Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Visas, Not Vagaries

When a woman takes her first few steps of freedom after escaping the grasp of her trafficker, all too often the first thing that runs through her mind is “What now?” 

This, in part, is why Amirah exists. We’re trying to ensure that women who survive the nightmarish experience of trafficking know that they have somewhere to go besides the streets. But it’s not always that simple. Many survivors were trafficked into the country from Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, West Africa, or some other hotbed of trafficking activity. And since immigration laws exist in this country – laws that traffickers tend not to pay much attention to – women who have suddenly tasted the sweetness of freedom often begin to wonder whether the next step is a forced deportation back to their home country, where they may fear abuse, poverty or even starvation. 

Fortunately, this doesn’t usually have to happen. If a trafficking survivor who was illegally brought into the country helps to prosecute his or her former captors, usually by testifying in court, and if the government believes the survivor would suffer “extreme hardship” if sent home, he or she may receive a T-visa. This allows him or her to stay and work in the United States for up to for four years; three years in, he or she may apply for permanent residency. Up to 5,000 T-visas can be handed out per year, although unfortunately, not nearly enough trafficking cases are uncovered annually to make this limit meaningful. Most years see only a few hundred T-visas distributed to survivors. 

The U-Visa
There is another visa, the U-visa, that trafficking survivors can apply for if they have been physically or mentally abused by traffickers operating on American soil. Unlike the T-visa, U-visas can be granted to individuals even after they have left the country. In order to obtain this visa, recipients must have assisted law enforcement officials in investigating or prosecuting their traffickers, although in practice such assistance can have been as minimal as, say, calling 911. They must also be willing to continue to assist law enforcement in any ongoing investigations or prosecutions. 

The annual U-visa quota is 10,000, twice that of the T-visa. However, U-visas can be extended to those who have suffered from a number of crimes committed on American soil, such as torture, perjury, domestic violence or murder. As a result, for the past three years, the U-visa cap has been reached before the year is out. This fall, the government issued its 10,000th U-visa on September 3, nearly a month before the fiscal year ended on September 30th. Many victims’ advocates, including the author of a recent New York Times editorial, have called for raising or even eliminating the annual cap, complaining that it sets an arbitrary limit on justice and creates unnecessary backlogs. (All U-visa applications sent in after the cap is reached go to the front of next year’s queue, so the wait for new visas is continually growing.) 

Because of the T-visa, human trafficking is the only crime whose survivors rarely have to worry about backlogs when applying with visas. Unless they are no longer in the United States and have no choice, trafficking survivors are usually best served by sticking to the T-visa and avoiding the U-visa and its ever-increasing backlog altogether. 

Sadly, many women who emerge from conditions of slavery have additional problems that stand in the way of a safe harbor in the States. As Bob noted earlier this year, many of them have Stockholm Syndrome, which makes it difficult for them to cooperate with law enforcement officials and earn their T-visa. Others face difficult choices: either stay in the United States and struggle towards permanent residency status while attempting to overcome their post-enslavement trauma, or return home to their families and give up the hope of a better future for the comfort of seeing home again. 

We cannot hope to solve every problem that these women face. In a fallen world, even our best efforts will produce incomplete solutions to what is, in effect, a manifestation of complete evil. But the relative success of T-visas and U-visas proves that human efforts can, in fact, have a positive impact on the lives of trafficking survivors. If nothing else, these visas at least give survivors a choice between going home to the land of their birth and staying in the United States to work towards building a better future for themselves. And at the end of the day, that’s what freedom is all about. Choices. 

Jack is a sophomore at Gordon College, where he studies English, political science, human nature, and how to make the world a better place. 

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