Former President Donald Trump has made human trafficking central to his platform, pledging to mobilize the full force of the U.S. government to fight this “epidemic,” a hard line he recently reiterated in a speech in Ohio.
Drawing on longstanding bipartisan support for anti-trafficking protection, Trump passed legislation to strengthen legal protections for survivors and increase funding for anti-trafficking efforts, including a $35 million grant for survivors. He also used trafficking rhetoric to support the border wall he claimed would “stop it cold.” The effort has played to his base, stoking anti-immigrant sentiment and feeding the flames of QAnon conspiracy theories.
But, did Trump’s anti-trafficking policies actually help survivors?
New FOIA data, obtained through a court case against the Department of Homeland Security reveals how immigrant survivors of trafficking, under the Trump administration, faced an unprecedented risk of harm. As immigrant survivors stepped forward to claim their legal rights, they faced longer-than-normal delays, increased scrutiny and a greater likelihood of deportation. While President Biden rolled back many of these policies, their impact still reverberates, as survivors are forced to decide whether to step forward in the shadow of a new presidential race where Trump is a contender.
In 2000, Congress created the T visa — special immigration protection for immigrant survivors of trafficking, in recognition of the dual bind they face. Fearing both reprisals from traffickers and deportation, survivors are often reticent to seek out legal support. In response, Congress established 5,000 T visas available annually for immigrant survivors. Yet, in the last 20 years, this cap has never been reached; in fact, the number of T visas has never exceeded 2,000 in any fiscal year.
We, a lawyer who has represented hundreds of survivors and a sociologist who researches and writes on forced migration, set out to understand why this protection is underutilized, despite tens of thousands of eligible applicants. We spoke to lawyers and survivors and took the Department of Homeland Security to court to release data about how the system worked.
We found that the immigration process itself was weaponized to make it harder for immigrant survivors of human trafficking to navigate. In 2019 and 2020, T visa denial rates ballooned to 42 percent. The legal process became longer and more arduous. New policies meant that hundreds of survivors, who stepped forward seeking protection, were placed in removal proceedings.
To be sure, pathways to legal protection in the United States are notoriously complicated for immigrants, regardless of who is president. The T visa is no exception. Survivors we spoke to told of long wait times, traumatizing conversations with enforcement officials who are often part of the T visa process, and the difficulty of finding an affordable attorney. Yet, on top of these burdens, during the Trump administration, they faced off against an immigration agency that weaponized seemingly mundane processing issues to stack the decks against them.
For example, in October 2018, even as former President Trump promised to “protect the innocent,” his administration issued a memorandum indicating that denied T visa applicants, among others, would be issued Notices to Appear (NTA), the document that initiates removal proceedings. Martina Vandenberg, the executive director of the Human Trafficking Legal Center, called the policy “a game-changer,” noting that “[i]t totally changes the analysis of whether or not it’s worth it for any trafficking victim to cooperate with law enforcement.”
The following month, USCIS started to implement the NTA policy. The data we obtained from FOIA litigation showed that 236 immigrant survivors received NTAs to initiate deportation proceedings before President Biden rescinded the policy in January 2021. It also showed that trafficking survivors were not the only ones at risk — between 2018 to 2020, USCIS sent 2,033 NTAs to applicants for other victim-based immigration relief, including survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.
This occurred alongside a slowdown in the processing of T visa applications, leaving many immigrant survivors living in precarious circumstances — without work authorization and still at risk from their perpetrators. From 2014 to 2021, despite relatively low application numbers, average T visa processing times increased from 7.4 months to 19.6 months, with many attorneys reporting that their clients’ applications took two or more years.
What’s more, despite the recognition by Congress that immigrant survivors should only have to gather “any credible evidence” to qualify for protection, the data we collected told a different story. Lawyers reported receiving more than double requests for supplemental evidence — many overly burdensome and duplicative. And, qualifying for protection became harder for immigrant survivors. For example, USCIS reportedly narrowed interpretations of one T visa requirement to deny survivors who stepped forward several years after their victimization.
As Trump begins his run for office, many immigrant survivors are not cheering. Instead, they are contemplating whether it is safe to tell their story. Is it worth stepping forward if their plight for protection can turn into a nightmare? If we truly care about trafficking survivors, we need to make sure that their pathways to legal rights are protected, regardless of who is in office.
Julie Dahlstrom is a clinical associate professor of Law at Boston University School of Law and the director of the Immigrants’ Rights & Human Trafficking Program. She recently authored, “Trafficking and the Shallow State,” in the UC Irvine Law Review. Heba Gowayed is an assistant professor of Sociology at Boston University, a current member of the Institute for Advanced Study, and the author of “Refuge: How the State Shapes Human Potential” published with Princeton University Press.