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Double-Bound: How Immigration Law Can Trap Trafficking Victimsold_sarge / Flickr

Double-Bound: How Immigration Law Can Trap Trafficking Victims

May 14 2014
An attorney’s insight on the complicated legal setting for domestic trafficking.

Stepping out of silent bondage and into freedom is a scary and painful journey for human trafficking victims. It's a journey Christians don't want victims to walk alone. So, we put red X's on our hands; we post on Facebook and Instagram; and we give money to organizations such as International Justice Mission.

We raise awareness that a modern-day slavery problem exists, even here in the United States, from labor trafficking and domestic servitude to sex trafficking. We know that immigrants are among the most vulnerable groups to be targeted by scheming traffickers.

We've got to start somewhere, but awareness falls short of helping victims if we're not equally working to expand the safety net for their journey to freedom. As the End It Movement advocates, awareness must lead to action. It's a complicated issue, but one clear call to action comes with immigration reform. Immigration reform can be a powerful way to combat human trafficking in this country.

Immigration status lingers as one of the biggest barriers facing human trafficking victims. Traffickers use threats of deportation as psychological leverage. Their status lies at the crossroads between bondage and freedom. Lack of language skills and other cultural barriers compound the risks for immigrants held captive. In isolation, they can't seek help or even know help is available.

As an advocate and an attorney, I've listened to clients tearfully and slowly pour out the details of the horrors they've lived through, only to find out they don't qualify for a particular immigration relief because they entered the country two months too late.

Immigration law is as complex as tax law. Few understand it, and yet it impacts millions: U.S. citizens in mixed-status families, an alphabet of visa holders, the contentious undocumented immigrants. (Yes, we use the term "undocumented," rather than "illegal." Even from a legal standpoint, unlawful entry into the U.S. is generally a civil violation, not a criminal violation. Our language can also further isolate victims by labeling them as illegal.)

Through the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, U.S. immigration laws provide a way for non-domestic trafficking victims to obtain lawful status. But the system is stacked against victims. It can take years for an application to be processed. Even with 5,000 visas available annually for human trafficking victims, that cap has never come close to being reached. The State Department estimates about 17,500 human trafficking victims come to the United States from another country each year. So why can't they be freed? Why can't they get those visas?

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Double-Bound: How Immigration Law Can Trap Trafficking Victims