US immigration raises awareness for visas available to trafficking victims

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US Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Long Island, New York City hosted a forum 20 March 2012 to raise awareness about visas available to immigrants who have been victims of human trafficking or domestic violence or suffered some other form of abuse.

Scott Whelan, of the USCIS's office of policy and strategy, detailed the various options available to help immigrants:
  • T visas - These visas allow victims of all types of trafficking — forced labor, sexual or involuntary servitude — to stay and work in the United States on a temporary basis. The T nonimmigrant visa is valid for four years and a visa holder may be eligible to apply for permanent residence (Green Card) after three years in T nonimmigrant visa status.
  • U visas - These visas are available for victims of abuse and other crimes. Immigrants who suffer from domestic violence can apply for legal status without having to apply based on their relationship to an abusive spouse. U nonimmigrant status cannot exceed four years. However, extensions can be made in special circumstances or eligible individuals can apply for another US visa.
"There are avenues for them to come forward," said Lynn Boudreau, USCIS's assistant center director for the Vermont Service Center. She noted that US immigration issues 10,000 U visas each fiscal year and 5,000 T visas. The U visas are usually all issued, which means some cases are carried over to the next year, although the T visas are underused.

In 2011, only 967 victims applied for the T 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 work 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, district director of USCIS for New York City noted that even if requests for visas are eventually denied, USCIS does not immediately begin deportation of the immigrant. The department also works closely with judges and the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement if a crime victim is going through the process of applying for a T or U visa.

Julie Dinnerstein, a professor of immigration law, said it is hard to quantify how widespread the problem of human trafficking is in the city because there are many obstacles to enforcement. She added that trafficking victims can come to the US through various avenues, including tourist or student visas, through a marriage to a US citizen, through a family who are permanent residents or through smuggling.

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