The Beacon: "USCIS and Law Enforcement Unite to Fight Human Trafficking"

by Joseph McKeown

President Obama has declared January 2015 to be National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. US Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) is consequently highlighting their role "in protecting victims of human trafficking, who are often vulnerable people tricked into modern-day slavery by false promises of jobs."

In conjunction with the US Department of Homeland Security’s Blue Campaign—which provides public awareness of human trafficking as well as educational support and training to law enforcement and government agencies—USCIS and Homeland Security are striving to bring a "victim-centered approach" to end human trafficking by placing "equal value on identifying and stabilizing victims and on investigating and prosecuting traffickers."

Since many traffickers use the immigration status of their victims to threaten and keep them in submission and slavery, and further since victims are often crucial to the successful prosecution of traffickers, USCIS has visa options for victims of trafficking and serious crimes: the U or T visa. T visas (5000 per year) are available for trafficking victims and certain family members; U visas (10,000 per year) are available to victims (and certain family members) of trafficking, domestic violence, and other qualifying serious crimes that violate US law. If all 10,000 of the U visas are issued in the year (and they have been since 2010), those on the waiting list can remain in the US and apply for work authorization.

In addition to T and U visas, trafficking victims may be able to obtain temporary legal status called Continued Presence (CP) from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) allowing victims to remain in the US to act as witness in an investigation into the trafficking-related crimes committed against them.

Despite the best intentions of the T and U visas, immigration advocates note the visa requirements can be burdensome or difficult to meet, government agencies are sometimes uncooperative in assisting victims or even treat the victims as criminals, and requiring that the victims agree to testify against their traffickers can result in threats and retaliation to the victim's family members in their home country.