he would help. He introduced her to a human trafficking advocate who assured her that if she cooperated with law enforcement, she would receive services. She shared information with law enforcement about her trafficker and his colleagues, who had employed the same strategy to entice women to exploit. She gave names and locations, which put her in danger from the traffickers.

Meanwhile, her immigration attorney (with a free legal service agency) applied for a T visa for Carla.

What is a T-Visa?

Created by Congress in 2000, the T-visa status was born from the Trafficking Victims Protection Act to offer protection to victims and increase law enforcement investigation and prosecution of human trafficking.

The T-visa is a temporary immigration benefit that enables victims of human trafficking to stay in the United States.  It allows victims to be eligible for legal employment in the United States and receive certain state and federal benefits.

 To qualify for a T-visa, there are four criteria: 1. a person is a victim of a severe form of human trafficking; 2. they are in the U.S. due to trafficking; 3. they comply with reasonable requests from law enforcement to aid in the trafficking investigation; and 4. They demonstrate they would suffer severe hardship and harm if they were removed from the U.S.

The purpose of the T-visa is two-fold. It aids law enforcement in putting together sound cases against traffickers. Law enforcement needs the victim to be in a stable environment (able to work and acquire housing) to bring charges and ultimately a conviction against a trafficker. The second reason is humanitarian. The United States has not historically returned a crime victim to a country where they would “suffer extreme hardship involving unusual and severe harm”.

Back to Carla: Her attorney tells her that as of the end of 2019, there were 2,358 applications pending. Since only 865 applications were processed in 2019, it could easily be three years before she receives an answer. And the odds aren’t great- 42% of the applications are denied. During that time, she is subject to deportation and can’t work legally, making starting a new life difficult.

If the application is denied, ICE will deport her.  (On June 28, 2018, USCIS announced that the denial of a petition for a T-visa would trigger removal proceedings. )

Carla decides the slim chance of receiving a visa 3 years from now isn’t worth the risk of re-exploitation and/or arrest and deportation. She decides to return to her family in Mexico.

So, not only is the victim not receiving services to which they are entitled, they are being penalized with deportation.

This means she won’t receive counseling and services that she needs to recover from her trauma, and that law enforcement has no victim to help them build a case. Very likely, no charges will be filed against the trafficker.

The Numbers Are Bleak

There were only 500 approvals in 2019, which is the lowest amount of approvals since 2010.

And while the amount of approvals reached a new low, the number of denials reached a new high- 365.

There are now 2,358 applications that are pending, which is also the highest number of pending applications in history.

These cold statistics represent real victims who are not getting the relief they are promised by the United States under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

Denials

If ICE is reporting the highest levels of denials of T-Visa applications ever to be recorded, it can only be surmised that the government is making it unnecessarily difficult for victims to get relief under the protections they have been granted. The TVPA requirements have NOT changed, yet the level of denials has changed. It’s difficult to believe that 42% of the applicants were denied for a legitimate reason.

The increase in denials is due in part to this administration’s reinterpretation of the requirement that the “person be in the US due to trafficking”. Now the administration requires that the person be a recent victim, as opposed to someone who recently had the courage to speak to law enforcement or recently had the definition of human trafficking explained to them, and realized they are a victim.

A survivor may be suffering from PTSD as a result of their victimization and receiving treatment in the U.S. for it. If so, they are still in the country “on account of” trafficking.

Trafficking victims are often required by the trafficker to conduct criminal activity. Prostitution is an obvious one, but they are also required to transport or sell drugs, shoplift, and steal from sex buyers, among many other crimes. Here in Pitt County, a trafficker required his victim to pass counterfeit money. (That turned out to be a blessing, because the victim was caught passing the counterfeit bills, and that is how she was rescued.)

Even when these charges are dismissed, the visa applications are sometimes still denied.

So, the very victimization that makes them need a T visa (forced criminal behavior)  also causes them to be denied one.

These denials are based on a harsh, unfair and unrealistic interpretation of the TVPA. It is robbing survivors of human trafficking the rights promised by the United States government.

Approvals

While denials have skyrocketed, approvals for T-visa applications have plummeted. Again, the TVPA requirements have NOT changed, yet the level of approvals has. It is incongruous.

Pending

Only 865 T-visa applications were processed in 2019, and at the end of that year, 2,358 applications were still pending.  At that rate, it will take 3 years for all of the current applications to be processed, and in the meantime, the applications continue to pile up. Obviously, more staff needs to be hired and trained to process the applications.

The ramifications of this backlog cause cascading damage to the lives of victims, to the anti-human trafficking movement and to the level of trust that victims and the American public have in the US government.

Harming Victims

A T-visa denial for a victim of human trafficking is catastrophic. Victims of human trafficking who are denied T-visas are more likely to be deported, since USCIS policy is that the denial of a petition for a T-visa triggers removal proceedings.

 That threat of deportation looms over them, and that fear is a powerful coercive mechanism for traffickers. Unjust denials result in re-exploitation. What irony- the system created to protect them actually offers ammunition to the trafficker.

If a victim of human trafficking cannot legally work because they are waiting for T-visa approval or have been unjustly denied, they are more vulnerable to being re-exploited and re-victimized. Their only avenue of income would be through illegitimate work in an underground cash economy, which is often exploitative.

Public Safety is On the Chopping Block

The T-Visa program is also designed to improve human trafficking investigations. The reality is that law enforcement needs the victim to be present and able to cooperate, in order to build a solid case against the trafficker. If the victim isn’t granted a T visa, they are extremely vulnerable to re-exploitation, they can’t get a “normal” job, and often have difficulty securing housing. If they are dealing with all of these issues, and not receiving any help from law enforcement or the US government to stabilize their lives, they will be unable to help with the case, and will have little motivation to do so.

If victims believe that cooperating with the investigation will result in harm, denials and delay, they are less likely to help law enforcement develop a case against a trafficker.

 If victims are less likely to help investigators, and solid cases cannot be developed to apprehend and jail traffickers, public safety is at risk.

Rhetoric vs. Actions

The current messaging from the Trump administration is that it is focused on human trafficking prevention and victim restoration. In practice, they are harming victims of human trafficking by undercutting programs for them.

As a result, innocent victims like Carla are revictimized by a law meant to protect them.

There is Something We All Can Do

As community members there is absolutely something we can do.

It is important that your elected officials know that you want victims of human trafficking to receive protections they are promised under federal law. Though legislators can’t directly change administration policy, they can strengthen the law and eliminate wiggle room resulting in better outcomes for immigrants who have been trafficked in the US.

Your voice can instigate change. Tell your representatives and senators that more staff is needed to process applications in a timely manner and that triggering deportation after a T-visa application denial is not sound policy for victim restoration or public safety. You may even mention that Human Trafficking policy in place for 20 years should not be changed because the current administration seeks to minimize immigration of any kind.

You can call or write your local media outlets. Let them know that this is an important issue, and should not be lost amid the constant and ever-changing news cycle. Talk to your friends, family and organizations about the failure of the administration to ensure victims of human trafficking are being protected.

You can also share it on your social media pages. Many people don’t realize this vitally important program is being undercut by the current administration’s reinterpretation of long-standing policy.

Human trafficking is one of the greatest injustices of our time, and each of us must do our part to end it.

This post was written by
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