In 2018, the police came to a home in Saugus, Massachusetts, to rescue Anabelle Masalon, a Filipina housekeeper who had been essentially a prisoner of the family from the United Arab Emirates that employed her.

She had been forced to work 21-hour days, earning no more than $400 a month, unable to leave the house alone. Now she was liberated — but she had no phone, no money and just a few hastily packed clothes. She was traumatized and dependent on acquaintances for housing.

Masalon was told she could apply for a form of immigration relief called a T-visa. The visa is a lifeline for those who have suffered sex or labor trafficking in the United States, allowing them a pathway to legal residency. But unlike asylum claims and other types of visas, most T-visa applicants cannot legally work until their visa is approved. And the process can take more than a year.

“It's very difficult because we cannot get a job,’’ said Masalon. “How can I eat?”

Many survivors like Masalon escape from a trafficking situation with little more than the proverbial shirt on their backs.

The GBH News Center for Investigative Reporting spoke to nearly a dozen people in Massachusetts who say they were victims of forced labor, having to sneak down the back stairs to escape or call 911 for help. An ongoing GBH series on labor trafficking has found that those victims are often overlooked and their abusers go unpunished.

Victims of labor trafficking — even more than sex trafficking victims — lack sufficient government services, according to a recent federal report on human trafficking.

And immigration advocates say T-visa applications can take too long to process, too many applications are denied and there’s a lack of knowledge about who can even qualify for them. Although the federal government allows for as many as 5,000 T-visas a year, only a fraction of that number are issued — an average of just over 600 a year between 2008 and 2022, according to federal data.

Julie Dahlstrom, director of the Immigrants' Rights and Human Trafficking Program at Boston University School of Law, says despite a commitment at the federal level to support the T-visa program, there are many obstacles to making it work.

“It's not functioning well, and it's not protecting those who are most vulnerable,” Dahlstrom said. “It's incredibly important for us to look at this program, look at the failures of it, and see how we can do this work better.”

Barriers to T-visa relief

Masalon said she arrived in the United States in 2018 with a family from Abu Dhabi who sought medical care for their twins with special needs. She worked from early morning to 2 a.m., cleaning, cooking and caring for the children.

Masalon said the family she worked for locked her in the house when they left. She didn’t attempt to escape because she needed her meager salary to send home to her own three children in the Philippines. And she was scared of her employers.

“These people are very powerful,’’ Masalon explained. “They can do everything.”

She says she’ll never forget when she was rescued — getting into the squad car and driving away. She felt bad about leaving the children she had cared for, but she was relieved to be out of the house.

“I covered my face. My employer, the man, he was so angry,” she said.

After Masalon escaped, she found housing with an acquaintance in Stoneham. At first she was afraid to go out, traumatized by her experience and worried that the police would return and take the side of her employer. She was introduced to Dahlstrom and a group of student attorneys who helped her pursue a T-visa.

T-visas are reserved for foreign nationals who can prove to the federal government that they are a victim of a “severe form of trafficking.” To apply for a T-visa, a victim has to submit a detailed recounting of the trafficking incident. Police reports, affidavits and any other evidence can be submitted, along with a certification by a law enforcement officer that the victim cooperated with any criminal investigation into the trafficking. In Masalon’s case, both the Massachusetts attorney general’s office and the Saugus Police Department provided certification for her T-visa application, which helped her case.

Benefits of a T-visa include four years of lawful immigration status and work authorization, the opportunity to apply for a green card, access to federal refugee benefits like cash assistance and food stamps, and the ability to bring family members to the United States.

But median processing times for T-visas increased from about 12 months in fiscal year 2018 to 18 months in fiscal year 2021, according to federal data.

Two women converse as they sit at opposite ends of a small table in an office. A large folder and papers lie on the table between them.
Julie Dahlstrom, director of Boston University Law's Immigrants' Rights & Human Trafficking, and former student attorney Betsy Byra helped Anabelle Masalon get a T-visa for the abuses she suffered during labor trafficking.
Sarah Betancourt GBH News

Caddie Nath-Folsom, a staff attorney with the Justice Center of Southeast Massachusetts, says application forms have gotten much longer and the government doesn’t have the capacity to cope with the volume of paperwork.

“The biggest challenge survivors are having right now is the unbelievable delay and processing of these applications,” she said.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency in charge of T-visas, didn’t respond to requests for comment on that claim.

President Joe Biden's administration appears to be speeding up the process. The median processing time is now 11.3 months, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services data. But there were still over 5,000 applications pending as of June 30.

“I can't even imagine being in limbo like that,” said Betsy Byra, one of the law students who worked on Masalon’s case. “It's a really hard thing to have to tell your story and then just kind of wait and see what happens.”

Struggles after the abuse ends

Nath-Folsom said many victims are stuck in this limbo, going months or years with little to no pay, and facing both trauma and unpaid debts associated with the trafficking.

“Trafficking survivors, almost by definition, are in severe financial straits,” she said. “They all desperately need to work when they escape.”

Some trafficking victims can get a special work authorization on request of federal investigators, but the majority of those applying for help are not given that option.

Masalon was connected to the nonprofit International Institute of New England, one of four Massachusetts providers of the federally funded Trafficking Victim Assistance Program, known as TVAP.

She said the program provided her with the $200 a month she needed for rent in a space with other Filipinas, helped with food stamps, and gave her a gift card every month. She also attended free English classes.

In an August interview, Andrew Lennon, a program manager for the institute, says each person is allotted between $6,000 to $7,500 a year. As of October, that amount of funding provided by the federal government was slashed in half, according to Lennon. But they still assist.

The institute tries to use about 20% of the TVAP funds for administrative expenses. The rest is spent on immediate needs like rent, food and transit for the victim. Survivors get the autonomy of deciding how to use the money.

“It’s basically to help provide funds for folks who are in between a very bad situation and a T-visa,” he said.

Demands for these services have been rising. The organization saw 19 clients in fiscal year 2020, 86 in 2021, and 104 through the first part of 2022.

“The attorneys we work with have mentioned that they are noticing an increased number of T-visa cases coming in,” said Lennon.

The nonprofit U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, which proctors the TVAP program, is seeing an increase across the country of people accessing the program.

But the aid is not guaranteed. Survivors of trafficking have to meet a laundry list of qualifications to get trafficking victim assistance funds, including being willing to assist law enforcement in the investigation of their traffickers.

The nonprofit believes that the rules prevent all but a few victims from benefiting from the program, noting that the federal government certified only 412 victims for the TVAP program in 2018. In a 2020 report, AnnaMarie Bena, senior vice president of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, said the system is "broken" and the federal government is "clearly issuing fewer certifications than there are actual, identified trafficking victims."

The nonprofit wants to see social workers assess a victims’ eligibility based on their trafficking experience, make the recommendation to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and have the agency make the final call without input from law enforcement.

Bena also said victims of trafficking need to be able to work while their applications are pending.

“We would want people who have been labor trafficked — for goodness' sake — to at least have authorization,” she said. “To be able to work quickly and know that they can do it legally and take care of themselves and kind of get them back on that path.”

A growing number of denials

Victims have a reason to worry as they wait — an increasing number of applicants are being denied, records show. USCIS rejected 39% of the applications it processed in fiscal year 2021. That is more than double the 19% that were denied in 2016.

Some immigrants didn’t want to apply at all during former President Donald Trump's years in office, worried about placing themselves on the federal government’s radar, said Yael Schacher, deputy director for the Americas and Europe at Refugees International. The chance of rejection from an administration prioritizing deportation seemed like a bad idea, she said.

“Essentially, if you were rejected, the possibility that you would be put into removal proceedings went up," she said.

Schacher said applicants from Central American countries are disproportionately getting rejected. Immigrants cancontest denials, but are often unsuccessful. Schacher authored a 2019 report titled “Abused, blamed and refused,” describing the rise of denials as “based on new, overly narrow, and harsh interpretations of the standards" of law.

Rejections come for a multitude of reasons, but many of them, advocates say, shouldn’t be happening. For example, the U.S. State Department acknowledged in its 2022 Trafficking In Persons annual report that people are being denied based on “unlawful acts traffickers compelled victims to commit.”

The federal government also has denied visas to people who escaped their traffickers but took years to file an application. Martina Vandenberg, president of the The Human Trafficking Legal Center in Washington, D.C., says this is a misreading of the law.

“The idea you have to apply for a T-visa quickly with deadlines is absurd because many people are so traumatized and thwarted in their efforts to find assistance that they don’t apply for years after they have been abused and trafficked,” she said.

A little-known saving grace

Beyond these barriers, many immigrants simply don’t know about the T-visa, or find out years after they were subjected to labor trafficking.

“It's both that people don't necessarily know about it, but it's also that identifying cases as being appropriate for [T-visas] and having folks who would be able to take advantage of it come forward are difficult things,” said Audrey Richardson, managing attorney of the Greater Boston Legal Services’ Employment Law Unit, which works with survivors to secure visas.

Mayra Molen
Mayra Molena shows GBH News a photo of the papusas she sold from her home after her boss at a local construction firm stopped paying her in 2013. Forced to make ends meet, she took out funds from loan sharks and struggled immensely before apply for a T-visa.
Photo by Sarah Betancourt, GBH News

Mayra Molena spent six years selling papusas — a stuffed flatbread native to South and Central America — out of her East Boston apartment before learning the abuses she suffered under a Massachusetts construction outfit constituted labor trafficking.

She wasn’t brought into the country by her employer, and she wasn’t physically kept in a building against her will. But her circumstances qualified her for a T-visa, according to her attorney, because she was a victim of fraud and coercion.

The 44-year-old worked for a construction firm from 2010 to 2013, sometimes working over 60 hours weekly putting up sheetrock in Greater Boston’s new office buildings.

But in December 2013, checks from her employer started bouncing, eventually totaling about $20,000 she was not paid.

She kept calling her boss.

“I left him messages saying the checks were bouncing but he didn’t reply to my calls,” Molena said. “I didn’t think I could pursue it more, I left the job, because I’m not going to work if I’m not getting paid.”

Molena started selling papusas, making nowhere near the wages of her old job.

“It affected me a lot. I had a daughter in El Salvador. I couldn’t send as much back as I had to,” she said.

Molena started borrowing from loan sharks at high interest rates, and the stress of not being able to pay them back landed her in the hospital from high blood pressure in 2019.

That’s when an organizer at MassCOSH’s Centro de Trabajadores had her meet with Boston-based immigration attorney Talia Barrales.

“She told me about the T-visa, the process, and that I could qualify,” Molena said.

Beyond wage theft, psychological abuse and threats of deportation can be used in a successful T-visa application.

Enilda Lobo.png
Enilda Lobo was threatened with deportation continously by a manager at the Boston restaurant Cosi. She now has a T-visa as a result of the abuse.
Photo by Sarah Betancourt, GBH News

Enilda Lobo, 45, an El Salvadoran immigrant, was granted a T-visa after she was harassed at a former Boston location of the chain restaurant Cosi in 2016.

Lobo says she and other Spanish-speaking employees made $9 an hour — less than minimum wage and less than their bilingual colleagues earned.

Within a couple years, she says, a manager began harassing the undocumented employees.

“One day I showed up to work early, and he proceeded to tell me he was a Trump supporter. That all of us who came here illegally should leave, and that it wouldn’t take much to get us fired from our jobs,” Lobo said.

The man, she said, told her that he came to the United States legally from Colombia. He threatened to call U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to get them deported.

“I asked my husband if I could resign because immigration could show up,” said Lobo. The stress kept her up many nights.

Lobo left in 2019 to work at a nonprofit organization. Barrales heard her story and told her that she could qualify for a T-visa because her labor was obtained through use of force when her manager threatened to have her deported. They applied in March 2021, and the visa was approved in April 2022.

Barrales explained that Lobo and Molena qualified for a T-visa even though the abuse they suffered might not seem as obvious as a domestic worker being brought into the country and locked in a house.

“Why do we need to get to that level of exploitation for it to be worthy of a T-visa?” she asked. If someone was, against their will, “used for free labor for one day, or was for 20 years kept as a nanny” she said, “it still meets the legal definition of obtaining the labor, recruiting someone through fraud, force or coercion.”

Getting legal

When a trafficking survivor does get a T-visa, the relief is dramatic — and emotional.

About 17 months after her escape, Masalon found out she qualified for a visa because she worked under threat and coercion and was robbed of fair wages. She’ll never forget crying over the call she got while riding a bus.

Masalon now lives in Malden with other trafficking survivors and works as a housekeeper and for Domino’s pizza.

She used the T-visa to help her children — teenagers who she hadn’t seen in 11 years — come to the United States. This is a common benefit of the program. Over 8,800 visas for family members were granted between 2008 and 2022, federal data shows.

“My children are here,’’ she said. “We are reunited again.”

Asked if she plans to file a criminal case against her employer, Masalon said no, because of the man’s children.

“I feel now that I am safe,” she said. “I feel sorry for the kids, for the children. But for the employer? No.”

Boston University journalism student Jean Paul Azzopardi contributed to this article. This story was reported as part of a partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and other media partners.