About two and a half years ago, a 17-year-old named Isaac and a group of other migrants from Central America followed a smuggler to the southwest border of the United States near McAllen, Texas.
After losing both of his parents and his older brother to violence in his home country, which he declined to identify, Isaac (whose name has been changed for his safety) had embarked on the journey north to join the only other relatives he knew — an aunt and uncle who lived in central Texas.
But within minutes of crossing the border, Isaac and the others were surrounded by a group of men who took them to a trailer park and held them captive, demanding a ransom from their relatives in the United States. Until then they would be forced to cook, clean and do other domestic work for their captors.
“He was threatened with guns, beaten at least once and threatened with death a few times,” said Robert Painter, an attorney at American Gateways, a Texas-based nonprofit that provides legal services to particularly vulnerable immigrant populations, including survivors of human trafficking. Unable to call his aunt and uncle, Isaac was held for two to three weeks, Painter says — a relatively brief stint compared to the years many trafficking victims spend in captivity — before escaping and uniting with his relatives in Texas. About a year later, he was apprehended by ICE agents during a worksite raid and taken to immigration detention where, upon hearing his story, a legal service provider from American Gateways identified him as a trafficking victim.
According to Painter, who is now defending Isaac against deportation, his young client’s experience is “a pretty good example” of the kinds of trafficking scenarios immigrants typically encounter in the Rio Grande Valley and elsewhere, where people who have just crossed the border are held for ransom, physically and sexually assaulted and forced to work indefinitely. It’s not clear whether the men who captured Isaac were linked to his smuggler, but Painter said “there are definitely instances where there’s coordination between groups on both sides of the border, and other situations where there are people on the U.S. side who know where vulnerable people cross and prey on them there.”
“A lot of trafficking that occurs in the immigrant community happens when they arrive at the United States,” said Painter. What happened to Isaac, he adds, is a “much more common situation than people being taped up and brought over” — the lurid scenario President Trump keeps mentioning in his speeches calling for a wall on the border.
But the reality on the border suggests a wall isn’t going to help. And some aspects of the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigration generally are making it harder to identify and assist actual victims of trafficking.
To be sure, Painter clarified, trafficking victims may be subjected to violence, including sexual assault. However, he said, “I think the president’s characterization of that was simple and designed to promote people’s fears rather than being consistent with how trafficking at the border actually works.”
Painter’s comments echo much of what experts have been saying about human trafficking, which does not typically involve women being bound and crammed into the backs of cars or vans and smuggled across unchecked sections of the border.
Such tales have become a central part of the Trump’s argument for a border wall, sending both journalists and — according to a Vox report — even U.S. border officials scrambling unsuccessfully to substantiate them.
“I’m not saying it’s impossible, but the cases we see typically do not follow that fact pattern,” said Evangeline Chan, director of the Immigration Law Project at Safe Horizon, a New York-based nonprofit that works with victims of abuse and violent crimes.
Chan said that the majority of the foreign trafficking victims her organization works with enter the country through ports of entry with visas and other legal documents.
“A large portion of our clients are labor-trafficked,” said Chan, explaining that these women are typically recruited in their home country by someone in the United States offering to help them apply for a temporary work visa only to discover, upon arrival, that the job is not what they were promised, usually “domestic work with little pay and substandard conditions.”
“A typical survivor coming through our doors for support is: a woman [76.2%], aged 18-49 [76%], originally from Southeast Asia [31%], Central America [11%] or Mexico [23%], who has experienced labor trafficking and exploitation, most often at the hands of employment agencies [25%] or intimate partners [27%],” she said. “The victims really span all races, ethnicities, genders, age, socioeconomic backgrounds — and so do their traffickers.”
In fact, immigrants comprise neither the majority of traffickers in the United States nor their victims. According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, 5,147 cases of human trafficking were reported in the U.S. in 2018. Most of the victims in those cases were U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents.
The most recent available data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics on federal prosecution of human trafficking cases shows that 94 percent of defendants charged with a federal human trafficking offense in 2015 were U.S. citizens, 88 percent were male, and 57 percent were white.
“That’s not to say it’s not [a] very risky journey up north for people coming from Central America and Mexico,” Chan continued. “Often the victims don’t even know they’re in trafficking situations until they’re very deep in,” she said. “The force and fraud being used in trafficking situations [is] a lot more subtle” than the scenarios discussed by Trump, which bear more than a passing resemblance to scenes from the 2018 movie “Sicario: Day of the Soldado.”
Anne Chandler, executive director of the Houston office of the Tahirih Justice Center, which provides legal and social services to immigrant women and girls fleeing violence, said that it is not uncommon for smuggling to turn into trafficking once migrants have made it over the border. Chandler, who also teaches a course on human trafficking law and policy at the University of Houston Law Center, said that an example of the kind of trafficking scenario encountered by women from Mexico or Central America is one in which the woman’s family agrees to pay a smuggler to get them through Mexico and to the border, only to be led into the hands of a kidnapper who holds them for ransom on the U.S. side.
Until that extra money is paid — and sometimes even after — the women are held captive and forced to work, doing anything from cleaning bathtubs and other kinds of domestic labor to sexual services, or both.
Chandler said that smugglers will assure women who cannot afford the initial fee that they can work and pay it off once they reach the United States, an agreement that she said typically turns into “debt bondage.”
“This is the most common scenario,” said Chandler. “Regardless of how many years these young women [work], they have ledgers that, once you start doing the math, you realize they’re not going to be able to pay them off.”
Beyond the inaccuracy of his statements, Trump’s proclaimed concerns about the issue of human trafficking ring hollow for many attorneys and immigrant rights advocates, who point to a number of ways his administration has already sought to make life harder for immigrant victims of trafficking.
According to the U.S. State Department’s 2018 Trafficking in Person’s report, the Department of Homeland Security granted significantly fewer T visas –temporary legal status and work authorization for which certain victims of human trafficking and their immediate family members are eligible—in 2017 compared to the year before.
“DHS granted T nonimmigrant status to 672 victims and 690 eligible family members of victims in FY 2017, a decrease from 750 and 986 in FY 2016.”
While the T visa application process itself has not technically changed since Trump took office, Chan said that “a lot of policies from the administration have made it much more difficult and much more risky to apply.”
In addition to the Administration’s generally tougher approach to immigration enforcement, Chan said she’s seen subtle changes in the way U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is adjudicating T visa requests. Applicants, especially those who’ve had any kind of interaction with law enforcement in the past, are facing much more scrutiny, frequently being asked to provide additional documents and other evidence to prove they are “a person of good moral character.”
In the past, Chan said, “these humanitarian-based benefits were very forgiving and now they’re not.”
Not only has it become harder to obtain a T visa, but under a new policy issued over the summer by USCIS, those whose applications fail to meet the agency’s rising standards are now at greater risk of deportation.
Based on the enforcement priorities of previous administrations, Chan said, “traditionally the government would not actively seek removal for survivors or victims of trafficking,” even if their T visa application had been denied. Under President Trump, however, ICE has essentially stated that all immigrants who are in the country illegally, regardless of circumstance or criminal history, is a priority for deportation. As part of the new policy guidelines, which USCIS issued in June to “better align with enforcement priorities” of the Trump administration, applicants for T visas and other humanitarian benefits whose requests are denied can now be placed automatically in removal proceedings.
“If the government wanted to do more to protect trafficking victims, it would not implement policies that hurt survivors for coming forward,” said Chan. “They would have a better system for accounting for minors who cross into country unaccompanied, and not implement bureaucratic hurdles in the T visa application process that make it much more difficult for them to have applications approved.”
Painter noted that for clients like Isaac, who are already in removal proceedings, changes to immigration court procedure have also imposed major hurdles to securing a T visa. In May 2018, then Attorney General Jeff Sessions revoked immigration judges’ authority to “administratively close” a case, or temporarily put proceedings on hold before issuing a decision.
“If you have a T visa pending, you should be able to stop going to court until there is a resolution,” said Painter.
The Tahirih Justice Center’s Chandler said there are definitely “notable differences” in the way T visa applications have been adjudicated in the last year and a half. However, she argued that the “climate of fear” President Trump’s rhetoric and policies have created among immigrants is the “biggest factor in the drop” of T visa grants, noting cooperation with law enforcement is often part of the process for obtaining a T visa.
“Survivors, to be effective in human trafficking cases, have to have fortitude and desire to share their stories with law enforcement and engage in that prosecution,” she said.
Chandler and the others also expressed concern about the Trump administration’s crackdown on asylum seekers at the border, including the newly implemented policy requiring those who request asylum at the border to remain in Mexico for the duration of their immigration proceedings, which could take years.
“The harder it is … to present oneself in honest and sincere ways along the border, the more the likelihood of exploitation increases,” said Chandler. According to the White House’s own statistics, included in a press release on Friday “[m]ore than 30% of women are sexually assaulted on the journey to our southern border” and “[n]early 70% of migrants traveling north to the United States are victims of violence.”
“I have found it just amazing to see Trump kind of frame his border policy as one of exclusion as a necessary response to ensure that women and children are not trafficked and not abused, as if this is somehow a humanitarian response from the U.S.,” said Chandler. “I couldn’t think anything further from the truth.”
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