The federal government is making it hard for labor trafficking victims to get legal immigration status that allows them to remain in the United States without fear of deportation, according to a first-of-its-kind nationwide report from Boston University.

“The findings of this report show that the T-visa system that is built on a goal of protecting survivors itself could be weaponized to restrict protections, in particular for marginalized groups,” said Julie Dahlstrom, director of Boston University Law’s Immigrants’ Rights & Human Trafficking and co-author of the report.

The U.S government provides a special visa for victims of trafficking — T-visas — and sets a cap of 5,000 per year. But U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, has granted less than 2,000 T-visa applications to survivors for each fiscal year since 2000.

Researchers also found that 42% of T-visa applications were denied in 2020, though that percentage declined slightly in 2021.

Advocates said that while the program has the best intentions of helping trafficking survivors, the implementation problems leave them at risk. An investigative series by the GBH News Center for Investigative Reporting found gaps in the T-visa application process are leaving trafficking victims in limbo in Massachusetts.

A flawed process

The new BU report comes from federal data won in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security. Researchers also surveyed almost 200 legal practitioners nationwide who work with applicants.

The T-visa was created through the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000. It was intended to give victims protection to remain in the United States and encourage them to cooperate with criminal investigations into human trafficking. With a T-visa, immigrants have a pathway to a green card. They can work legally, get a social security number to apply for public benefits and petition for their family members to come to the United States.

There is a striking difference in how few immigrants access the T-visa as opposed to the U-visa — which is for immigrants who are victims of a crime, witnesses to a crime or have suffered from domestic violence.

While the U-visa program has a cap of 10,000 annually, USCIS received 21,874 U-visa applications in fiscal year 2021, compared to 1,702 T-visa applications, according to Boston University data.

“The fact this protection is underutilized is really shocking given the context in which it exists,” said co-author Heba Gowayed, an assistant professor of sociology at Boston University.

Applicants generally have to report the trafficking crime to law enforcement, which can be a police department, local sheriff’s office, district attorney’s office, or a similar entity. They can ask that agency to sign a certification saying that they’ve cooperated with an investigation and reasonable requests from law enforcement.

The program’s long processing times can be difficult for immigrants because they don’t have a legal way to work while they wait, and no way to get social services, without relying on the kindness of nonprofits.

Over half of advocates responding to Boston University’s survey said their T-visa applications had taken over a year to process, with over 10% reporting that the process took longer than two years.

From 2014 to 2019, T-visa denials increased by more than 250%. From 2014 to 2021, applicants from just six nations — South Korea, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, the Philippines and Mexico — accounted for 73% of denials.

Immigration attorneys told Dahlstrom and Gowayed that USCIS placed significant restrictions on the T-visa program under former President Donald Trump.

Julie Dahlstom 2
Julie Dahlstrom directs Boston University Law's Immigrants' Rights & Human Trafficking. Student attorneys, under the supervision of Dahlstrom, helped Anabelle Masalon get a T-visa.
Photo by Sarah Betancourt, GBH News

They reported applicants were denied because of unlawful acts they were compelled by traffickers to commit or because of narrower legal interpretations of the requirement that applicants show they are physically present in the United States “on account of” trafficking.

In essence, researchers said, the Trump administration interpreted it to mean that people who were freed from their traffickers but applied for the T-visa years later were often denied.

Deportation threats increased under Trump

Attorneys also said that during the Trump administration, the threat of deportation made applying for a T-visa risky.

Labor trafficked immigrants, many of whom are undocumented, have to let the federal government know of their existence to apply for a T-visa, inherently leaving them vulnerable to deportation.

According to the report, once the federal government denied their applications, USCIS gave their cases over to immigration enforcement to force people to appear in court in the first step toward deportation.

“It was actually by stepping forward to apply for this important protection that they ended up in removal proceedings, which is incredibly, incredibly troubling,” said Dahlstrom.

The report found that the government issued 236 notices to T-visas applicants to appear in court — notices issued under a 2018 federal rule that President Joe Biden rescinded shortly after his inauguration.

T-visa applicants can ask for a police report, court documents and certifications from law enforcement that they have cooperated in an investigation. Even though it’s not a requirement, getting a certification signed by a law enforcement agency can help the application with USCIS.

But barriers are significant and stem from anti-immigrant sentiment, lack of immigration law knowledge by police and bureaucracy. And immigrant victims may already be afraid to come forward because they have been threatened with deportation by their traffickers, or are worried about arrests related to their trafficking.

“People sort of get in front of law enforcement, you know, spill their guts,” Gowayed said. But the result has often been “Tell them everything and then get no form of support, get no follow up, get no questions.”

The report finds Black, Indigenous and historically marginalized immigrants often find themselves disproportionately criminalized and “less likely” to be believed by law enforcement.