Visa Restrictions Target Victims, Not Human Traffickers

We have to decide, as a society, whether we will tolerate lawlessness that stretches across borders and into people’s lives.In terms of human trafficking — which most people assumes involves physically moving people but really just means slavery or exerting control over another person — this lawlessness can involve smuggling people into the country and then exploiting them or simply preying on those who are in the country illegally.Either way, Texas and the United States as a whole are better off when we encourage those who are being exploited to step out of the shadows and work with law enforcement against human traffickers. Unfortunately, an important tool to encourage those who are being trafficked to step forward is being undercut and an important, lawful way to gain a visa to stay in the United States is going unfulfilled.In 2000 Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act to combat this epidemic. TVPA established visas specifically for human trafficking victims who were in the country illegally. These visas, called T visas, were designed to make victims more comfortable coming forward and cooperating with investigators. Congress capped the number of available T visas at 5,000 each year.At its core, the T visa program aims to help law enforcement find traffickers within the United States.Unauthorized immigrants are incredibly vulnerable to predators — they have few economic resources, many don’t speak English and they often rely on others for transport and shelter. There aren’t credible statistics for how many migrants get swept up by traffickers, but it is not a small number.In most cases, traffickers use their victim’s immigration status as a tool to exploit them. They use the threat of deportation to stop their victims from fleeing to the police.Enter the T visa program. Having a visa specifically for victims of trafficking empowers victims to go to law enforcement without fear of deportation and gives officers one more tool to use against human trafficking. But this only works if the program is well-advertised and fairly enforced.The T visa program has never come anywhere close to the maximum of 5,000 visas annually. In its early years, only a few hundred people even knew to apply. More people have applied since, but U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services reports that applications have climbed to only a little more than 1,600.Even as applications increase, fewer are now getting accepted overall. Since December 2016, the rate of denial for T visa applicants has increased by 27%. One issue appears to be that the current administration uses a narrow definition of human trafficking. If someone is smuggled and then forced into slavery, they may not be eligible for a T visa. Forced labor in so-called stash houses is also rarely considered. Unauthorized immigrants who are victims of domestic abuse in addition to trafficking are also often excluded.In one case, a woman’s partner allegedly used false papers to get her into the country then forced her to work without pay, kept her isolated, raped her and physically abused her. Under the current guidelines, this would likely be considered domestic abuse — not trafficking — so she may not be eligible.According to a May report from Refugees International, migrants who are denied T visas are increasingly issued “Notices to Appear” and marked for deportation. In other words, by applying for the visa, some people made themselves visible targets.As word spreads of these notices and of the increasing number of rejections, the very people that law enforcement agents need to reach can fear coming forward. This undermines law enforcement efforts to find human traffickers.And as more victims remain in the shadows, it becomes more likely that traffickers can continue preying on vulnerable people within the U.S. Most experts agree that trafficking is on the rise. Crackdowns at the border make desperate people more likely to take risks to enter the country, so it is especially important now to use tools like T visas to help those who are being trafficked come forward.There are changes that need to happen at the federal level, but local governments like Dallas aren’t helpless.Dallas can increase outreach for victims, do more to inform them about T visas and take other steps to help them along the way.One critical step is for law enforcement agencies to prioritize certifying applications for T visas. Victims are required to report that they were trafficked, so law enforcement can help substantiate what happened to them. By providing certification that a victim was trafficked, law enforcement officers can help victims improve their chances of getting a T visa.Human trafficking is a nationwide crisis, and a pernicious problem in North Texas. We have the laws in place to find more traffickers, but we need to use those laws well. And that has to include encouraging victims to step out of the shadows. T visas are an important tool to fight human trafficking. Anyone who wants to solve lawlessness extending across borders should support better use of this important tool.This editorial was written by the editorial board and serves as the voice and opinion of The Dallas Morning News.What's your view? Got an opinion about this issue? Send a letter to the editor, and you just might get published.  Continue reading...

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