Human Traffickers Exploit US Visa System To Smuggle Victims

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Rachel Stoltzfoos Staff Reporter
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Human traffickers predominantly use work and fiance visas to legally smuggle their victims into the United States, an audit conducted by the Department of Homeland Security inspector general (IG) found.

About half of the 32 known human trafficking cases identified by the IG involved the use of work or fiance visas to smuggle victims into the country. These victims were then subjected to forced servitude.

The IG also found 274 people investigate used family reunification visas to bring 425 relatives or visas into the country, some or all of which may be victims.

The IG found these cases by matching a database of human traffickers compiled by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which is responsible for investigating human trafficking in conjunction with local law enforcement, against data collected by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which processes special visa requests from human trafficking victims.

Human traffickers lured victims into the country in many cases by promising them lucrative work opportunities or marriage. Then, traffickers confiscated their passports, or otherwise threatened them into forced servitude. Others were smuggled into the country illegally, and their status was used against them.

The IG also found that from 2005 to 2014, about 3 percent of the more than 10,500 subjects of ICE human trafficking investigations petitioned the government for family reunification visas, and successfully brought hundreds of people into the country. Some of those cases are ongoing, so it’s unclear exactly how many of the 274 petitioners were actually human traffickers. But ICE data showed 18 people had been arrested for trafficking-related crimes, often for the sex trafficking of children.

Victims of human trafficking can apply for a special visa granting them temporary immigration benefits in a process handled by USCIS. The IG found victims often reported names or other identifying aspects of the human trafficking perpetrators, but USCIS did not always store the names or regularly share them with ICE, according to the report.

“Our review of USCIS case files identified instances where children who were sold, brought to the United States, and forced into involuntary servitude named the perpetrator as well as other potential victims in their T visa application,” the report said. “Although this information was extremely important, it was not captured in the USCIS database.”

The IG also found ICE did not adequately share information with USCIS, and is using an antiquated database system that inadequately gathers information.

“When ICE employees identified a human trafficker, they didn’t always advise USCIS regarding the victims they identified,” the report said. “ICE had to extensively manipulate its system to provide us with reasonably reliable data for our data matching and analysis.”

The IG recommended USCIS begin collecting all names and identifying information of human traffickers found in victims’ statements, and implement a procedure for sharing that data with ICE. The IG also recommended ICE in turn provide USCIS with available information on alleged human traffickers.

“Without concerted DHS efforts to collect and share information, the risk exists that some human traffickers may remain unidentified and free to abuse other individuals,” the report concluded.

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