It’s Labor Day in America, a time to celebrate the important labor protections guaranteed to us all. Today, thanks to organized labor, workers by law have a right to various protections, including timely payment, minimum wage, overtime pay, workplace safety, freedoms from harassment and discrimination, and more. Despite these protections, some employers violate these labor rights.
Of particular concern are those violations that constitute labor trafficking—a significant issue that gets far too little attention. Since 2007, the National Human Trafficking Hotline has identified more than 5,000 victims and survivors of labor trafficking. The number of unidentified victims, of course, is much higher. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that there are more than 20 million victims of labor trafficking worldwide—with about 1.5 million in the U.S., Canada and Europe.
U.S. law defines labor trafficking as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery.” (Trafficking Victims Protection Act, 22 USC § 7102(9)). In other words, it is a situation in which a person is forced to perform labor or services through threats or use of violence, lies, and other forms of coercion. Labor trafficking can happen across international borders, state borders, or even within one city—movement is not required. Both foreign nationals and U.S. citizens may be victims or perpetrators. And, it’s likely touched your life in some way or another—the food you are eating, the house you are living in, the hotel you’ve stayed at, etc.
While U.S. citizens can become victims of trafficking, many non-citizens are particularly vulnerable. For these folks, trafficking can begin or occur in their home countries, along their journey, or once they have arrived in the United States. Because traffickers prey on vulnerabilities, foreign nationals have significant risk factors due to language differences, cultural connections, community ties, resources, unfamiliarity with the law, and immigration status.
Recognizing these vulnerabilities—and the important role victims play in reporting, investigating and leading to punishment of traffickers—U.S. law has made some efforts to help. U.S. legislation provides special non-permanent status (“T nonimmigrant visa/status”) to victims who are in the U.S. on account of severe forms of trafficking and have been helpful to law enforcement in investigating and/or prosecuting traffickers. Providing this form of lawful status gives many victims the courage to confront their trafficker without fear of being deported, allowing for increased investigation and punishment of trafficking. It also provides a crucial path toward ensuring survivors can leave dangerous situations and have resources to recover and move forward after being trafficked.
Yet, the T visa is too rarely utilized. Federal law provides for 5,000 T-1 visas annually. Since its inception, however, that quota has never been reached. This indicates, in part, the difficulty of identifying victims. However, it also indicates the difficulty of getting a T visa approved. In 2018, there were 1,613 T visa applications; however, USCIS approved only 576 that year—about 35 percent. That same year, USCIS denied 300 applications, and the rest remain pending. By comparison, in 2015, USCIS received 1,040 applications and approved more than half.
The current anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy exacerbates the problem. Workers who might otherwise attempt to leave a trafficking situation or report their trafficker may be too fearful to do so. Employers may use such immigration policies to further exploit laborers, banking on the fact that migrant laborers don’t know their rights or the protections offered by law, and citing increased immigration enforcement as a threat. Additionally, amid the push to ramp up the deportation machine, immigration officers may take less care in determining whether someone is a potential victim or witness of trafficking instead of a deportable migrant.
The recent raid in Mississippi reflects this. More than 600 people were taken by immigration officials. There is no automatic screening for trafficking, despite the fact that these folks have a right to seek protections, and likely have important information that could help stop trafficking or other forms of labor exploitation. Nonetheless, the employer is continuing to operate and was not immediately charged, unlike its non-citizen employees.
In our work, The Advocates for Human Rights seeks to support victims of trafficking by strengthening the legal response to trafficking, conducting community outreach, victim identification, and providing legal services and referrals for support to victims. Since our labor trafficking program started about two years ago, we have assisted nearly 50 clients who are victims of severe forms of human trafficking. Luckily, for each of them, the T nonimmigrant visa allows them some measure of protection and a road to recovery.
Unfortunately, however, this path is becoming more fraught. It is now taking about 18 months for cases to be processed—time in which the vulnerable victim of trafficking must often wait far from family and with little support network. The Trump Administration is also making the path more difficult with increased demands for more evidence, denials of requests to waive fees despite statutory authority, protracted decision making, and greater resistance to providing protections.
Moreover, in the anti-immigrant climate, victims that were already fearful of reporting and interacting with the government are all the more fearful due to the harsh stance on immigration. And, with the government less likely to use mechanisms designed to encourage and support reporting (such as Continued Presence and Deferred Action), many victims remain in precarious situations. Unfortunately, while the federal government remains vocal about ending trafficking and supporting victims in theory, the current anti-immigrant posture of the administration has also meant that foreign national trafficking victims are not seeing that in practice.
As we celebrate this Labor Day, we need increased awareness of those who are being denied their labor rights due to labor trafficking, and are eager for the Federal Government to take greater strides towards preventing and punishing labor trafficking while properly supporting victims, regardless of their immigration status.
Lindsey Greising is a staff attorney in The Advocates for Human Rights’ Refugee and Immigrant Program.