Hidden Victims: The US Visa System

The Polaris Project plays a significant role in the fight against human trafficking in the United States. Their work is essential in addressing this global human rights issue. Their recently released Data Analysis on Labor Trafficking report highlights the significant increase the US saw from 2018 to 2021, with a large percentage of victims being hardworking individuals on guest visas.

Thousands of hard working men and women were reported victims of labor trafficking here in the US over a 2 year
period from 2018-2021. For a variety of reasons, including the pause on consulate interviews during the pandemic and an increased need for agricultural labor, the rates of labor trafficking increased significantly. Of the identified victims, a whopping 72% were here on guest visas. Majority are men, and overwhelmingly Latino. The largest percentage are Mexican Nationals. With nearly 5,000 here on H-2A and H-2B visas (agricultural, industrial, landscaping/construction and nanny/housekeeping). However, most were here on H-2A visas, which is specifically tied to agriculture. 
The primary types of abuse, and means of keeping the workers in their trafficking situations are threats of deportation or blacklisting, debts/quotas, threats to family’s and the confiscation or destruction of documents such as IDs and passports. Many are illegally charged for housing, and are not provided with safe housing, medical care, safe food and potable water. Survivor stories in this report include reports of being barred from going to the grocery store, seeking medical treatment for Covid, and threats of physical violence or worse. 
Workers on these types of guest visas are barred by law from seeking other employment, making it impossible for them to simply leave for better jobs. If they leave their abusive situation without first contacting authorities and applying for a T-Visa, they will be deported and often barred from returning. Lastly, recruiters are often misleading, or outright lying to them and employment contracts may not be in their native language. Due to the current system,  it’s often nearly impossible for victims and law enforcement to assess who the actual employer is, and who is liable. Access to or knowledge of the hotline is also murky. Phones and other means of communication are often confiscated by employers. 
In order to curb these abuses, the report suggests that Congress change the rules to allow these temporary work visa recipients the right to leave for better/safer employment. This will vastly disrupt the power imbalance. There also needs to be more clarity and accountability, as well as regulatory enforcement for employers and recruiters. The opaque nature of those relationships is a major contributing factor. Lastly, the “Know Your Rights” pamphlet should include information  addressing coercion and forced labor and  provide resources to the guest workers. Lastly, guest workers are allowed freedom of association, meaning they have the legal right and access to unions and other labor protections. They must be made aware of these protections.
You can read the “Labor Trafficking on Specific Temporary Work Visas” here.
You can read the entire 2022 Annual Polaris Report here.
About Polaris Project: Named after the North Star, an historical symbol of freedom, Polaris is leading a survivor-centered, justice- and equity-driven movement to end human trafficking. Since 2007, Polaris has operated the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline, connecting victims and survivors to support and services, and helping communities hold traffickers accountable. Through that work, Polaris has built the largest known dataset on human trafficking in North America. The data and expertise gained from two decades of working on trafficking situations in real time informs strategies that hold traffickers accountable, support survivors on their healing journeys and address the vulnerabilities that enable the business of stealing freedom for profit.

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