Victims of human trafficking crimes are not utilizing visas that allow them to live and work in the United States legally for four years according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. In 2011, 967 victims applied for the visas and 557 were approved, along with 722 of their family members, far less than the cap allowed for.
In order to qualify for a T visa, a victim must be willing to cooperate with law enforcement in the investigation or prosecution of a case. Victims under 18 don’t have to comply, and those found to be too traumatized by the crime are granted exceptions.
Andrea Quarantillo, USCIS District Director in New York City, said trafficking victims are often brought into the country by international rings that threaten and intimidate them. “Not only do they victimize this person, the penalty for stepping out is putting your family back in your home country or in the U.S. at serious risk and those things are big deterrents,” Quarantillo said. She and other officials spoke at an educational session in Long Island City, Queens, for community groups and immigration attorneys who assist immigrant crime victims.
Five thousand T visas are set aside each fiscal year for use across the U.S., and after the four years, they may be converted into green cards.
While T visas are under utilized, U visas that are used primarily for victims of domestic violence and other types of violent crimes are not. Ten thousand of these types of visas are set aside each fiscal year and for the past two years, the cap has been met.
Julie Dinnerstein, immigration attorney at Sanctuary for Families, says her office represents hundreds of victims each year who apply for mostly U visas. The biggest barrier she sees are victims who are afraid to report crimes because they worry law enforcement will report them to immigration authorities. Dinnerstein says the fear is warranted in places like upstate New York and parts of New Jersey.
“In a lot of the country victims do suffer if they do report crimes,” she said. “Here in New York City, that is not a problem but people don’t realize it. I don’t agree with them on everything by any stretch but the one thing I will say is the New York City Police Department does not report crime victims to immigration authorities and they take reports from victims very seriously”.
Prosecutors may ultimately decide not to move forward with cases, but that won’t impact an immigrant’s visa.
While federal authorities typically investigate these cases, there is a state statute in New York passed in 2007 that makes trafficking illegal but its barely been used. Dinnerstein says there’s a lack of familiarity with how to investigate these cases and how to identify victims but she’s hopeful that will change.