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New details revealed on visas given to victims of human trafficking

(Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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Three years ago, while fact-checking what we described as “fantastical human-trafficking claims” by President Donald Trump, we discovered that the federal government did not publish a breakdown by nationality of visas given to victims of human trafficking, which are known as T visas.

It was a strange gap in the data. The best information we could provide was to note that 40 percent of T-derivative visas, for family members, were issued by the U.S. Embassy in Manila. We were frustrated enough by this issue that we even sent a note to staff members for key congressional committees urging that this data be made public.

With little public notice, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, recently released a breakdown on 14 years of human-trafficking visas in a fact sheet.

T visas, created in 2000 when Congress passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, are available only to victims of human trafficking and require that the applicant be in the United States or at a port of entry “on account of” trafficking. Visa applicants also are expected to assist in the investigation or prosecution of human trafficking. (There’s also another type of visa, the U Visa, for victims of serious crime who assist law enforcement.)

“This report was created as a tool for the general public to understand and recognize the characteristics of T Visa applicants and was published in January 2022 as part of USCIS’s commitment to supporting and protecting victims of human trafficking and other serious crimes,” said Anita Rios Moore, a USCIS spokeswoman, in a statement to the Fact Checker.

We’re publishing some highlights to draw attention to the new data. We’ve noted before the paucity of reliable data on sex trafficking — and how what numbers are available indicate that many politicians rely on exaggerated figures.

Trump, for instance, had — without any evidence — claimed in his 2019 State of the Union address that “thousands of young girls and women” were being smuggled between ports of entry and being sold “into prostitution and modern-day slavery.”

It’s important to remember that most foreign nationals who are trafficked come through legal ports of entry. Data collected by the United Nations’ International Organization on Migration, analyzing 10 years of information on more than 90,000 victims, has found that 79 percent of international trafficking journeys “go through official border points, such as airports and land border control points.” The IOM said that “about a third of official border points are crossed by bus, another third by train, and 20 percent by plane.”

From fiscal 2008 to fiscal 2021, people born in six countries accounted for 71 percent of the T visas, the USCIS revealed in the fact sheet. As we suspected, the Philippines was first, with 22 percent, followed by Mexico (20 percent), India (9 percent), Honduras (9 percent), Guatemala (7 percent) and Thailand (7 percent).

These numbers represent both T visas and T-derivative visas. Moore said that if just visas issued to victims were counted, the order of the top six countries would be in a slightly different order: Mexico, the Philippines, Honduras, India, Guatemala and Thailand.

By statute, no more than 5,000 principal T visas may be granted in any fiscal year, but there is no cap for derivative family members. (About 59 percent of the derivative visas are for children.)

The first headline in the fact sheet says “USCIS Has Received More Than 25,000 T Visa Applications and Approved More Than 17,000,” but you have to read deeply into the document to learn that the total number of victims who received visas over the 14-year period was just 8,550, for both sex and labor trafficking. The other 8,860 visas were for derivative family members.

The actual breakdown between the two types of trafficking is not clear because it is not always collected. “USCIS Form I-914, Application for T Nonimmigrant Status, does not have a field where an applicant indicates the trafficking type, but the Form I-914, Supplement B, Declaration of Law Enforcement Officer for Victim of Trafficking in Persons specifically asks for this information and gives us the ability to gather this characteristic,” Moore said. Supplement B is optional but allows applicants to demonstrate they are victims of a severe form of trafficking.

Only 16 percent, or 1,368 people, of the 8,550 principal visa applicants filled out supplement B. Of that group, 74 percent listed labor trafficking as the form of trafficking while 39 percent listed sex trafficking; only 8.6 percent — 120 people — reported they were sex-trafficked as a minor. Some supplement B forms included both labor and sex trafficking, which is why the total adds up to more than 100 percent.

These percentages suggest labor trafficking is a bigger problem than sex trafficking. In any case, the number of visas given to victims of human trafficking is relatively small — an average of about 600 a year. That’s far below the 5,000 annual cap.

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