November 28, 2020

Lured to U.S. at 16, she sought visa for trafficking victims. Now she may be deported.

She was trafficked into the country as a Peruvian teenager, locked away in virtual indentured servitude for six years before she escaped. Now married, the mother of four children and living in Charlotte, she was denied a special immigration visa created to protect women like her, and has been teed up for deportation.

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She’s not leaving without a fight.

In a new federal lawsuit, the woman — identified only as Jane Doe — has called on the courts to block controversial Trump administration policies regarding so-called “T visas,” which were created 20 years ago to protect those trafficked into the country for sex or labor.

Her complaint names three federal agencies and two Trump cabinet members — acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and Ken Cuccinelli, the president’s top immigration official and acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, which initiated the woman’s deportation proceedings earlier this year, is also named as a defendant.

The lawsuit asks a judge to review the federal government’s denial of the woman’s T visa application while postponing her removal from the country until a court hearing can take place.

Under the administration’s more restrictive immigration policies, fewer visas for trafficking victims are being approved, immigration advocates say. Moreover, under a 2018 policy change, those denied a visa can then be deported, meaning fewer applicants have been willing to come forward to identify the people who exploited them.

“It’s a pretty damaging problem across the United States,” said the woman’s lawyer, Charlotte immigration attorney Mercer Cauley. “Basically the government has told her, ‘Yes, you are a victim of trafficking, but we’re going to deport you anyway.’

Human trafficking for sex or labor is a multi-billion-dollar industry that ensnares an estimated 25 million people worldwide in sex trades or illegal and sometimes punishing labor pools, according to the nonprofit Polaris, which operates the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline.

Congress created the T visa program in 2000, ostensibly for people like Jane Doe.

But under its more aggressive enforcement of immigration policies, critics say, the Trump administration has lengthened the application process for the visas, cut back on the approval rate, and driven more trafficking victims back into the shadows by eliminating protections against deportation.

Martina Vandenberg, founder and director of the Human Trafficking Legal Center, has called the new risk of deportation “a game-changer (that) totally changes the analysis of whether or not it’s worth it for any trafficking victim to cooperate with law enforcement.”

In a 2019 interview with World Politics Review, Vandenberg said federal prosecutions of human-trafficking cases fell by almost a third in 2018, the first year of the deportation change. She also says the application process for a T visa, which once took about a year, now runs closer to three. Meanwhile, visa approvals have dropped to their lowest level in a decade.

“These drops are reflected in data provided by the U.S. government. So, at least there’s transparency. They are transparently destroying protections for trafficking victims,” she said.

The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to an Observer email Thursday seeking comment for this story.

Lindsay Williams, public affairs officer for the Atlanta field office of ICE, said Thursday that the agency “cannot discuss matters involving cases with pending litigation.”

15-hour days with no pay

In the Charlotte case, the woman filed for immigration protection a decade after she escaped from her captives. Cauley said that is frequently the case for trafficking victims.

“Like many victims, (she) did not realize there is anything that can be done,” he said. “When she originally came to us it was to see about other options she may have for immigration. It was not until she began to tell her story to us that we realized she had been trafficked.”

Jane Doe was 16 when a Georgia couple recruited her in Peru to become their nanny, eliciting her family’s blessings with promises of good pay, English lessons and full access to schooling and other benefits of an American life, her lawsuit says.

Instead, the couple smuggled the girl into the country with a phony visa and passport issued in a niece’s name. Once here, she was forced to sign an agreement in which she worked seven days a week, 15 hours a day, taking care of the family’s children for little and, eventually, no pay, her lawsuit says.

Her employers blocked her from watching TV, cut her off from the surrounding culture and banned her from leaving the home or making friends, the lawsuit claims. They also reneged on promises to register her for school or send her to night classes to learn English.

Her employers essentially cut off her pay from 2004 to 2008, the lawsuit says, by forcing her to buy a family car with 90,000 miles already on it for $14,000, which she was never allowed to drive. The family told the woman her monthly salary had become their car payment.

Her bondage went on for six years. “She had nowhere to go, no access to funds, and still did not speak English or understand the culture of the United States due to her limited exposure to the outside world,” the lawsuit says.

A chance meeting with a Peruvian childhood friend during an outing with the family led to her eventual escape. Traumatized, she left everything behind except for what she was wearing, the lawsuit says. She had no money. She did not speak the language, and her only identification — the phony visa and passport that got her into the country — remained locked in the family’s safe.

She married that year, has four children under the age of 10 who are U.S. citizens, and eventually moved to Charlotte. Her husband, according to the lawsuit, is a lawful permanent resident.

Visa denied despite ‘severe … trafficking’

In May 2018, she applied for protective status as a trafficking victim to the U.S. Department of Citizen and Immigration Services.

The government’s denial came 22 months later, on Feb. 24. It, too, was based on the administration’s stricter interpretation of trafficking-visa regulations, the lawsuit says.

U.S. Citizens and Immigration Services acknowledged that the woman, as a minor, had endured the required “severe form of trafficking.” Under the previous standard, that would have qualified her for the T visa.

But invoking another Trump administration’s rule change, the government said that the Charlotte woman could not prove that trafficking was keeping her in the country now.

“Based on my reading of the law, that’s not the standard that should be applied,” Cauley told the Observer. “And that’s not the standard that was applied for years and years.”

“They’re using a technicality to revictimize a victim,” he said.

On June 1, the woman received an order, apparently triggered by her visa application, to appear at an upcoming deportation hearing in Charlotte Immigration Court. Cauley says his client could be forced to leave her family.

Trump’s emphasis on restricting immigration, which he says is for public safety and/or to protect American jobs, has led to some of his most controversial policy decisions — from the separation of immigrant families at the Mexican border to the construction of his long-promised wall — which he justified in part as a deterrent to trafficking.

The White House has also maintained that it has championed the plight of trafficking victims. Last month, the White House announced the approval of $35 million in grants for groups addressing the problem.

In her 2019 interview, Vandenberg said the administration’s policies have eliminated trafficking protections.

Since the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000, “an entire infrastructure has been constructed to support trafficking survivors,” she said.

“And piece by piece, the Trump administration is eroding and undermining that edifice.”

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