In 1997, Ima Matul, a seventeen-year-old living in rural Indonesia, was offered a job as a live-in housekeeper in Los Angeles. The person who recruited her promised that, if she worked for a few years, she could leave with enough money to help her family build a new house and start a better life in Indonesia. Her salary would be only a hundred and fifty dollars a month, but job opportunities in Indonesia were scant, so she accepted, and her recruiter arranged a tourist visa. When she arrived in L.A., though, her employer confiscated her passport. Matul lived in a corner of the family room in her employer’s home, cooking and cleaning for up to eighteen hours a day, without pay; if her work didn’t meet certain standards, her employer beat her. Her tourist visa soon expired. Because she spoke very little English and didn’t know anything about the U.S. immigration system, she had no idea where she would go if she did manage to leave the house. Her employer told her that, if she went to the police, she would be arrested. But, after three years, Matul had learned enough English to write a letter asking for help, and she gave the letter to a neighbor’s nanny.
Matul imagined that, after escaping, she would work illegally until she could afford a plane ticket back to Indonesia. She couldn’t fathom a way to stay in the United States. The neighbor, though, took her to cast, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that helps survivors of trafficking. Workers there told her that she could apply for a T visa, which is designed for victims like her. It took Matul a moment to understand what they meant. “I didn’t even know I had been trafficked,” she told me. Matul got the visa, then a green card, and, eventually, U.S. citizenship. She now works for cast, as the coördinator of its Survivor Leadership Program, which gives survivors of trafficking a platform to help and advocate for others who are escaping similar situations. In 2015, she also helped form the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking, a board composed of eleven survivors, which helps the President shape anti-trafficking legislation. In 2016, she spoke at the Democratic National Convention.
It is difficult to determine the prevalence of trafficking in the U.S. because there is no single reliable source for statistics; experts rely on hotlines, court cases, and, in the case of non-citizen victims, visa applications to collect data. Since 2000, when the T-visa program began, thousands of people have applied, and the number of yearly applicants has steadily increased as victims and advocates have become more aware of the program. (The same is true for U visas, which are designed for victims of general crimes and are now so frequently requested that they have a fifty-month waiting period.) The T visa has proved to be a reliable safety net for survivors of trafficking, and no viable alternative exists for those who are rejected or don’t apply.
Trump has tried to establish himself as a crusader against trafficking. The issue is bipartisan, appealing equally to left-leaning labor reformers and evangelical Christians. In October, 2018, Trump was the first President to address an interagency task-force meeting on trafficking. “Our country will not rest until we have put these vile organizations out of business and rescued every last victim,” he said in his speech. In an op-ed published last November, in the Washington Post, Ivanka Trump touted the President’s appearance at the task-force meeting as one of his many accomplishments. In January (which is National Slavery and Human-Trafficking Prevention Month), Trump held a roundtable discussion, in Texas, in which he made reference to human trafficking, claiming that building a border wall would “stop it cold.” Later in the month, as he defended the government shutdown, Trump relied on one of his preferred images of trafficking: women being smuggled across the southern border, “tied up, with duct tape on their faces, put in the backs of vans.”
This is a false characterization of the problem. According to data from the Department of Justice, in 2017, roughly two-thirds of the trafficking victims who were served by organizations that received funding from the Office for Victims of Crime were U.S. citizens. Among non-citizens, illegal border-crossing is not typically the issue. “Most of the victims we work with come in on perfectly good visas,” Martina Vandenberg, the founder and president of the Human Trafficking Legal Center, told me. This mischaracterization is part of a cynical strategy that uses trafficking to bolster arguments for harsh immigration policies and also makes it more difficult for non-citizen victims to remain safely in the U.S. Last year, despite having originally exempted people who were applying for humanitarian visas, the Administration announced that, beginning in mid-November, applicants who are denied T visas may be required to appear in immigration court, the first step in deportation proceedings. Because the change was presented as a separate, almost dully bureaucratic shift in the rules, officials have an easy defense: the T-visa program itself has not changed, Michael Bars, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, stressed in e-mails. But this is one of a few ostensibly minor changes the Trump Administration has made to the system that have already had an outsized impact on the trafficking community.
Read the rest of the article at The New Yorker.