The way we understand human trafficking is fundamentally flawed. It’s informed by the media we consume daily, from news broadcasts to blockbuster films. Our understanding of trafficking is a reflection of our culture: a culture that prioritizes women’s “purity” and white bodies. These narratives have led to the creation of bad policy. The people who need help the most may not get it, because they’ve been ignored when laws were written that directly affect them.
When Congress created T visas in 2000, the intention was simple: survivors of human trafficking can stay in the United States on a T visa so long as they meet three criteria. First, that they were trafficked into the U.S., second, that they cooperate with law enforcement investigations, and third, that they would “suffer extreme hardship” if removed from the U.S.
About 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States per year, but Congress only allots 5,000 T visas annually. Given those numbers, it would seem that there are far too few T visas available to survivors of human trafficking; however, the government routinely awards fewer than half of the available T visas because very few survivors apply for them.
So why are there so few T visa applications? Some survivors might prefer to return to their home countries, and others might prefer not to work with law enforcement. The biggest reason is also the most frustrating: many survivors of human trafficking never know that they could apply for a T visa.
Providing visas to survivors of human trafficking is a good policy, but one that’s been implemented poorly. Policy often imagines all trafficking as the sex trafficking of white women, though other groups are at a higher risk of being trafficked in the United States. T visas are designed to help survivors of sex and labor trafficking, which means they could impact diverse groups of people who have faced a variety of circumstances — but T visa policies won’t work until they’re implemented uniformly and every person trafficked into the United States is made aware of their right to apply for a T visa.
Michigan is the perfect place to try a new approach: requiring law enforcement to inform survivors of human trafficking of their right to apply for T visas. Michigan has a huge trafficking problem – reports of human trafficking in Michigan have increased every year since 2012, and only Nevada reports more sex trafficking cases each year. After law enforcement is trained, there will be no cost to taxpayers. The only thing required to make T visas work is a commitment from the state legislature or individual police forces.
Making T visas more accessible will help people who have already been trafficked, as well as prevent future trafficking. Survivors of human trafficking will stay in the United States longer and form better relationships with law enforcement, which will make it easier to investigate traffickers.
Human trafficking won’t be an easy problem to solve, and that’s what makes it so important to implement policies like this one. We have a responsibility to do what we can to stop trafficking, and to treat survivors with respect. Deporting survivors of human trafficking is cruel and inhumane — especially when we have the tools to give them a choice.
If you have information on trafficking in your community, or if you suspect someone in your community has been trafficked, you should call 911 or the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-373-7888.