In the past few years, Americans have learned a lot about human trafficking. It’s increasingly encroaching into our cities, towns, neighborhoods. Many groups are working valiantly to bring victims out of trafficking situations, and help them become safe and productive members of society.
However, U.S. immigration laws are getting in the way. Jennnifer Allen Jung, a immigrations attorney specializing in human trafficking cases, says are current laws are keeping many victims from stepping out of the shadows and getting help.
I’ve listened to clients tearfully and slowly pour out the details of the horrors they’ve lived through, only to find out they don’t qualify for a particular immigration relief because they entered the country two months too late. Immigration law is as complex as tax law. Few understand it, and yet it impacts millions: U.S. citizens in mixed-status families, an alphabet of visa holders, the contentious undocumented immigrants.
Many trafficked persons are threatened by those holding them captive with deportation threats – try to escape, and I’ll make sure you get deported. Add to that that language and cultural barriers, and you have extreme isolation.
While we do have laws on the books that are meant to protect victims of human trafficking, Jung says they often do just the opposite.
It can take years for an application to be processed. Even with 5,000 visas available annually for human trafficking victims, that cap has never come close to being reached. The State Department estimates about 17,500 human trafficking victims come to the United States from another country each year. So why can’t they be freed? Why can’t they get those visas? Immigrant victims of trafficking hide, like many undocumented immigrants, in the shadows of society—unaware of the ability to secure their status.
Keep in mind: these are not people who, generally speaking, entered our country illegally. They were dragged here, kicking and screaming. They were told that, for a price, their immigration status was guaranteed and in their naiveté, they believed this to be true, only to find themselves enslaved upon arrival here. They are victims of crimes, and as a just nation, we must change how they are treated by our legal system. And this is not a completely altruistic endeavor; we have much to gain:
It’s not easy gaining the trust of an immigrant victim. My clients often ask, “How can you guarantee my safety?” The bigger the safety net the more willing a victim will be to step forward. Added bonus – when we make it safer for victims to step forward we make it safer for our surrounding communities as human trafficking increasingly involves other serious crimes like robbery, gang activity, and drug dealing.