In 2000 the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000was passed into law by the U.S. Congress and signed by President Clinton. The act created special visa categories, including the U-Visa and the T-Visa which offer protection to the victims of certain crimes committed in the United States, including domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking, female genital cutting and kidnap.
Applicants for U-Visa must demonstrate that they have suffered a credible degree of mental or physical traumaas a result of a crime, as well as certification from law enforcement official that they are currently, or will be useful in a criminal investigation or prosecution. The creation of these protections were to encourage the reporting of crimes, and solicit cooperation by immigrant communities with the police. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) caps the number of U Visas at around 10,000 per year, whilst Congress has limited the number of T visas to 5,000 per year.
Due to U-Visa and T-Visa program being implemented through Congressional laws,and not executive order, President Trump is not legally able to cancel these programs or even decrease the number unilaterally. Moreover, Trump has positioned combatting human trafficking as a key foreign policy issue for his administration, and thus a full-frontal assault on these provisions would be far from politically wise.
However, the Trump administration, and in particular Attorney General Geoff Sessions are so dedicated to remaking the US immigration system to appease the party’s nativist base that they have begun to undermine these protections through clandestine means. These have not only shown the administrations pontificating promises to combat people trafficking as hollow, but unveiled how fragile these protections are.
On January 25 of this year, President Trump signed Executive Order 13768, Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States, which set forth the priorities for the removal of undocumented migrants from the country. In subsequent months the Department of Homeland Security moved swiftly to operationalize this Executive Order. Just over five months later USCIS issued a policy memorandum which specified that any people trafficking survivor who has applied for a T visa and is denied, will be placed in deportation proceedings. According to an Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence survey released in May 43% of organizations which provide legal services to human trafficking and domestic violence survivors have had clients drop their pending T or U visa applications since January 20thof this year.Undocumented migrants would rather go underground then apply to protections legally. An ACLU survey of found that 82 percent of prosecutors questioned reportedthat since President Trump took office, domestic violence is not only underreported, but is harder to investigate and prosecute. Short term political points for Trumps base means that the number of pending immigration cases has shot up, creating a backlog of nearly 700,000.This backlog has prompted Jeff Sessions to intervene through his authority to modify or overrule immigration cases. In one instance Sessions assigned himself a casein which he would determine whether a Salvadoran Women, who was raped by her ex husband and threatened death by him, could fit the legal requirements for asylum. This landmark case could set a precedent which makes it harder for domestic violence survivors to receive asylum.
Through judicial discretion and a general hostile environment, the Trump administration is making it increasingly difficult for victims of human trafficking and domestic violence to escape potentially life-threatening situations. Part of this is down to the political winds which brought the Trump administration to office, namely an uncompromising anti-immigration agenda. But it is also the one-dimensional nature of the protections on offer. The T visa system is overwhelmingly focussed on utilising victims as tools of law enforcement, rather than assisting them based on their victim status -exposure not only puts their safety at risk, but also hands them to law enforcement agencies which have a number of mechanisms designed to determine whether their case is severe enough. In addressing Trumps attack on these limited provisions, advocates lawyers and social workers should draw attention not only to the detrimental effect on victims of human trafficking and domestic violence, but also push for not only an expansion of the T and U visa program. At the end of September 2017, there were 110,511 pending principle applications for U visas– making the wait time for one of these around 11 years. In addition to this, the criteria a victim must meet in order to be granted one of these visas must be put under review, as the concerns of the Attorney General and the Trump administration are on record as indicating that they have little concern for the well being of victims who meet them at the moment. A full and human rights based assessment of these protections must be endorsed in which the concerns of the victims and their rehabilitation is put first.