2010 marked the tenth anniversary of an important legal landmark in the fight against human trafficking and other forms of modern-day slavery. The federal Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (VTVPA) was passed by congress in 2000 and in addition to increased criminalization and prosecution of trafficking the law created several new national legal protections for trafficking victims in the U.S. Chief among these, the “T-Visa” created a new pathway to legal residency and government benefits for victims of human trafficking who cannot safely return to their home country and are willing to assist U.S. law enforcement if possible.
T-visas make temporary non-immigrant status available to victims of "severe forms of human trafficking" on the condition that they help law enforcement officials investigate and prosecute crimes related to human trafficking. T-visas allow victims of severe forms of trafficking to stay in the United States for four years from the date the T-visa application is approved, and may potentially lead to permanent residency (LPR or “green card” status). T-visas can also help former trafficking victims in the U.S. economically by giving them the legal ability to work through the automatic grant of a legal document called an “employment authorization document” (EAD), and providing access to certain social services and benefits. Immediate family members of a T-visa applicant such as spouses, children, and parents of applicants under 18 may also be able to access some of the same protections under the law.
As with many legal issues, the devil is in the details. Among other things, T-visa law requires the applicant to be the victim of “severe” human trafficking, to ensure that the immigration protection is only utilized by those who have legitimately arrived in the U.S. as a result of being trafficked. Sex trafficking, trafficking that leads to debt bondage or peonage, and trafficking that leads to involuntary servitude / slavery / forced labor are all generally considered “severe” for the purposes of a T-visa application. The other main hurdle that an applicant faces is the “extreme hardship” requirement. The law requires the trafficked person to show that they would face unusual and extreme harm if forced to return to their home country. Though lack of economic opportunities and social stigma are major problems for many trafficking victims, they will not satisfy the legal requirement to obtain a T-visa. In general, victims will need to show that they are likely to suffer serious bodily or psychological harm if they go home.
The government caps the annual issuance of T-visas at 5,000, but this limit does not include qualifying family members of trafficking victims. Though statistics on the issuance of T-visas are difficult to come by, it seems that administrative barriers, qualification requirements, lack of access to legal assistance, and safety concerns may be the primary obstacles to victims obtaining T-visas, not the statutory cap.
More information on the technical requirements of the T-visa and other immigration protections for victims of crime can be found on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website.
The National Human Trafficking Resource Center is part of the Polaris Project, a non-government organization providing assistance to victims of human trafficking through a national, toll-free and confidential hotline: 1-888-3737-888
More information about the U.S. Government’s efforts to fight trafficking here and aboard, including the 2011 annual Trafficking in Persons Report, is available from the U.S. Department of State Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.
- Tam Johnson