President Trump asserts that “ending the absolutely horrific practice of human trafficking” is a core component of this administration’s human rights agenda. But a review of the administration’s rhetoric, regulations, and visa processing data suggests it is disincentivizing victims from reporting human trafficking and is slow-walking the approval process for applications for protection. The Trump administration needs to reexamine its policies stymieing victims of human trafficking seeking protection if it is to maintain a credible human rights position.
In January 2019, President Trump signed the bipartisan “Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act,” which strengthened and amended portions of the original legislation from 2000. President Trump’s remarks at the signing attacked the “menace of international human trafficking,” but then called for stricter border security to block trafficking routes. By entangling border security and human trafficking this way, the administration is masking the fact that most survivors are trafficked into the United States with valid travel documents. An examination of the 1,435 federal trafficking cases the Justice Department prosecuted over the last 10 years indicates only 26 — or 1 percent of all cases — involved victims being kidnapped and illegally brought across the southern border between ports of entry.
Outside of the proposed border wall, the White House has other means to crack down on human trafficking and encourage survivors to report criminal enterprises that are not being used. Two classifications of visas are available to victims of trafficking, the U and T visas. Both offer protected nonimmigrant status to victims of trafficking for up to four years, and allow them to apply for Legal Permanent Resident (LPR) status in exchange for reporting trafficking and assisting law enforcement in prosecuting responsible parties. But instead of utilizing the tool supported by law enforcement, the Trump administration is limiting eligibility for the T visa and slow-walking applications.
Prior to 2018, individuals applying for benefits under the T (victims of trafficking) and U (victims of crime) visas were exempt from appearing before an immigration judge if their applications were rejected. Denied applicants were given a grace period in order to refile for benefits or adjustment of status. Now, there is no grace period, and individuals are immediately susceptible to receiving a notice to appear, which marks the beginning of deportation proceedings.
Requests for evidence are also increasing in frequency for applications that previously would have been approved based on eyewitness testimony alone. Because trafficking cases are most often prosecuted using the testimony of individuals with insider knowledge, eyewitness claims of survivors have historically been sufficient to prove their eligibility for T status.
The Department of Labor, an important certifier of applications for victims of labor trafficking, recently altered its protocol to require external confirmation of victims’ claims prior to certifying visa applications. DOL’s move to impede survivors from receiving immediate assistance in visa applications is unsurprising given former Labor Secretary Alex Acosta’s proposal to massively cut programs that combat human trafficking.
As survivors are deterred from accessing legal protections, the power of traffickers grows, directly counteracting the White House’s goal to end human trafficking. The more requirements are added to visa applications, the less victims are willing to cooperate with law enforcement.
These policy shifts massively disincentivize survivors from reporting crimes because there is no longer guaranteed protection when they come forward. Trafficking victims exist in a volatile environment where traffickers use immigration status to coerce and exploit their victims. Nonimmigrant visas are an important tool that offers stability and protection to survivors of trafficking, while providing law enforcement with crucial information that helps prosecute criminals.
Delays in processing T applications compound the disincentives trafficking victims face in applying for immigration status. In fiscal year 2018, the time to adjudicate an application for a T visa more than doubled, from nine months to almost two years.
Longer visa processing is being accompanied by a decrease in the number of visas approved by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Victim-rights advocates have expressed concern that victims are deciding T visa applications are not worth completing- even if they file the initial paperwork- reflected by a 29 percent decrease in Justice Department trafficking prosecutions in 2018.
Changes to filing fees are equally problematic. Each T visa application is accompanied by a $930 filing fee. Previously, service providers and immigration lawyers could file fee waivers for their clients in order to prevent survivors from delaying their applications over lack of funds. But advocates began to see more and more fee waiver denials in FY 2018, which exacerbated processing delays.
Congress needs to act to correct the dismantling of protections for trafficking survivors. As investigations into USCIS processing delays are conducted, special attention should be directed towards the administration of T visas. If the White House wants to see its human rights campaign fulfilled, it must cooperate with Congress on minimizing delays in the T visa program.
T visas offer trafficking survivors a new beginning. The United States must ensure a streamlined system for processing these applications and assisting people who are leaving conditions of exploitation and danger.