Donald Trump’s immigration policies have been vilified and demonized by many globally.
There is a fear that the tougher immigration approach will have a deleterious effect on the efforts to combat human trafficking. Some NGOs and academies have expressed the view that victims especially those who may be undocumented migrants will now be fearful to come forward and seek help.
One Professor of Georgetown University told the international community that “human trafficking will skyrocket under the tougher immigration laws.”
Denise Brennan, Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at Georgetown University said “Fear of being deported by U.S. authorities will stop people from speaking up about their own or other trafficking cases.”
Brennan noted “Policies that push migrants to live and work in the shadows make the perfect prey for abusive employers.”
But almost a year after Brennan made those statements at the Thomason Reuters Foundation event on the fight against slavery and trafficking, government spokespersons, federal law enforcement officers, officers attached to the District Attorneys office and even some NGOs are insisting nothing is further from the truth.
They are all insisting that there is no coordinated effort to deport illegal and undocumented victims of sex trafficking.
Houston the Sex Trafficking Hub
The city of Huston has the dubious honour being known as the Human Trafficking Hub of the United States.
Law enforcement officers believe it’s not a fair assessment. The city’s Police Chief says the label was given to the city simply because they pay more attention to the problem of trafficking and there is a heightened awareness.
But it’s a stigma the Mayor, the City Council and law enforcement officers are trying assiduously to change.
The city has dedicated hundreds of millions in creating a specialized task force which brings together law enforcement officers at both the federal and local level, NGOs, advocacy groups and legal aid officers together. The unit is now housed in an impressive building in the heart of Houston. The facility according to city officials is designed with the child victim in mind.
Ruben Perez, one of the senior members of the Houston District Attorney’s Office says they have changed the focus of law enforcement in relation to prostitution and trafficking.
He says it’s now about “protecting the real victims of this crime.”
“Before we would charge all these women with prostitution and then the pimp would post bail and the cycle would continue. These women, many of whom were forced into this life are the real victims.”
Perez’s words are charged with a spirit of enthusiasm, hope and humanitarianism.
But with the tougher immigration policies expected to be rolled out in the United States soon, questions have surfaced on whether the spirit of humanitarianism in the Texas office is in alignment with the direction of the federal government.
The District Attorney’s Office in Houston is one of the key components essential in executing the human trafficking task force.
Perez says despite what is being said in the media the American way to protect all on its soil.
“Once you are on US soil you are afforded the rights and protection afforded under the star spangled banner. There is no drive for mass deportation.”
The YMCA is one of the NGOs employed under the taskforce to assist with victim rehabilitation and care.
Constance Rossiter one the organization’s longest serving members in the anti-human trafficking unit says during her time “no victim of trafficking has been deported or thrown out of the country.”
FBI agent Kate Langston who has worked on numerous human trafficking cases also expresses a similar sentiment.
Langston explains that the city of Houston and by extension the rest of the US is moving in the direction of victim protection
“Human Trafficking cases take a toll on you, many of these women have lost their identity to their traffickers, and they are viewed as nothing more than a commodity that has been used over and over to generate money. I’ve worked on cases where victims have been imprisoned for over a decade. These cases have shown me how horrible human beings can be to each other”
She explained they dedicate all resources necessary to ensuring that the victim can return to a sense of normalcy.
“We will find them housing counselling, advocacy, if they don’t speak English we will find an interpreter and send them language schools if they so desire. We strive to ensure they are given back respect the worth that they have lost.”
She insists the prosecution isn’t the primary focus and the victim continues to receive care even while the investigation is going on.
Langston says that process may take years or months during they time any of the “victims” re afforded the option of applying for a T visa under the US government.
She clarifies there is a process to apply for the T visa, but “we are not going to keep any survivor who does not want to stay.”
What is the T visa and who is eligible?
In October 2000, Congress created the “T” non-immigrant status by passing the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (VTVPA). The legislation strengthens the ability of law enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute human trafficking, and also offer protection to victims.
Human trafficking, also known as trafficking in persons, is a form of modern-day slavery in which traffickers lure individuals with false promises of employment and a better life. Traffickers often take advantage of poor, unemployed individuals who lack access to social services. The T Non-immigrant Status (T visa) is a set aside for those who are or have been victims of human trafficking, protects victims of human trafficking and allows victims to remain in the United States to assist in an investigation or prosecution of human trafficking.
NGOs fear victims will now go into hiding
But despite the assurances from federal officers, some NGOs and Civil Society groups are fearful that immigration stance is counterproductive to the anti-trafficking progress made in the last decade.
Martina Vandenberg of the Washington based Freedom Network says the new immigration policies are creating an atmosphere of fear.
She was high critical of the federal government saying “We are driving people into a state of fear. If they are afraid they will be deported they will not report the atrocities being committed against them”
Another social advocate in California chastised the new immigration policies saying its divisive and regressive.
Marisa Ugarte of the Bilateral Safety Corridor Collation says the new laws are ambiguous and she is concerned about the possible impact.
She says the current T visa application process is complicated currently and out of the 5000 per year in her estimation “a little over one tenth are granted the visas and now we are saying it will be even more rigorous.”
She adds “I am very concerned over the impact of these laws, how can I now guarantee these victims protection. I am being told by Washington, I need to say according the law when briefing the victims. I can read between the lines.”
She says the recent public controversies surrounding the alleged language at a White House meeting will further drive victims into hiding.
“What about the women, children and victims of Haiti and the African Countries, will they feel safe now coming forward? I am so heartbroken.”
However the collation to abolish modern day slavery, CAST, an umbrella organization in the fight against human trafficking isn’t too eager to make comprehensive statements on the impact of the new policy
Spokespersons from the organization say in their line of work almost 98 per cent of its applicant for the T visas were granted the document.
Study suggests victims are afraid but admits more data is needed
The Collation to abolish slavery and Trafficking, CAST has conducted a premium study on the impact of the new immigration policies on human trafficking efforts
While the group has stated that more data needs to be collected, the initial sample suggest there is an atmosphere of fear.
According to the study, nearly 70 percent of the responders believed that survivors will not voluntarily give testimony against their traffickers due to the political shift.
82% of the providers affirm with their agencies that they are concerned about the contacting agencies. CAST says the preliminary study suggests that trust factor is being removed and eroded.
54% of the providers agree some survivors are sharing heightened concerns about their traffickers of deportation or controlling immigration.
CAST stated that interviewees now feared that officials will not trust their testimonies.
The study states “They are concerned that they will not be believed and then detained by ICE officers. They are concerned that cooperation with the police may result in other witnesses being deported and families being torn apart.”
In relation to the officers assigned to carry out the law 7 out of 10 service providers believe that survivors have concerns about going to court for matters related to abuser or offender.
One responder told the data collection officer that “ in a recent labour trafficking/domestic violence case the victim decided to drop the claim in family court in respect to unpaid wages because of the traffickers continued public disparagement of her as an illegal immigrant and repeated attempts to have her deported by contacting ICE.”
Because of the distrust and ambiguity in the system, the grapevine and unconfirmed information seems to now be exaggerated.
CAST states that people have expressed genuine fear about reporting all types of abuse to not only police but to pretty much any agency fearing deportation.
The officials are quick to add that more research needs to be done in the matter before conclusions cant sample size for the study was only 147 and the information was gained from secondary sources
With the new administration now entering its second year time will tell whether the administration’s commitment to abolish modern day slavery is in alignment with the new immigration stance.
Article by Hema Ramkissoon.