Human trafficking is an ugly underworld, but there are visa options for victims to try to help them break free. Between 14,500 and 17,500 people, primarily women and children, are trafficked to the U.S. annually. And while Congress has created a program to help trafficking victims get permanent status in the United States, the T Visa, it is widely underused.
An Example of Trafficking in Branson, Missouri
In May, 2009, a human trafficking scheme in Kansas City made headlines, both because of the sheer size of its operation and the sordid tales of workers being cheated and mistreated by individuals scamming the immigration system to make money. Many of those charged in that scheme went to jail.
But there was another human trafficking scheme taking shape in 2009 in Branson, Missouri, with many of the same tactics, but which garnered almost no press attention. The employer was a labor leasing company called “Santa Cruz” management, and its eventual downfall led to the conviction of its two owners. Unfortunately, it also led to a large population of immigrants in central Missouri who had been trafficked in the United States and whose visas had now expired.
1. The Scheme
The H-2B visa system allows US employers to hire foreign workers for seasonal work if they can prove that they are unable to find US workers willing to do the jobs. Often these positions are in landscaping or cleaning hotel rooms – industries where the work doesn’t pay enough to attract US workers. And in tourist towns, like Branson, Missouri, there are sometimes more jobs than there are people to fill them.
The key to the H-2B system is that the employer must prove to the government that it has advertised for the position and could not find enough US workers to fill the jobs. The program has changed a bit in the last five years, and some of the easy loopholes that allowed traffickers to take advantage of workers have been patched. But 2007 and 2008 were like the wild west for H-2B visas.
Starting around 2007 Santa Cruz Management began to ask the government for a significant number of visas for hotel workers in Branson, Missouri. The forms require the employer to certify what job the employee will do and what wage they’ll be paid. Federal data show that in 2007, Santa Cruz asked for 259 visas and was approved for 212.
The company was owned by a man named John Voisine. Once the visas were approved, the company would then send recruiters to countries like Belize and the Philippines to get workers to fill the positions. These workers would typically have to pay the recruiters significant fees to be considered for the jobs, often borrowing the money from their family members.
2007 was so successful for Voisine and Santa Cruz that they doubled their requests for 2008. Federal data show Santa Cruz was approved for 410 H-2B visas in that year.
A significant difference in 2008 was that Santa Cruz was now also asking for visas for workers to go to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina as well as Branson, Missouri. That same year Santa Cruz registered as an LLC in South Carolina, naming “Steven Teel” as its registered agent. Teel was an employee of Santa Cruz in Branson, but he was expanding the business model to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, which, like Branson, sees an influx of tourists in the summers.
Voisine’s indictment alleges Santa Cruz intentionally asked for more visas than its Branson clients actually needed, and then would send these excess workers to hotels in Myrtle Beach. These moves caused the employees to break the terms of their visas, which did not let them change employers or location. The employees would then be crammed into hotel rooms in Myrtle Beach, sometimes with four individuals to a room, and charged unnecessary fees for the transportation and lodging so that they didn’t have enough money to take care of themselves.
Steven Teel was also later indicted. His indictment alleged that Voisine sold Santa Cruz Management to Teel in January, 2009. Steven Teel also owned a company called “Ready 2 Work” in Myrtle Beach, SC. With these two companies, Teel’s visa requests exploded in 2009. Santa Cruz sought and was approved for 792 visas in 2009, this time all supposedly to work in South Carolina.
At the same time, Federal data shows that “Ready 2 Work, LLC” was approved for 538 visas for 2009, who were supposed to work in Missouri and Florida.
Teel’s indictment alleged that he had hired labor recruiters overseas, who had told the employees they were supposed to lie to the immigration officers if they were questioned about where they were working. It said the employees with visas for South Carolina and Florida were actually sent to Branson, Missouri and were instructed to tell immigration officials that they were just going to Branson for training. All the while, Teel and his companies would send the employees to states that weren’t authorized by the federal government.
2. Prosecution of Teel and Voisine
Eventually, the federal government got wise to these schemes and went after Voisine and Teel. At a minimum, the scheme was designed to thwart the statute’s built-in protection for US workers. The visas required employers to prove they had tried to hire US workers in the positions, and visas were only permitted for those positions where there weren’t enough US workers. By lying on the visa forms, Santa Cruz was able to bring in far more workers than were actually needed and “lease” them to hotels at very low rates, no matter whether there were US workers who could have performed those jobs.
Voisine and Teel both eventually pled guilty and were convicted.
By December, 2009 when everything fell apart for Santa Cruz, a significant population of its H-2B workers were still in the United States hoping to receive a visa extension. Instead, they were told their jobs were over and they had to go home. But because they had been moved all over the United States, paid substandard wages, and had to pay unnecessary fees for transportation and lodging, some could not afford the plane ticket to leave.
The T Visa As a Possible Solution
What Santa Cruz Management did to its employees is nothing short of human trafficking. Federal statute defines the phrase “severe form of trafficking in persons” to include “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.” 22 USC 7102(9).
In October, 2000 Congress passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (VTVPA), which created a new visa for trafficking victims. It allows immigrants who have been the victims of severe forms of human trafficking to get visas in the United States.
The T-visa is a four-year visa that gives the holder the right to live and work in the U.S. T-visa holders are eligible to apply for lawful permanent residence (“green card”) after three years with the visa, or sooner if the related investigation or prosecution is complete.
The statute also provides for derivative status for certain family members. If the trafficking victim is an adult over 21, any spouse or children under 21 of that applicant can apply as derivatives. If she is under 21, the applicant’s spouse, children, unmarried siblings under age 18 (at the time of application) and parents can apply for a T-visa as derivatives.
An individual is eligible for a T visa if she
- Is or was a victim of trafficking;
- Is in the United States, American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, or at a port of entry due to trafficking;
- Complies with any reasonable request from a law enforcement agency for assistance in the investigation or prosecution of human trafficking (or you are under the age of 18, or you are unable to cooperate due to physical or psychological trauma);
- Demonstrates that she would suffer extreme hardship involving unusual and severe harm if she were removed from the United States.
There is no doubt that the employees of Santa Cruz meet the first requirement. They were told to lie to immigration officers, forced to violate the terms of their visas, forced to work in different cities for substandard wages, and threatened with deportation if they complained.
The second requirement says they have to still be here. If a person has left the United States and come back with a different visa, they’re no longer eligible for a T-visa.
They also have to comply with law enforcement agencies. However, with Voisine and Teel, because the prosecution focused on the harm to the government, not the harm to immigrants, few requests were made for cooperation from the Santa Cruz employees.
How Often Are T Visas Granted?
Although human trafficking numbers are sky-high, the rate of T Visa applications remains especially low. Data from March, 2015 show the current approval rate. When graphed, the current approval rate compared to the number of applications received has been fairly consistent since 2011:
Although Congress allowed for 5,000 T visas under the statute, the number of applications received has in fact been far lower than that number. In 2014, only 944 applications were received. Compare that to the number of H-2B visas Steven Teel obtained in 2009: 1,330 between his two companies. And while not all of those individuals were likely trafficked, the ones who were forced to work in different states or crammed into tiny apartments and encouraged to lie to immigration officials would likely have qualified for T visas.
So why isn’t the program used more often? One reason is that before April, 2015, the US Department of Labor was unwilling to assist trafficking victims. The T visa process includes obtaining a declaration from law enforcement that the person was in fact a victim. Although this step isn’t mandatory, it goes a long way to proving one’s case for a T Visa.
In early 2015 the Department of Labor announced that it had finally decided to start completing T Visa declarations.
Another reason the program has not been that popular is that it is not very well-known. The U visa, for victims of crime, has gotten significant press coverage in the last few years. But the T visa, for trafficking victims, has flown largely under the radar.
A 2011 NBC report said the T visa was not widely used because of ignorance and fear among law enforcement. It noted that
“Since T Visas became available in 2002, the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services has been authorized to issue up to 5,000 a year — or enough for 10 percent of the 50,000 men, women and children trafficked into the U.S. for prostitution and forced labor each year, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. But the bureau has not come close to that number. In 2010 – the program’s most successful year — just 447 T Visas were approved. In over nine years, barely 2,300 T Visas have been granted.”
Law enforcement is often unwilling to cooperate and won’t sign the declarations. But a potentially larger problem is the reluctance on the part of victims to report their abuse, due to fear of repercussions from their abusers. That fear is especially pronounced when the government declines to cooperate with the T visa process, as has been the case for much of the life of the T Visa program.
Whatever the reason these numbers are down, there is no doubt that the T Visa should be used if a person has been trafficked.
Human trafficking is not limited to big cities. The case of Santa Cruz Management shows that victims of human trafficking can be found in small towns in Kansas and Missouri, many of whom came to the United States with actual visas but whose employers took advantage of them. If this happens, the T visa is a program that should be used to get victims out of their situations, and to encourage prosecution of traffickers. And law enforcement should be more willing to cooperate with the T Visa process.