sex trafficking in the united states, u.s. sex trafficking

US Immigration Offers New Support for “Sex Slaves”

December 10, 2008 12:57 PM
by Isabel Cowles
Federal immigration officials have approved proposals to grant victims of human trafficking an easier path to American citizenship.

Immigration Officials Help Sex Slaves Win Citizenship

Measures to aid women trafficked into America against their will have existed since 2001, but have not been acted upon due to bureaucratic delays, the Houston Chronicle reports.

Federal immigration officials say those delays will no longer be a problem.

Now, some women who have emigrated to the United States and been forced to work in abusive situations and have been granted special “T” visas—designed specifically for women facing such circumstances—will have access to permanent American citizenship.

The program part of the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act, finalized in 2001. Under the act, Congress approved granting up to 5,000 T visas and the federal government has spent tens of millions of dollars rescuing and aiding foreign women exploited as slaves.

Despite those efforts, not even 2,000 women have received T visas, which would allow them to officially extend their stay in the United States and avoid threats or retribution in their home countries. None have received green cards, despite indications that citizenship would be granted if victims cooperated with government prosecutions.

The new proposal will allow hundreds of trafficking victims who received T visas before 2005 to apply for green cards. In some cases, victims whose T visas expire will be allowed to stay permanently in the United States. However, women who have not been granted T visas will not be aided by this measure.

Diana Verlardo, an immigration lawyer at the University of Houston told the Houston Chronicle, “It is wonderful news and long overdue. This helps our victims move out of uncertainty and finally move on.” Verlardo has at least 25 clients who may benefit from the renewed initiative.

The move to implement these long-awaited proposals comes just two weeks after the Houston Chronicle reported on the shortcomings of the T visa program and the relatively small number of women whom it has helped.

Background: Flaws in the T visa program

In November the Houston Chronicle reported that, despite efforts by the U.S. government to help the victims of sex trafficking, visa rules and requirements and a nondescript path to citizenship often render government intervention ineffective.

Only half of the women taken into custody by U.S. immigration officials after being brought to America to work in sweatshops or as sex slaves have received visas, despite government promises to protect such victims through T visas, the Chronicle reported.

The 2000 U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act created the T visa program to protect victims of sex trafficking while the government pursues the perpetrators. A year later, Congress said it would grant up to 5,000 such visas per year.

But, according to the Chronicle, immigration records show that only 1,924 trafficking victims were aided by the U.S. Department of Justice as trafficking victims from 2004 to 2007 nationwide. And merely 709 people got visas during those same three years.

Fear of authorities and intimidation by sex traffickers may prevent women from coming forward for help. “For the entire U.S. government, identification of trafficking victims is challenging due to the circumstances victims find themselves in, the money, power and influence of the traffickers; essentially the nature of human trafficking itself,” U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said in a statement.

Additionally, many women are not aware of the availability of T visas and thus do not come forward to seek them. Some are too intimidated by the traffickers who brought them into the United States to cooperate with authorities.

In November 2005, for example, Houston police arrested eight members of a cantina-based ring of sex traffickers, which remains one of the nation’s largest rescues of sex slaves. Many of the women saved remain without visas or government protection, however. According to the Houston Chronicle, “Those women apparently were separated from others after the rescue because they refused to speak, made mistakes, lied in statements or were described as traffickers’ girlfriends, according to immigration lawyers who eventually won their release.”
One woman refused to cooperate because she was afraid that her captor would send contacts to seek revenge on her family in El Salvador. “No one knew what was going to happen to us,” she said.

For women attempting to approach authorities, the circumstances may be even more challenging. A report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services explains that many women are not aware of their rights in the United States and do not speak English, which are factors in keeping both victim and crime hidden from authorities.

Additionally, the National Immigration Law Center notes that victims seeking T visas must prove that they are victims of human trafficking, and that they “would suffer extreme hardship involving unusual and severe harm if they were removed from the United States.” Furthermore, victims must comply with “any reasonable request for assistance in a trafficking investigation or prosecution.”

Applications for T visas can also be challenging, the Houston Chronicle explains, as they require victims to obtain documents from their native countries, testify in detail about abuse, find legal support and pay $545 for the necessary paperwork. Furthermore, the waiting period can be extensive, leaving victims vulnerable and unhinged.

Reference: Defining the T visa

In February 2003, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft offered a statement about the T visa program and government efforts to stop human trafficking. According to the Attorney General, “In the past, traffickers have exploited their victims’ fear of being discovered as illegal aliens. The T-visa was designed to help trafficking victims who cooperate with law enforcement to punish those responsible for their enslavement. It allows victims to remain in the United States and allows us to turn the exploitive tactics of traffickers against them.”

According to the National Immigration Law Center, T visas are designed for victims of “a severe form of trafficking in persons.” The organization’s Web site explains that “Severe forms of trafficking include sex trafficking of persons under 18 years of age, or recruiting or obtaining persons for labor or services through the use of force, fraud, or coercion ‘for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.’”

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