A few months ago, I started learning about a different type of visa application that can help people who need an option to get legal status in the U.S. My firm works with many people who have been told that there’s nothing they can do about their immigration status. Getting through the U.S. immigration system isn’t easy, especially if you are looking for immigration options for victims of crimes, but no matter what you’ve been told, if there’s a way, we want to help you find it.
Undocumented Worker Doesn't Receive Payment
We’ve all seen situations like that of Jose (which is not his real name), an undocumented man who works in painting and sheet rocking. There’s a need for his work in the Houston area – before Harvey, houses and buildings were being renovated and sold, and after Harvey, many people had to re-sheet rock their walls and re-paint them. Jose was working for a general contractor, and one of the customers gave him a check to pay for his work.When he took it to the company and they tried to deposit it, it didn’t clear.
On his next paycheck, he noticed a deduction for half of the amount she owed, and on the following paycheck, there was a deduction for the other half – he ended up making up for the customer’s lack of payment. A few months later, Jose went to cash a paycheck, but it didn’t clear. He asked his boss about it, and the boss told Jose that he would get him another paycheck in a few days, but for now, he needed him on a new job.
When Jose asked about the paycheck again a week later, the boss told him “I’m not your enemy here – I can call Immigration, but you don’t want that, do you?” Jose never got his paycheck for the work he did. He has a family to support, so he started trying to take jobs on his own. The contractor continued calling to ask if he would come back and take another job but refused to pay him for the work he’d done.
We also know women like Lisa, who works as a cook at a local restaurant. She works 11-12 hours a day, 7 days a week. She earns the same rate every hour - she never gets overtime. She has no time off, and if she doesn’t work, she doesn’t get paid. Lisa doesn’t mind working. She makes a better living working as a cook than she could have in her home country. But she also knows that she can’t complain about her hours –if she does, she might get fired.
Undocumented Victims of Sexual Assault
This year, many of us realized we know many more people, especially women and children, who are survivors of sexual assault. Many survivors are offered something to buy their silence – young people are offered money or are threatened that “no adults will believe you”. Sadly, many undocumented women are too afraid to come forward about sexual assault for fear that their immigration status will be scrutinized, and they may be deported. It’s surprising to learn how many undocumented women are told they have to pay a “couch fee” – to have sex with their employer or even an attorney or other person who was hired to help them.
The T Visa is Another Option to Get Immigration Status
Do you know someone who went through a situation like the ones described above? Do you know someone who was exploited because of their immigration status? Is someone you know the victim of a crime or fraud, but is afraid to come forward?
Situations that we see every day around us can be the basis of an application for a “T visa” – a visa application for victims of trafficking. I started learning about the T visa earlier this year, and I feel an urgent need to tell everyone about it. Trafficking is so much more prevalent than we realize because “trafficking” means so much more than what we think.
What is Trafficking and How Can It Help Me Get Immigration Status
I know what you’re thinking – “trafficking” means getting smuggled into the country, doesn’t it? Or it means getting contraband goods across the US border, right? No!
Trafficking encompasses situations that many undocumented immigrants (as well as people who have legal status) face.
What Does “Trafficking” Mean in Immigration Law?
In immigration law, “Trafficking” encompasses two types of situations:
- Involuntary Servitude or Labor Trafficking - Induced or forced labor, coerced labor based on real or alleged indebtedness, or involuntary servitude
- Sex Trafficking - A sexual act or acts on account of which a thing of value is given or received by any person
When I started learning about T visas for victims of trafficking, I didn’t expect that many people I meet would actually qualify as trafficking victims. The reality is that many more people are victims of trafficking than I ever could’ve expected, and many simply do not know that what’s happened to them can be considered “trafficking” and are resigned to the idea that this type of thing happens to undocumented people and there’s nothing they can do about it.
Jose’s story struck me as a clear example of labor trafficking. He was induced into a job with the understanding that he would do the work and be paid for it. He asked about his paycheck that didn’t clear and was promised pay, and he went to another job based on the employer’s promise to pay. He had to pay the “debt” of the customer whose payment didn’t clear via deductions from his paycheck even though it was the customer, not Jose, who owed this money.
Lisa’s situation may also be a form of labor trafficking – she is working in a position that should involve overtime pay, but she doesn’t get overtime. She is afraid to say anything about it because she may be fired. She may also fear her employer trying to report her to immigration.
Sex trafficking is much more prevalent than many of us realize. It involves a sexual act and a thing of value being given or received in connection with the sex act. It can be hard to understand the difference between this and rape, and sometimes a rape is part of a sex trafficking incident. A woman whose employer tells her she must sleep with him or he will fire her or report her to immigration may be a victim of sex trafficking – she is solicited for a sex act and a thing of value – remaining in her job or not being reported to immigration – is given. She may also be given food, small gifts, or other things of value in connection with the sex act.
Why Don’t Victims of Trafficking Want to Come Forward?
As I mentioned above, many people don’t know what “trafficking” means, so they don’t understand that they are victims of trafficking. Once someone knows what “trafficking” means, there are other reasons they may not want to come forward about it:
- Fear of “messing up my immigration case” – some people have an immigration petition or application that has already been filed for them, and they worry that reporting trafficking will affect their immigration case. Depending on the situation, the T visa may have no effect on their pending case, or it may be a better option than their current case.
- Fear of being seen as a troublemaker – People who qualify to apply for T visas, particularly those who are victims of labor trafficking, are often concerned that reporting issues with their working conditions, work hours or pay deductions will cause the U. S. government to view them as a “troublemaker”, and this might hurt their future immigration applications. What some people do not know is that a T visa case might be their best option, and for others, it may be their only viable option.
- “I don’t have any documents to prove what happened”- I often identify trafficking victims by asking questions. They usually tell me nothing has happened to them, but after I ask questions in different ways, they reluctantly admit that something that amounts to trafficking has happened to them. When I ask why they didn’t tell me at first, they often say “I don’t have anything to prove it.” Many trafficking victims don’t have documents to prove what happened to them – they’re paid in cash for their work, or they were forced or coerced into a sexual act, and there is no documentation to prove that. In a T visa case, whether a survivor has documentation of the trafficking may not matter.
- Fear of outing myself to Immigration - There are many undocumented immigrants who are victims of trafficking who are simply too afraid of what might happen to them if they file any application for immigration status. They fear that once they “out” themselves to immigration, they may be put in immigration court or deported. This is a common fear for any undocumented person who is considering filing an application for an immigration benefit.
What Should I Do If I Know a Victim of Trafficking who Needs to Get Immigration Status?
If you know someone who may be a victim of trafficking who needs to get immigration status, talk to them about their situation. Many people who have experienced trafficking do not consider themselves to be victims – they believe that what has happened to them is common – many undocumented people have an employer or contractor threaten to fire them or report them to immigration, and it doesn’t seem important or significant.
Houston Lawyer for Victims of Crime Trafficking and Domestic Violence or Abuse
Anyone who has experienced sex trafficking might not want to open up about it all, so if you know someone who is a survivor, listen and be supportive. And if it sounds like someone you know has experienced trafficking and needs to know their options to get immigration status, have them talk to a specialized immigration lawyer with experience in T visas for trafficking victims and U visas for victim of crime so they can learn about their options and decide what’s right for them. Kathryn N. Karam is a Houston Lawyer for victims of crime, trafficking and domestic violence or abuse. Click the link below to schedule a consultation.