Human trafficking is a global crisis that expands across continents and industries. The U.S. State Department estimates that between 14,500 and 17,500 individuals are trafficked into the United States each year. While a large percentage of human trafficking in the U.S. involves forced prostitution, it also comprises forced labor in industries such as domestic service and agriculture, where a vast majority of trafficking victims are immigrants.

The United States government has recognized and attempted to address the pervasiveness of human trafficking through the adoption of victim protection laws and immigration relief. However, enforcement of these laws and implementation of these immigration schemes is inconsistent and inadequate.

Undocumented immigrants represent a community particularly vulnerable to labor trafficking. According to a comprehensive research report by the Urban Institute, 29 percent of labor trafficking victims entered the U.S. without authorization. Of the victims who were initially authorized to enter the U.S. under temporary visas, 69 percent were unauthorized to be in the U.S. at the time they escaped from trafficking. In numerous cases of labor trafficking, victims were smuggled across the U.S.-Mexico border. For example, in June 2016, an Ohio man was sentenced to more than 15 years in prison for smuggling young Guatemalans into the United States and forcing them to work on egg farms in Ohio. The victims were “loaned” the transportation and smuggling fees, and were required to work off their debt at the egg farm by working twelve hour days, six to seven days a week.

Labor trafficking victims are usually recruited in their home country under false promises of better work and a better life in the United States. Some pay recruitment and smuggling fees that are higher than their home country’s per capita annual income. Once they arrive in the United States, they experience force, fraud, coercion, violence, extortion, and manipulation. Many undocumented labor trafficking victims who are able to escape are placed in detention centers or deportation proceedings because of their immigration status. In practice, there are limited opportunities for victim relief.

The United States has long recognized that human trafficking is a violation of basic human rights, and has presented itself as a global leader in the anti-human trafficking effort. The U.S. publishes an annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, evaluating countries’ anti-human trafficking efforts in order to encourage global action. The U.S. is a party to the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, which supplements the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. This Trafficking Protocol requires parties to criminalize and penalize human trafficking and implement victim protection measures, including providing housing, employment opportunities, and temporary legal status.

In 2000, Congress also adopted the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), and frequently updates and reauthorizes it. This Act establishes human trafficking as a federal crime, stipulates mandatory restitution for victims, and introduces the T-visa, which provides victims of human trafficking and their family members temporary U.S. residency. Additional forms of victim relief include the U-visa and Continued Presence. The U-visa is available to immigrants who have been victims of crime or suffered abuse, while Continued Presence provides a temporary immigration status for trafficking victims to assist in the investigation of their case. In addition to temporary immigration relief, the T-visa and U-visa provide victims an opportunity to apply for lawful permanent residence and employment authorization.

While the laws set forth in the United States provide various forms of relief for victims, they are limited in scope and in practice. The United States has set statutory limits on the number of visas available to trafficking victims, providing only 5,000 T-visas and 10,000 U-visas annually. These limits narrow the potential for victim relief. However, the data of immigration relief granted annually to trafficking victims demonstrates an even larger concern. In 2015, the Department of Homeland Security granted Continued Presence to 173 trafficking victims, T-visas to 610 victims and 694 family members, and U-visas to 29 victims of trafficking. These numbers are staggeringly low when compared with the estimated 14,500 to 17,500 victims trafficked into the United States each year, in addition to those trafficking victims already present in the United States.

The limited number of visas and Continued Presence requests granted are a result of the many barriers to applying for these forms of relief. Continued Presence requires application by a law enforcement agent, while T-visas and U-visas require complete cooperation with criminal investigations. NGOs report that in many cases, law enforcement fails to support these applications by providing evidence of victim cooperation. This delays immigration relief and victim access to federal benefits. When the victims are undocumented, relief is even more difficult to obtain. Law enforcement officials frequently do not pursue labor trafficking cases due to lack of evidence, and are reluctant to assist victims in obtaining immigration relief. Undocumented immigrants who are victims of labor trafficking are often afraid to confront law enforcement because of their immigration status, and are often unaware of their rights and available resources. This fear is compounded by the fact that if visas are not granted, there is a high risk of deportation.

Human trafficking is an expansive problem within the United States, of which labor trafficking is a significant component. While the United States has established useful policies, they provide limited practical relief. The extent of labor trafficking in the United States exceeds the relief currently provided. Enforcement and expansion of the T-visa and U-visa programs is a necessary first step. Training of law enforcement officials to recognize labor trafficking and provide victim support would increase the efficacy of these programs. There also needs to be an effective dissemination of the resources available to victims. The expansion of relief programs would encourage more victims to seek assistance, exposing and eliminating labor trafficking and the exploitation of undocumented immigrants.