For years, foreign-born trafficking victims — many of whom are coerced into sex work or what amounts to labor slavery — have been eligible to apply for humanitarian visas allowing them to remain and work in this country. Over the past decade or so, more than two-thirds of those applications have been approved, often in return for agreeing to testify against their traffickers. In many cases, the victims’ spouses and children were also granted visas. Enter the Trump administration.
In its first full year in office, the approval rate for those trafficking victim visas was cut in half, to about 35 percent. More applicants were denied visas than in any year since 2003, when the program was established, and the number of visas approved, 580, was the lowest in seven years. Meanwhile, as visa applications surged, possibly driven by victims’ fears of stepped-up deportations, the backlog of pending applicants more than doubled from two years earlier, to more than 3,400. Wait times for visas can now extend more than two years.
To justify his border wall, Mr. Trump is fond is conjuring the specter of sex trafficking victims brought over the southern border. “Women are tied up, they’re bound, duct tape put around their faces,” he said — a garish but apparently imaginary scenario that people who work with trafficking victims say they have never encountered. (In fact, many or most victims enter the country legally, with tourist or work visas.)
“The administration appears to view trafficking as a convenient tool to justify its border policies, rather than as a human tragedy to be seriously addressed,” said Martina Vandenberg, head of the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center, which does advocacy work.
Now there are ominous signs that the administration is tightening its grip. Beginning late last year, applicants for visas were put on notice that they may be subject to deportation proceedings in immigration court if their bids for humanitarian visas are denied. That was a shift from earlier practice under which applicants were exempt from summons to immigration court, a policy designed to incentivize victims to come forward. In addition, lawyers for trafficking victims say their clients, often penniless, are now subject to steep fees that were previously waived in the course of their visa applications.
The likely effect is to compound the trauma many victims have suffered, forcing them further into the shadows while impeding the very prosecutions the administration boasts it has undertaken against traffickers. In fact, in the administration’s first year, the number of new cases opened by the Justice Department against traffickers fell by about 20 percent from the previous year. In place of tough action on trafficking, Mr. Trump sheds crocodile tears.