When Enrico Jose* came to the United States eight years ago from the Philippines on a seasonal work visa, an employment agency promised him free housing, free transportation, and overtime pay. But after arriving in Tampa, Florida, he found himself paying rent to his employer, sleeping four to a bed, and not working enough hours to cover his expenses.
That meant that Enrico Jose, now 35, was considered a victim of labor trafficking, making him eligible for a U visa, which provides temporary legal status to undocumented immigrants who have suffered “substantial” mental or physical abuse. But in February, as part of the Trump administration’s promised crackdown on immigration, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released a series of memos that gave the government sweeping new authority to detain and deport undocumented immigrants, even those in the middle of applying for protective visas.
Now, Enrico Jose and 92,585 other survivors of human trafficking, domestic violence, and related crimes with pending applications face imminent deportation. In fact, many undocumented immigrants are withdrawing their applications for protective visas or deciding not to apply at all.
Congress established both T visas and U visas, protections set aside for survivors of human trafficking and other designated crimes, in 2000 as a way to encourage cooperation with law enforcement officials prosecuting criminal offenders. Although applicants must demonstrate “severe” abuse to be eligible, T visas are usually processed within eight or nine months. U visas, on the other hands, can take as long as two or three years before they’re even reviewed. But the lower standard of proof makes them an attractive option for those seeking protective status.
For the first fiscal quarter of 2017, from October to December of 2016, the number of received U visa applications decreased by 269 from the same time period in 2015, according to the most recent available data from Citizens and Immigration Services. And that’s just one month under Donald Trump. The agency also approved only 3,021 U visas compared to 9,996 for the same periods.
DHS declined to comment on the change in policy or its impact on victims of abuse.
According to an Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence survey released in May, 43 percent of organizations that provide legal services to human trafficking and domestic violence survivors have had clients drop their pending T or U visa applications since Jan. 20. Although DHS didn’t adopt its aggressive policy until February, many undocumented immigrants heard the way Trump talked about them during the campaign. Karen Ramos, survivor services and training manager at Polaris, the National Hotline for Human Trafficking, also said she’s heard of clients dropping their cases or deciding not to apply.
Decreases in U visa applications may reflect the radical new way lawyers now approach them. Prior to DHS’ memoranda, lawyers only had to consider the strength of a client’s case. Because of the risk of simply submitting an application, lawyers are now using high levels of caution when advising clients to apply for a U visa — and sometimes even telling them not to apply altogether.
“There have been several applications that we have either recommended to not apply or clients decided not to apply based upon the information that we have provided them,” said Lam Nguyen Ho, executive director and founder of Community Activism Law Alliance Chicago, a nonprofit organization that provides free legal services immigrant communities. “That would not have been the case prior to Jan. 20.”
With the added risk, some lawyers have been actively prioritizing T visa applications, although eligibility is harder to prove than for U visas. Not only are T visa applications processed more quickly, lawyers are afraid that by the time a current U visa application gets reviewed two or three years down the line, new immigration laws would render it ineligible.
“Now, I’m more willing to take T visa [cases] that I know can get processed faster than U visas that might be waiting longer,” said Lynette Parker, Associate Clinical Professor at the Katharine & George Alexander Community Law Center in San Diego, a civil clinical program of the Santa Clara University School of Law.
Initially, Enrico Jose applied for a T visa, but U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services rejected his application because of insufficient documentation. Desperate to obtain temporary legal status, he filed for a U visa in 2015 on the advice of a pro-bono lawyer from an advocacy organization.
But advocates and attorneys expressed greater concern over the loss of future clients — now too afraid to even start seeking help — than for current clients. For example, many human trafficking survivors, who lack economic resources and family support, are often first identified through crimes of domestic violence or sexual assault, and only upon further questioning, do they reveal their experience with trafficking.
In March, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said that sexual assault reports from the city’s Latino population had dropped 25 percent since the beginning of 2017 compared to the same period in 2016. And the Houston Police Department has found a 42 percent decrease in reported rapes and other crimes among Hispanics compared to last year.
To successfully file a U visa application, survivors must have a law enforcement officer sign a Certification of Victim Helpfulness form, also known as I-918B, which corroborates that the crime happened and the victim is cooperating with law enforcement. Without reporting their crimes, applicants might not be able to secure the form. Under the Obama administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement also wouldn’t pursue removal proceedings against witnesses to crimes, including U and T visa applicants.
Asian Women’s Home, a San Francisco-based trafficking and domestic violence service provider, and the sexual assault program at Chicago-based Mujeres Latina En Accion saw decreases of nearly 50 and 70 percent, respectively, in the amount of calls to their hotlines compared to averages from previous years.
“Because of these decreases, we can also make an assumption that less foreign born [human trafficking] survivors are reaching out for services,” that would help enable them to apply for either a T or U visa, said Perla Flores, director of domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking programs at Community Solutions, a nonprofit human services agency serving Santa Clara and San Benito counties in California. Her program also noticed a decrease in calls since Trump took office.
In April, the Department of Labor received the necessary corroboration of Enrico Jose’s abuse. Now, his application goes to Citizenship and Immigration Services for final review, although lawyers have advised that could take another three or four years. In the meantime though, whenever Enrico Jose sees a law enforcement officer, he worries.
“I have to be strong with my case because I have to believe there is some possibility that I can get past all these trials,” Enrico Jose said. “There are no other options.”
*Editor’s note: Enrico Jose’s name has been changed to protect his status as an undocumented immigrant.