WASHINGTON — Visas to enter the U.S. are typically a hot commodity: The government stopped taking applications for its 2014 allotment of 65,000 H-1B work visas after just four days, for example.
But not the T-visa.
Of the 50,000 T-visas that have been offered over the last 10 years, the government has issued only 6,206 of the little-known visas meant to protect victims of human trafficking and their family members.
This despite the fact that between 14,500 and 17,500 people are trafficked into the U.S. every year, according to State Department estimates — exactly the people lawmakers aimed to protect when they passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act in 2000.
“There is a lot of people who are trafficked into the U.S., but very little of them are found and rescued,” said Reem Constantine, trafficking case manager and training coordinator of International Rescue Committee‘s Phoenix office.
Advocates say that, despite its good intentions, the T-visa is burdened by difficult-to-meet requirements, a lack of awareness about the program and a perception by many that those trafficked are criminals and not victims.
And it demands a lot of those who apply: They have to be willing to testify against the traffickers, even though they may live in fear of them, and they are not allowed to work while waiting for the visa, which can take a year or more.
“There is a huge amount of fear in coming forward about workplace abuse and exploitation,” said Nina Rabin, a University of Arizona law professor and co-director of the James E. Rogers College of Law Immigration Law Clinic.
“Also shame is involved,” said Rabin, who helped a victim of sex trafficking apply for a T-visa. “She was very ashamed, embarrassed and did not want to talk about it.”
The first T-visas were offered in 2002, when 26 applications granted. The program has grown steadily — but slowly — with 1,432 visas issued in fiscal 2012, still just a fraction of the 5,000 available.
The T-visa secures a four-year stay in the U.S. for trafficking victims and their families, and makes them eligible to apply for a green card after three years.
Constantine said tens of thousands of trafficking victims come to the U.S. every year, some with legal status, some illegally. They fall to victim to forced labor, prostitution, and some are even used to transport drugs.
She said it is impossible to know how many victims are out there because the crime is underground, but that it would not be surprising to find one next-door in many neighborhoods.
Cindy Liou, a staff attorney at San Francisco-based Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach, said about 25 percent of her clients are from Arizona.
Liou said most people don’t understand what trafficking is.
“Trafficking is a 13th Amendment crime,” she said of the amendment prohibiting slavery and involuntary servitude. “It is a human-right violation, it has to do with exploitation of someone’s labor or services out of force, fraud or coercion.”
Advocates said the biggest challenge in applying for a T-visa is proving the crime: Applicants must provide proof of the crime as well as certification from a law enforcement agency that they are cooperating in the investigation and prosecution of the case.
But without sufficient investigation by police, the case could just pit the word of the accused trafficker against the word of the victim, who may have had documents like passports and contracts taken by the trafficker, said Constantine.
“The lack of evidence could be a big impediment,” said Stephanie Richard, policy and legal services director of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking. “Some victims don’t even know the name and whereabouts of the trafficker, thus they have limited information to provide.”
Rabin said her client, a Mexican immigrant who came to U.S. for cleaning services, was initially prosecuted for prostitution after she was found in a brothel in Arizona. She was facing deportation and in immigration detention for two years before she got the visa. And even then, it was a year before Rabin realized that her client was a victim of trafficking.
“Victims are often seen as part of criminal enterprise … and I think that’s part of the problem,” Rabin said.
Rabin said law enforcement officials need further education in understanding what trafficking looks like and in recognizing the victims.
“It is difficult to identify (a trafficking victim) unless you ask right questions,” she said. “Attorneys, law enforcement and first-responders do not know how to ask questions when they find victims.”
But the FBI insists that its agents and police do try to recognize victims in a trafficking enterprise.
“Law enforcement officers strive to identify all victims of human trafficking; however, a variety of circumstances may lead to the misidentification or lack of identification of a victim,” the agency said in an emailed response to questions about the T-visa.
But Evelyn Haydee Cruz, director of Arizona State University’s Immigration Law and Policy Clinic, said it is hard to flag those cases.
“Local prosecutors don’t often actively help victims. Some don’t want to and a few think they can’t,” Cruz said.
She said prosecutors may question a victim’s reliability or truthfulness as a witness, while others don’t believe the U.S. should give green cards in exchange for testimony.
The FBI said authorities would assist victims, even if there is not a trafficker who can be prosecuted.
“The assistance would depend on the circumstance,” the agency’s statement said. That could include calling an emergency number if the victim is in danger, and referring the victim to help with shelter or food.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services declined to comment on criticisms of the program. But Maria Upson said the agency works with immigrant advocacy groups to provide relief when a crime has occurred, and works to supply police and prosecutors with the tools to bring criminals to justice.
“Trafficking cases are very complex, and determining whether someone is a victim is not always simple,” Upson said.
She said it takes USCIS about four months to process a T-visa application. But advocates said red tape typically makes the wait much longer.
Constantine said it takes her clients more than 15 months on average to get a T-visa. And during that time, applicants are not allowed to work, forcing some to take odd jobs to survive.
That just puts victims back in a position where they are vulnerable to be exploited, taken advantage of and trafficked again, Constantine said.
“They are the breadwinners back home, and their families depend on them, and they spent life-long savings to come to the U.S.,” she said. Constantine said the victims are desperate to get the visa so that they could stay in the country for work.
Liou said people who come to her for help live in miserable conditions, sometimes carrying all their belongings in trash bags. Getting a T-visa, and a chance to work in the U.S., is the only hope they have.
But having family back in their home country could also make the victims reluctant to work with the law enforcement, Richard said.
“They have to choose between getting support in the U.S. and risking their family and friends in the home country” as a result of retribution, she said.