January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, a time to raise awareness and help prevent human trafficking in our communities. Throughout the month, we can expect the government to highlight its accomplishments and efforts in assisting survivors and combating human trafficking.
Many of these efforts and policies, however, are completely undermined by an even more significant threat to trafficking survivors than the traffickers themselves: this administration’s war on immigrants.
Immigrants are particularly vulnerable to traffickers because of their lack of status, inability to speak English, unfamiliarity with our legal system, lower levels of education, and lack of access to employment.
At Safe Horizon’s Immigration Law Project, we help immigrant victims of violence, abuse, trafficking, and torture. Over the last couple of years, we have witnessed this administration’s relentless attempts to dismantle our country’s immigration system.
Many of these policies have a direct impact on human trafficking. The consequence is the exacerbation of a problem this government claims it wants to address.
Fewer T Visas
Recent policy changes have made T visas; the visa created for trafficking survivors, a risky venture. For one, the Notice to Appear (NTA) Policy, which provides that applicants may be placed in removal proceedings if USCIS denies their applications for benefits.
This dramatically raises the risks for trafficking survivors applying for the T visa. One of the requirements to apply for a T visa is reporting to law enforcement.
If a law enforcement agency decides to prosecute the trafficker, very often, the survivor must testify or serve as a witness in the prosecution, which places the survivor at great risk of harm from retaliation by the trafficker if the survivor is not protected.
Not having the safety net of a T visa and facing possible removal to a country where a trafficker can harm the survivor, and potentially the survivor’s family has a huge chilling effect on the willingness of survivors to come forward.
This can account for the low number of prosecutions by the Department of Justice in 2019. Not being able to bring traffickers to justice completely undermines Congressional intent and one of the primary purposes underpinning the statute that created the T visa. If traffickers are not held accountable, they can continue to exploit more victims.
USCIS also began issuing more frequent and onerous Requests for Evidence (RFEs). RFEs were typically issued when there is missing information or if a possible issue is discovered and more information is needed. We are now seeing more RFEs that seem to raise the bar for a T visa. When a survivor is unable to satisfy an RFE, her application will be denied, putting her at risk of removal under the NTA policy — a further disincentive to come forward.
Increased RFEs, plus other bureaucratic hurdles, have contributed to a crisis-level backlog at USCIS such that a T visa application now takes 19.5 to 26.5 months to decide, compared to about 12 months under previous administrations.
Fewer T visas are also being granted: the fiscal year 2019 marked a record low for T visa approvals.
2017 saw the start of a disturbing new trend — a spike in arrests of folks in and around courthouses, including the Human Trafficking Intervention Court.
The presence of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers in and around courthouses have had a chilling effect on the willingness of noncitizens to come forward to exercise their rights and seek justice. As with our client, Carrie*, a trafficking survivor who was evicted by her trafficker.
The trafficker’s attorney told Carrie that if she continued to come to court to fight her eviction case, that ICE would be there to deport her. The threat worked — fearing arrest and possible removal back to her country. Carrie stopped fighting back and agreed to an eviction order forcing her to become homeless until she could find new housing.
Policies that create barriers for immigrant survivors to come forward, report crimes, cooperate with law enforcement and apply for protection in the United States, push survivors further into the shadows, making them more vulnerable to being trafficked or re-trafficked, harmed or even killed.
It’s time for this government to recognize the harmful effects its anti-immigrant policies are having on trafficking survivors.
It’s time to roll back the harmful policies that make it almost impossible for survivors to seek protection under our country’s immigration laws. And beginning this January, this administration should finally make its immigration policies support its anti-trafficking rhetoric.
*Name changed to protect the identity