“We have such a chasm between rhetoric and reality,” said Martina Vandenberg, founder of the Human Trafficking Legal Center, a network of attorneys who take on trafficking cases. “This administration is undermining protections carefully built for trafficking victims over two decades.”
The advocates are especially alarmed by increased scrutiny of T visas, which provide temporary legal status for immigrants who can prove they were trafficked while in the United States.
At least eight organizations declined invitations to the summit because of their opposition to the administration’s policies. Three of those groups told The Washington Post they feared backlash over their decision, so they cited conflicts with other events.
“I don’t think any of us have the desire to be a part of a photo op,” Vandenberg said.
Trump is scheduled to be joined at the event by Vice President Pence, Attorney General William P. Barr and Ivanka Trump, who has embraced the eradication of human trafficking as one of her causes. Earlier this month, the president’s daughter visited two residential facilities for trafficking victims in Atlanta. She praised her father’s dedication to the trafficking issue, calling it a modern form of slavery.
Trump repeatedly brings up human trafficking when discussing immigration policy, and in 2018, he became the first sitting president to attend a meeting of the federal trafficking task force since its creation in 2000.
Ivanka Trump has advocated anti-trafficking legislation, including a law intended to strengthen prosecutors’ ability to go after websites that host advertisements for commercial sex. She wrote about these efforts and others in a 2018 op-ed in The Washington Post, invoking Abraham Lincoln and the abolitionist movement.
Now, the president’s daughter and adviser is the face of the event intended to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which established trafficking as a federal crime, and identify new strategies to attack the problem.
“I am honored to stand with the president as we convene federal, state, local and tribal leaders, alongside survivors, employers and advocates to ensure that we see the end of the crisis of human trafficking once and for all,” she said in a statement.
One of the survivors planning to attend the summit is Courtney Litvak, who met with Ivanka Trump at the White House in November.
“I told her, ‘I wouldn’t be sitting here if I didn’t think you are a doer. I can’t keep having these conversations,’ ” Litvak said. “I need action to happen.”
The 21-year-old is among the advocates grateful for the administration’s efforts and for the chance to dispel the misconception — sometimes perpetuated by Trump himself — that victims of human trafficking are frequently bound, gagged and dragged over borders into the United States.
The reality is much different. Advocates who assist foreign-born victims say the majority of them immigrated legally using tourist or work visas and were exploited once in the United States. But most trafficking victims are U.S. citizens, like Litvak, whose high school friends in Katy, Tex., introduced her to the person who became her trafficker.
Other groups planning to attend the summit include Shared Hope International, Selah Freedom, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and House of Cherith, one of the facilities Ivanka visited in Atlanta.
“Dealing with an issue such as trafficking should always rise above partisan politics and tap into the best of all people as we work together to end this tragic reality,” said Bruce Deel, House of Cherith’s founder.
Those boycotting the event say partisan politics are already involved. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act also established the visa for immigrants who were forced, defrauded or coerced into prostitution (sex trafficked) or physical work (labor trafficked). In 2016, the processing time for a T visa application took an average of nearly eight months. Today, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) estimates applicants must wait 19½ to 26½ months to find out whether they will receive their visa.
“During that time, they are unable to work and unable to get medical care,” said Suamhirs Piraino-Guzman, a trafficking survivor who helps victims in Washington state apply for the visa. “We are talking about years where people are just stuck.”
His program has 130 people from 35 countries waiting to find out whether they will be granted one.
Previously, there was no risk for them to apply for a T visa. But in 2018, USCIS announced that applicants who were denied T visas could be summoned to immigration court to begin deportation proceedings.
“We hear time and time again: Why would I risk myself? Why would I risk my family?” said Deborah Pembrook, a trafficking survivor who helps T visa applicants in California.
After the change, the number of people applying for the visas, including victims and their immediate family members, dropped 23 percent.
For those who do apply, the chance of being denied is significantly higher.
During President Barack Obama’s eight years in office, nearly 6,800 people applied for a T visa, and more than 5,000 were approved in that period, USCIS figures show. Since Trump took office in 2017, more than 4,000 people have applied, but just 1,745 have been approved.
In fiscal year 2019, when USCIS received 1,242 T visa applications, just 500 were granted — the smallest count since 2010, a year in which only 541 people applied.
A spokeswoman for the agency said its policies for approving T visas have not changed and that those who meet the criteria for the visa are still granted one.
Anti-trafficking advocates say the visa situation exacerbates the fear and uncertainty their clients are already experiencing because of policy changes at the border and raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, leaving them more vulnerable to continued exploitation and more hesitant to come forward.
“Each change in isolation is problematic but not destructive,” said Jean Bruggeman, the executive director of Freedom Network USA. “It’s when you take them all together that these individual policy shifts add up to a disregard or worse toward immigrant survivors.”
Bruggeman said the administration’s approach was on display last year, when the Department of Housing and Urban Development was poised to distribute a $13.5 million grant for housing for human-trafficking victims. Bruggeman said that when organizations asked for clarification on whether the grant could serve noncitizen victims, HUD updated its call for applications to confirm the money could be used for immigrants, too.
Five days later, there was another update: The grant was canceled.
Following questions from reporters and intervention from lawmakers, the website changed again to reflect that the grant had merely been postponed. Administration officials say that it was transferred to the Justice Department and that the funds, though delayed, are now available.
After learning that multiple trafficking organizations were declining their invitations, officials defended the president’s record and said Trump’s new budget will propose additional funding for Justice Department investigations, prosecutions of human-trafficking cases and state and local organizations that aid trafficking victims.
Advocates expect the administration to announce more initiatives and funding at the summit. Eager to hear what those changes would be, Bruggeman said she initially RSVP’d yes to the event.
But after hearing the president would attend, and that some of her most prominent colleagues would not, she changed her mind.