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Few special immigration visas issued

January 16, 2009                                                                                            Win a green card Subscribe in a reader

In the eight years since Congress allowed 5,000 special visas annually for human-trafficking victims to remain in the USA, immigration officials have issued fewer than 1,500 total.

The federal government estimates that 14,500 to 17,500 men, women and children are smuggled into the U.S. each year and forced into illegal labor.

Yet victims have sought fewer than 4% of the available special permits, called the T visa, that protect them from deportation. The visa allows them to remain in the U.S. and eventually seek citizenship. Immigration rules establishing the path to citizenship took effect this week, eight years after the law passed.

Victims must cooperate with police to get the visa. Many victims distrust law enforcement, can't navigate the legal and immigration systems or fear former captors will retaliate against family in their home countries if they work with the U.S. government, advocacy groups and U.S. authorities say.

"People who have been in this situation are so traumatized and beaten up that it's hard to have the strength to apply" for the visa, says Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., who co-sponsored the bill establishing it.

Bill Wright, spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, says there's "a lack of knowledge that this program is available. The victims fear retribution."

One major problem, attorneys and advocacy groups say, is changing how police and communities perceive trafficking victims, who may have committed crimes or be in the U.S. illegally.

Attorneys from the Justice Department's civil rights division led more than 60 training sessions in 2007 and 2008 for police, community groups and business leaders to explain how the victims are smuggled into the U.S. under false pretenses, such as a promised job, and then forced to work in sweatshops, as prostitutes or as underpaid farm laborers or maids.

Police learn to question people involved in illegal businesses to determine if they have been trafficked, while community groups learn to report businesses to police when they suspect workers are abused.

"If a person hasn't had the training, they may see a case as a typical prostitution case," says Andre Rodriguez, an immigration attorney with the Human Trafficking Rescue Alliance of Houston.

The Justice Department prosecuted 449 people involved in human trafficking under the new law between 2001 and 2007.

In one of the largest cases, local and U.S. authorities in 2007 identified 99 Central American women forced to work in Houston cantinas. Of the 99 victims, 70 have since received visas, 20 await immigration approval, six are applying and three returned to their home countries, Rodriguez says.

Houston is one of the first cities to create an anti-trafficking task force that includes social service groups, lawyers and police. Community groups and police have tipped the task force to potential trafficking operations.

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