The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
April 20, 2018

Changing immigration policies may prevent human trafficking survivors from seeking help and justice

April 20, 2018

Over the past 18 months, the country has witnessed massive shifts in immigration policies and rhetoric, as the Trump administration furthered efforts to increase immigration enforcement, reduce immigration, and scale back protections for people without citizenship. Harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric both during and after the 2016 election has increased fear among many immigrant communities and may be connected to recent rises in hate crimes.

It is still too early to measure the full effects of these policy changes, but some data show that they influence whether immigrant survivors of human trafficking and other crimes seek help:

What our research found

In interviews with 80 survivors of human trafficking and 100 stakeholders, we found that, despite current emphases on increasing prosecutions for trafficking, survivors’ first and most essential step toward accessing justice was reaching out for help through social and legal services.

In fact, most survivors described the importance of healing through accessing social services, such as temporary housing relief, legal immigration assistance, family unification, and financial assistance. To reach out, they had to trust service providers and law enforcement officers to provide them with help.

Our study confirmed that survivors experience challenges when seeking such relief, including unavailable social services, misidentification by service providers and law enforcement, and negative stereotypes [pdf] regarding their victimization. But we also noticed new challenges that foreign-born survivors faced during our data collection, which overlapped with the 2016 election (June 2016 to May 2017). Here are a few:

  • After November 2016, foreign-born survivors reported that they were less likely to seek T-Visa status or feel safe in their current legal status. Even survivors with legal trafficking-related immigration relief developed new anxieties of being deported and separated from the stability they had achieved.

I feel like there's no assurance that—I mean, just by the green card alone, they can still deport me because I'm not a US citizen. You know what I mean? That's my fear first when Trump won…That's my fear when I first find out. "Oh, Trump won? What will happen to me now? I'm just a green card holder." I feel like being just a green card holder, it prevents me from going further to my life. You know what I mean? –Survivor

  • Service providers noticed a decline in clients reaching out for assistance and expressed concerns over how anticipated and actual new immigration policies and rhetoric affected their interactions with clients. They reported clients asking questions about policy changes that may affect them and bringing up concerning media coverage. And they even noticed a change in their expected volume of referrals.

We have seen a decrease in the number of calls. Even though it’s more than the same time period last year ‘cause we had been seeing a steady increase. [Calls have] been decreasing ever since the executive order, so when executive orders came out. We think it might be associated with that. Just from talking with community partners, community partners will say, “Yeah.” They’ve also seen a lotta fear. People have stopped reporting different things to them too. –Victim service provider

  • Both survivors and service providers coupled their fears around immigration enforcement and potential deportations with anxiety about funding cuts (both anticipated and actual) to federally funded social services. Respondents believed that foreign-born trafficking survivors, who are entitled to services through their victimization status, would be more vulnerable to exploitation and further victimization without access to resources.

I think the thing is, is the hardest part is that all the resources are being taken away…. If you’re taking resources away like food stamps and things like that, guess what, you’re not actually helping this population. You’re taking away more resources where it makes it more difficult for them to be okay.... A lot of them are getting the free meals, and you’re taking that away. That’s huge. That’s not helping in prevention, things like that. – Victim service provider

Our experience in the field during a time of increased immigration enforcement and growing anti-immigrant rhetoric reinforces preliminary findings from other researchers: survivors’ fear of immigration enforcement and uncertainty around deportation likely leads to decreased help-seeking behavior in human trafficking cases.

As we found, this decline in seeking help means trafficking survivors may not be getting the services they need—services they’ve identified as essential to their recovery process. As the immigration debate continues, the well-being of immigrant victims of crime should be at the top of the mind for policymakers, justice system actors, and society at large.

Photo by Ezra Bailey/Getty Images.

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