How Our Current Immigration Laws are Hurting Trafficking Survivors

Despite acts of Congress to establish two different visas that assist and protect survivors of human trafficking, the process remains lengthy and difficult to maneuver without legal help. Additionally, restrictions during the application process make it challenging for those who are waiting on their application to go through, which is currently taking 2 years or more. Although there are many ways a survivor could be independently economically productive, paying taxes,  while in the application process, the limitations actually make it more likely that they will fall survivor to further trafficking or abuse. 

AnnieCannons is committed to assisting survivors of human trafficking and getting them safely out of the cycle of abuse and trafficking by delivering economic opportunities in software. Sadly, many survivors who can master AnnieCannons’ coding program and who qualify for a visa from the U.S. are not allowed to work – as contractors or employees – during the long wait for their application to be approved. 

So, as we stand ready to deliver economic power to talented survivors eager to earn a good living, we’re forced to hold off. These brilliant graduates are stuck in limbo, unable to be paid and unable to secure housing at all, or to remain in shelters during the entire application process. Allowing survivors to work and provide for themselves while going through the visa application process would go far to providing a solution to one of the biggest roadblocks to their economic independence, their freedom, and a long-awaited break in the cycle of exploitation. 

How The Visa Process is Supposed to Work

What is a U Visa?

A U Visa is available to survivors of serious crimes against them, under which human trafficking falls. These visas were created so that foreign survivors of crimes in the U.S. could remain in the country to assist in prosecuting criminal offenders. It is a way to help ensure that offenders who prey on foreign visitors aren’t more likely to get away with it simply due to the survivor being forced to return home. The survivor must cooperate with law enforcement in order to qualify for the visa. 

What is a T Visa?

A T Visa gives temporary nonimmigrant status to survivors of human trafficking who are willing to help law enforcement officials investigate crimes of human trafficking. The survivor must have traveled to the U.S. because they were forced, abducted, or deceived by the perpetrator of human trafficking. Luckily, the law does not require cooperation with police to obtain a T visa if the survivor is under 18 or if the survivor is unable to cooperate with an investigation because of physical or emotional trauma. 

In order to qualify for a T visa, you must be present in the U.S. as a result of human trafficking. This differs from the qualification criteria for applicants for a U visa, who may have visited the U.S. on vacation (or for another purpose) and then been subjected to human trafficking or another qualifying crime. This means that in most cases, to be eligible for a T visa, the survivor would not have been present in the U.S. if it were not for the actions of someone who forced them to be here. T visa applicants will need to show that their removal from the U.S. would cause “extreme hardship involving unusual and extreme harm.” This can be difficult to prove. 

Leaving Survivors On the Street

Not long ago, it took only a few months for a T visa application to be processed. Once a T visa (or U visa) is granted, the visa holder can legally work and hold a U.S. bank account. However, during the application process, the survivor may not work in any capacity, nor do they qualify to have a bank account. This means that they cannot work to support themselves, and they cannot be easily supported by others back home. When the process took only a few months, it was more feasible (though still not easy) to qualify for a short-term bed at a shelter and receive enough assistance to make it through to when they could be authorized to work. However, there are only about 600 shelter beds available in the entire United States for survivors of trafficking, most being for short term stays. It is currently taking 2 years or more for T visa applications to be processed and approved. After discovery, escape or rescue, it will usually take some time to get a survivor’s application paperwork together, so even a 24-month shelter stay would expire before most applications are even processed. 

This leaves the survivor with few options; they are required to stay in the U.S. while their application is being processed, they are not allowed to work, and there is nowhere they are able to stay. Even if they found a shelter bed, that still leaves needing food and essentials. Shelters have limited budgets for food and other necessities, and most states do not provide healthcare to survivors. Homelessness becomes their only option. 

When a human being is in a situation where they need food, shelter, and clean water (even leaving aside health care) and cannot earn money, they are extremely vulnerable to further trafficking and abuse. Working under the table, being paid in cash, is literally the only option left to them by the government that is reportedly trying to help them. However, once someone accepts money for any work, the results could be disastrous. Not only does it threaten a survivor’s visa status, but often an abuser uses the threat of reporting their work as a means to control and exploit them, and the cycle of trafficking begins again. 

As a result, survivors can literally be forced back into exploitation by the very process they are relying on to help them gain freedom. 

Survivors, Not Criminals

There are 5000 T visas available each year, yet advocates report that number is rarely utilized even though there are tens of thousands of trafficking survivors who come to the U.S. every year. In the last 10 years the number of applications submitted has exceeded 1000 per year only twice. Nonetheless, according to the USCIS, there is a growing backlog of pending T visa cases. 

Despite the good intentions of the T visa, supporters say that it is difficult to meet the requirements, even for those who are aware of the program. Additionally, there is a perception by many that survivors of trafficking are criminals in some way. But trafficking likely violates the 13th Amendment by effecting slavery or involuntary servitude in the US. It in no way makes the survivor a criminal in and of itself. It seems that deeper discriminatory stereotypes play a significant role in this misplaced perception, especially for children.

Many survivors are actively trying to help the prosecution of their trafficker, which requires them to get to court. Even if they are able to secure transitional housing, they also need access to transportation to get to court and to meetings with law enforcement. The requirements to help law enforcement are often burdensome and re-traumatizing, so even for those willing to share their story and assist with a prosecution, there is a cost to help our law enforcement punish this heinous crime. 

Those who do qualify for T Visas are often afraid to apply. Because of new immigration orders, it is riskier to expose one’s immigration status in the U.S., even if a survivor is here because of human trafficking. Now immigrant trafficking survivors are left with these choices: risk deportation by applying for the T visa and being denied, or risk deportation by not applying at all.

Easing the Hardship

Although the T visa program is a step in the right direction, the lack of a survivor’s ability to work while waiting for the visa application to process is a severe roadblock. Though the prohibition on work is not a new feature of the T Visa application process, the current Administration is making things worse by further delaying processing applications. If the Administration truly wants to fight human trafficking in the United States, it could be done better by creating a specific work authorization for trafficking survivors while visas are processed. 

Right now at AnnieCannons, we have more than one brilliant young survivor who is qualified and willing to do complex software programming work, but simply cannot be paid to do it. Instead of giving her a new life and a path to economic productivity, the United States is missing out on skilled STEM-trained women being put into the workforce, simply due to work restrictions on what used to be a short-term application process. Although the global problem of trafficking may not have a simple solution, material improvement could be made here in the United States by allowing survivors to work and provide for themselves while going through the T visa process. It would take strain off an already maxed-out shelter system, improve access to healthcare, generate tax income for the country even as it removes cost burdens from the nonporfit and social services systems, and give a human trafficking survivor the pride of knowing they are contributing to society and taking care of themselves. Stable, high incomes ensure survivors continue to thrive, during their stay in the U.S. under their visa, and beyond – breaking generational cycles of exploitation. Turns out, a savings account improves outcomes considerably.

How can you help?

We think this is a nonpartisan issue – no matter which side of the aisle, representatives should favor survivors providing a livelihood for themselves and ending the abuse. If this issue is of interest to you, text “RESIST” to 504-09 to access the Resistbot tool.  When creating your note to our congressional representatives, tell them you want to create means for trafficking survivors to work legally (and pay taxes) while they go through the T visa process so they are never trafficked again.

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