Special Reports

Cumbersome rules plague visas

As an apology to trafficking victims for what happened to them on U.S. soil, Congress created a special visa status allowing those who came here illegally to remain.

It’s called “T-visa status” and allows up to 5,000 victims a year to stay in America for up to four years. After three years, they can apply to stay permanently.

But the visa’s requirements are especially onerous for victims of sex trafficking and have revictimized thousands of trafficking survivors, The Kansas City Star found.

After Congress authorized the visas in 2000, it took the federal bureaucracy two years to implement the program. The resulting delays meant that “thousands of victims have failed to obtain the benefits afforded to them,” according to a recent ombudsman’s report for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which issues the visas.

In fact, as of June, only 1,541 T-visas have been issued in the past seven years.

Once the process begins, there are many hoops to jump through in the complex process that can take nearly a year.

For one thing, the visa is only available to victims of what the government calls a “severe form of trafficking.” Proof of “force, fraud or coercion” must accompany a daunting nine-page application.

It requires victims — even sex trafficking victims — to describe in detail what happened to them. For some that is too overwhelming, and they don’t apply for the visa.

If the victims came to the United States illegally or committed a crime — even if they were forced to do so by their trafficker — they are required to seek forgiveness through a separate process that the government calls a “waiver of inadmissibility.” Denials of the waiver can’t be appealed.

Applicants must also prove they would suffer “extreme hardship involving unusual and severe harm” if they were deported.

Historically, the most controversial requirement has been that victims comply with a “reasonable request” by law enforcement to help prosecute their traffickers. That’s a potential Catch-22 that doesn’t account for the fact that many traffickers threaten to kill their victims or their families back home if they come forward.

New provisions this year allow for exceptions if federal officials agree a victim is “unlikely or unable to cooperate … because of physical or psychological trauma.” But while T-visas may no longer require cooperation with prosecutors in every case, a failure to do so could still affect the outcome.

In some jurisdictions, prosecutors require cooperation from a victim before law enforcement will provide affidavits vouching for T-visa applicants. Though victims can receive the visas without such an endorsement, it can be more difficult.

Still, anti-trafficking advocates contend that the T-visa process remains too much of a prosecutor’s tool and not enough of a method for rescuing victims.

“If victims choose not to cooperate, the threat of deportation places them in fear of retaliation from traffickers and at risk of being re-trafficked,” said Alese Wooditch, a human trafficking expert at George Mason University.

Nationwide, about one of every four applicants is denied, according to numbers released in June. But a state-by-state analysis shows large geographic disparities.

In states such as California, Texas and New York, where attorneys and law enforcement are highly trained in human trafficking, the denial rate is lower. But in large parts of the interior United States, where there is less awareness, more people are denied.

In Washington state, only 40 percent of the applicants for trafficking visa status are denied, while in Louisiana and Oklahoma it’s as high as 80 percent.

As of June, Kansas remained one of only nine states and U.S. territories with no T-visa applications. Yet in neighboring Missouri, only 20 percent of the 24 T-visa applications filed were denied.

Despite such disparities, federal officials said their goal is to protect victims.

“Our adjudication officers look at this in a very humanitarian way, this is a hope and status we can give to people who deserve it,” said Chris Rhatigan, Citizenship and Immigration Services spokeswoman. “We approve the cases that meet the standards of the T-visa status.”

Yet some critics don’t see it that way.

“This whole system is so subjective. There’s no consistency,” said Kent Felty, an immigration attorney from Colorado. He said federal bureaucrats “got it locked in their heads that unless you’re in chains and there are bars on the windows you are not a victim of a severe enough form of human trafficking.”

In Louisiana, Felty sought help for 215 welders from India who incurred large debts to come here on work visas and wound up confined to an out-of-the-way motel and told not to leave without permission.

None of the men could pay the usurious interest on their debts back in India. But Felty said they were told they couldn’t complain because the company “owned them” and would deport them if they did not do as they were told.

All 215 of their T-visa applications were denied because, under the law, it wasn’t considered a severe form of human trafficking.