As part of Practising Law Institute’s “Human Trafficking in Immigrant Communities” webinar a panel addressed special considerations for immigrant victims of human trafficking. Unlike domestic human trafficking victims, immigrants face additional hurdles related to their immigration status, cultural norms, and family hostage situations. Moderated by Melissa Brennan, Deputy Director of the Human Trafficking Initiative at Sanctuary for Families, the panel consisted of a human trafficking survivor under the pseudonym of Liberty, Hon. Pamela K. Chen a United States District Court Judge for the Eastern District of New York, and Rosie Wang a Legal Fellow with Sanctuary for Families Human Trafficking Initiative.

Like thousands of trafficking victims in the United States, Liberty was lied to. She was promised an opportunity to come to the US, work as a nanny, and go to school. Instead, she was brought to the US, held hostage by traffickers, and forced to work. After hearing that others were being used like her, she was determined to put a stop to it and get justice for herself and others. She bravely went to a nonprofit organization, was paired with a pro bono attorney, and has been able to secure a T Nonimmigrant Status (T visa) and eventually a green card. She is currently studying international relations and wants to work in human rights to fight for victims. With the help of legal service and pro bono volunteers, more stories can end like hers.

When representing immigrant trafficking victims, advocates must take a more holistic approach. Many clients may have concerns beyond their immediate immigration status that need to be addressed first. As an advocate for the survivor, it is crucial to gain the trust of your client and treat them as a whole person and not just their legal case. Nonprofit organizations and NGOs (Nongovernmental Organizations) play a crucial role in a victim’s experience during this process as they can provide assistance for those additional needs like housing, medical attention, education, etc.

Many victims are unaware of all of their options including their ability to qualify for the T visa, a specific visa set aside to protect human trafficking victims. While they may be aware of other visa options, this may be the best option for the survivors of human trafficking, but it is not without its hurdles.

Unfortunately, human traffickers can be resourceful when it comes to controlling their victims and sometimes go to enormous lengths to keep them compliant. A major tool traffickers and abusers use to control their victims is to instill a fear of law enforcement. Whether by making the victim feel complicit in illegal activities, or by convincing their victims that the police will deport them, throw them in jail, or won’t believe them, traffickers are able to prevent many victims from coming forward. To compound the issue, some immigrants may come from countries in which the police are corrupt, or testimonial evidence is not given much credence in a court of law. Many may feel ashamed, or are convinced that their situations are unique.

Additionally, traffickers may threaten the victim’s family in order to keep them from going to law enforcement. In these situations, it is possible for law enforcement to help get a trafficked person’s family out of danger. Inside the US, children can be found and a judge can rule on custody. In the event of family remaining in the country of origin, cooperation between US law enforcement and law enforcement on the ground in the country of origin can track down and bring family members of victims to the United States via parole which is approved and renewed by ICE. Once in the US, or once removed from the traffickers, family members can apply for the T visa derivative to extend benefits from the original T visa to the victim’s family.

In order to qualify for a T visa, an immigrant must first show that they were indeed a trafficking victim, and also cooperate with any reasonable requests from law enforcement if a criminal investigation is conducted. With such distrust of law enforcement taught to them, advocates must work with the survivors to ensure that they feel safe when speaking with law enforcement. However, building a bond of trust can have its own hurdles.

Victims of trauma are not always as forthcoming when talking about what happened to them. They may still feel loyal to their traffickers or they may be trying to protect other family members from implication. Also, they may even have a hard time comprehending that a pro bono lawyer is really there to provide services without an ulterior motive.

The panel provided sage advice for addressing these issues. Be up front and honest with your client. Explain the concept of pro bono. Lay out the details of confidentiality. Reassure them you are on their side. Make sure that they understand the difference between their immigration case and any ongoing criminal cases, and that the criminal case will not affect their T visa eligibility. Utilize programs offered by NGOs to get them additional assistance, as this can also go a long way towards building their trust. Most importantly, keep reassuring them that you are there to represent and support them

To hear Liberty’s story first hand and learn more about the considerations crucial to properly representing immigrant human trafficking survivors, watch the panel at the Practising Law Institute online.


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