Chapter 4.

Another appointment, another search for salvation.

After two years of sleeping on couches, picking up odd day jobs, sending money home to pay the debts tied to his trafficking, and generally living under the radar, Joseph finally sought help from a specialized victims’ services organization.

Like nearly all the victims in this study, he didn’t know he had rights under US law, even with an expired visa. He didn’t know that what he experienced was labor trafficking. He didn’t even know that labor trafficking was a crime.

What made matters worse was that neither did any of the immigration lawyers Joseph contacted about his residency issues. Their best advice to him: stay underground until an immigration reform law is enacted, or get married to an American.

It was not until a friend on a construction crew talked about his victimization and the help he received from a service provider that Joseph set aside his fear and came out of hiding.

This scenario is not uncommon. Roughly 69 percent of victims in the study were unauthorized residents by the time they received services. The fear of being unauthorized in the United States is so pervasive and powerful that many victims hid for months, sometimes years, before getting help. Others likely stay hidden.

When victims do seek help, interviewed service providers unanimously agree that emergency and long-term shelter are the biggest needs. A recent study conducted by the Polaris Project found not a single bed in the United States currently designated for labor trafficking victims.

The second most commonly cited necessity is the need to work again.

Like Joseph, victims generally escape without money, credit, references, or legal papers. But they do have a mountain of debt. And if they are unauthorized, they are unable to legally work until they are granted a short-term “continued presence.” In the long run they need to get T visas to stay in the country and work.

When these statuses are granted, survivors are given special permission to work in the United States. Continued presence is a legal status designed to help unauthorized immigrant survivors make ends meet while T visa decisions are determined. In addition to allowing survivors to work legally, T visas enable trafficking survivors to get Social Security cards, driver’s licenses, and certain forms of assistance. The visas last four years, and after the third year survivors can apply for permanent residency.

While many victims eventually get T visas, continued presence is rarely granted by law enforcement, making the months-, sometimes years-long wait for a T visa painful, if not impossible.

A big barrier to obtaining continued presence is tied to victim cooperation in law enforcement investigations. Without cooperation, officials are often reluctant to sign off on continued presence applications. Law enforcement agencies may also waver in their willingness to support continued presence if they don’t recognize the case as labor trafficking, or if they feel it is not winnable.

While all victims in the study cooperated with law enforcement, many others are reluctant to do so for fear of retribution or deportation.

Service providers interviewed say that law enforcement rarely approve continued presence requests because they lack familiarity with labor trafficking, sympathy for its victims, trust in service providers’ motives, and institutional support on occasions when individual officials might be willing to approve them.

“A willingness to support [continued presence] obviously is an issue,” said an attorney who has tried labor trafficking cases in the Southwest. “It’s still pretty rare. Overall there is a sense they’re going to see somebody as a perpetrator before they are going to see them as a potential victim.”

For some victims, the burden of forgoing work while waiting for a decision is too much to bear. They drift back underground to take their chances working under the table, where they are again vulnerable and without papers.