The T visa, also known as the T nonimmigrant status, was created in 2000 through the Trafficking Victims Protection Act for those who are or have been victims of human trafficking and are willing to assist law enforcement in the investigation or prosecution of acts of trafficking. This visa was created to allow human trafficking victims and their immediate family immigration relief. When granted, not only can the T visa provide a way for someone to live and work legally in the United States, it also creates a pathway to citizenship.
While the T visa is generally viewed as a positive approach to immigration relief, there are aspects of the application process that are cause for concern. Through talking to attorneys representing clients during the T visa process, Human Trafficking Search learned that many attorneys consider themselves reluctant participants in the application process and that the T visa does not effectively provide the humanitarian relief it was designed to provide. Attorneys working closely with trafficking survivors identified three main concerns of the T visa process: repeat trauma, language barriers, and processing time.
Many survivors of trafficking don’t realize that they are trafficking victims, because they have never heard of the crime of human trafficking. They discover the T visa through other immigration screenings after they share their story. At that point in the process they are often referred to an immigration attorney to counsel them, and they repeat their story again for their T visa application. Then, there is a requirement as part of the T visa process for them to report the trafficking to law enforcement, during which they must again retell their story. Sometimes law enforcement needs to follow-up and in order to investigate the crime, causes the survivor to recount their story yet again. These are deeply personal stories of pain and harm that can involve sexual and physical violence. The application process is not designed to avoid further trauma and protect those who have had these types of experiences. Instead, as is evident from our interviews with immigration lawyers, there are many stages where victims must recall their trafficking story throughout the application process, inevitably causing retraumatization.
In addition, there are often language barriers in the application process. Every person applying for the T visa is an immigrant, which means they come from a different country and likely don’t have English as their first language. Yet the application is only available in English. On top of that, the legal language used in the application is complex and difficult to understand without prior knowledge of immigration law. Without the help of an attorney or a translator, it would be extremely difficult for a lay-person who doesn’t speak much English to complete the application or have the right language to accurately describe what happened to them.
Finally, the processing time for the visa can take anywhere from 18.5-29 months. During this period, undocumented immigrants are not eligible to work in the United States legally. The visa process itself can incur multiple fees, beginning with a $160 fee per application and then adding in associated legal fees as the case progresses. These fees, on top of potential costs for basic requirements like food and shelter, are very difficult to pay without an employment authorization card allowing someone to work during the possible 2.5 years it may take for their visa to be processed. This creates a vulnerable situation for survivors that may make them susceptible to further trafficking.
Another important factor to consider in the discussion of the humanitarian value of T visa’s is the politicization of labor trafficking. During his presidency, Trump stated that “ending the absolutely horrific practice of human trafficking” was a core component of his human rights agenda. However, based on his immigration policies, this was limited to victims of sex trafficking. Under Trump-era immigration policies, any undocumented immigrant whose T visa application was denied would automatically receive a ‘Notice to Appear’, which marks the start of deportation proceedings. This created a barrier for those who wanted to apply for T visas since denial of their visa would mean certain deportation. Attorneys who help with T visa applications had to use much more discretion in deciding which cases to take. They only wanted to take clients who would have a good chance at being granted a T visa in order to avoid deportations as a result of a declined application. This policy has since been overturned in the Biden administration, but it is a reminder that legal change in the area of human trafficking is largely based on administration. Victims of labor trafficking should receive the same protections as sex trafficking victims, and this should be reflected in policy that isn’t subject to elections.
The T visa process was intended to offer humanitarian relief to victims of human trafficking. Based on data received from the trafficking hotline in 2019, there were 22,326 trafficking survivors identified across the United States. Not every trafficked individual will need immigration relief, and the US has capped the T visas at 5,000 each year. However, in 2019, less than 1000 applications were approved, with only 2,250 submitted. Part of the reason there were so few applications is due to victims being unaware that T visas exist and who they are for as well as the previously mentioned barriers of retraumatization and language challenges. Many eligible survivors do not apply because they don’t know they are eligible, they fear deportation, and/or there is a language barrier.
Efforts need to be made to remove as many barriers as possible in the T visa process to help trafficking victims receive the immigration relief promised by this initiative. The process needs to avoid re-traumatizing victims whenever possible, create resources in multiple languages, and grant temporary work visas in addition to trying to shorten the processing time. With these changes, the T visa will start providing true humanitarian relief for survivors of human trafficking.
Author: Chelsea Caplinger, Research Fellow -Human Trafficking Search
Read a summary of all the reauthorizations of the TVPA visa here.
Read a compilation of all the reauthorizations of the TVPA legislation here.