US. immigration authorities issued new guidelines last month that could make immigrant victims of human trafficking more vulnerable to deportation, according to immigration lawyers and activists.
The guidelines, issued by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), affect immigrants forced into labor or sex work in the United States by criminals preying on their vulnerability.
According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, 8,524 cases of human trafficking were reported in the United States in 2017.
Under the old policy, the victims could apply for special permits, known as T visas, that allow them to remain in the United States, work, and access benefits, often while cooperating with police investigations against their traffickers.
Even if the visa request was denied, immigration authorities usually refrained from taking action to deport the immigrants, according to anti-human trafficking activists.
But under the new guidelines, denial of a T visa will trigger an automatic summons for a hearing before an immigration judge — known as a “notice to appear.” Legal experts say such a notice effectively marks the start of the deportation process.
The change marks one more way the Trump administration is making it harder for immigrants and asylum-seekers to remain in the United States
even when their immigration is motivated by or bound up with traumatic ordeals.
The policy is spelled out in a USCIS memo dated June 28. It states that “USCIS will issue [a notice to appear] where, upon issuance of an unfavorable decision on an application, petition, or benefit request, the alien is not lawfully present in the United States.”
Jean Bruggeman, who runs a national alliance of advocates for human trafficking victims known as Freedom Network USA, said immigrants already face stiff requirements for proving they were victims of trafficking. As a result, genuine victims of trafficking are sometimes denied the visa. Now, those victims will face deportation.
“Under previous policy, as a routine matter, T visa applicants were not referred [to immigration authorities],” Bruggeman said.
“What we tell applicants now: If your story is not presented perfectly, if you can’t convince someone immediately that you are a trafficking victim through your application, you have this one opportunity and then if you are not able to do it you will be deported.”
Other legal experts said USCIS was simultaneously making it harder to receive a T visa. According to the State Department’s 2018 Trafficking in Persons report, the United States granted T visas to “672 victims and 690 eligible family members of victims in FY 2017, a decrease from 750 and 986 in FY 2016.”
“The office that processes these cases has been denying [more petitions] and requesting more evidence, specifically [for] T visas, requiring more and more documentation that often doesn’t exist,” said Alicia Kinsman, a Connecticut immigration lawyer who works with victims of human trafficking.
She said this was happening with most of her serious cases, particularly ones in which the trafficking happened long ago or intersected with another crime. In one case, she said, her client paid smugglers to enter the United States but was then trafficked.
“Because she had paid smugglers to come in and they trafficked her, what happened to her was a long and arduous situation and an abusive situation. … They are conflating the two issues and saying, ‘You were smuggled’.”
Bruggeman said the new policy was making victims more reluctant to come forward with evidence against their traffickers — which in turn was making it harder for police to investigate the crimes.
Some law enforcement officials are worried as well.
“We’ve spent many, many years building trust with our immigrant communities, working with agencies and nonprofits to put together very clear messaging that when we are dealing with victims of crime, we don’t differentiate or ask questions about citizenship,” said San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan.
“We’re hearing now there is reluctance to come forward and there is fear that their immigration status could result in unintended consequences,” she said.
A municipal police officer in a California sanctuary city who works closely with his department’s Special Victims Unit — and spoke on condition of anonymity — also noted that cooperation with immigrant communities regarding human trafficking is down.
“It’s gotten to the point where we’re putting out PR campaigns to fix that,” he said.
Asked to comment, a USCIS spokesperson pointed to a press statement by the agency’s director, L. Francis Cissna.
“This updated policy equips USCIS officers with clear guidance they need and deserve to support the enforcement priorities established by the president, keep our communities safe, and protect the integrity of our immigration system from those seeking to exploit it,” Cissna said in the statement.