Perhaps one of the least common visa categories in the United States is that of the T visa, a status provided to the victims of human trafficking who assist in the investigation and prosecution of those involved in human trafficking. T status affords a direct path to lawful permanent residence (a “green card”), though critics maintain the protective status is flawed in many key respects.
Background of T Status in the United States
The U.S. Department of State estimates that 14,500 to 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States each year from foreign countries, but these numbers do not include the many individuals trafficked within U.S. borders. Human trafficking generally impacts women and children at a disproportionate rate, and in the United States, victims of trafficking are almost exclusively immigrants.
In October 2000, recognizing the harmful impact of human trafficking on foreign persons in the country, Congress created the “T” nonimmigrant status when it passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (“TVPA”) as part of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000. The TVPA strengthened the ability of law enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecutive human trafficking. Part of the legislation provided immigration protections to noncitizen victims of human trafficking through the enactment of the T visa.
Who Qualifies for a T Visa?
A T visa, which offers beneficiaries T nonimmigrant status, is available to noncitizens who are or have been victims of a severe form of human trafficking and who assist in the detection, investigation, or prosecution of acts of trafficking. To qualify for T nonimmigrant status, an individual must demonstrate the following:
- They are or have been a victim of a severe form of trafficking in persons;
- They are physically present in the United States, American Samoa, or the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, or at a port of entry, on account of trafficking;
- They have complied with any reasonable request from a law enforcement agency for assistance in the investigation or prosecution of human trafficking or qualify for an exemption or exception;
- They would suffer extreme hardship involving unusual and severe harm if they were removed from the United States.
Additionally, a beneficiary who is under 18 at the time of the trafficking or is unable to cooperate with law enforcement due to physical or psychological trauma, may qualify for T nonimmigrant status without complying with any request to assist law enforcement. As with any individual seeking status in the United States, the beneficiary must either be admissible or seek a waiver for any inadmissibility.
Barriers to T Visa Relief
In a recent article, “For labor trafficked immigrants, T-visas are a lifesaving but flawed relief,” Sarah Betancourt and Jenifer B. McKim discussed the flaws with the T visa process. For instance, the average processing time for a T visa application is nearly one year, during which time the vast majority of beneficiaries are not authorized to work in the United States. Given the unique economic disadvantage of victims of human trafficking, this delay without employment is enough to financially devastate those who qualify.
Additionally, data reflects that 39% of all applications for T status processed by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”) in 2021 were denied, more than double the number of denials just five years ago. While the reasons underlying the denials vary, there are concerns that victims will be dissuaded from seeking relief due to delays in filing or even technical filing errors. It would be appropriate for USCIS to minimize delays for T visa applications and seek to afford deference to potential victims for human trafficking while ensuring that no one takes advantage of the program.
Moving forward, a simple, but powerful policy adjustment would be to allow T visa applicants to become authorized for employment while their petition remains pending. In fact, applicants for asylum receive work eligibility 150 days after filing. By mirroring the work authorization policy utilized for asylum applicants, T visa applicants can ensure that they have access to critical resources to support them in their transition into a better life.
The underutilized and often unknown T visa program provides critical protection for victims of human trafficking. The process is imperfect, but when utilized properly, it saves lives and reunites loved ones. Minor adjustments to the T visa process could expand relief for countless victims and ensure that the victims who need help are able to access relief.
To learn more about this blog post, or if you have any other immigration concerns, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or (484) 544-0022.