Life on the margins: Undocumented immigrant abuse in the US

This is the seventh in a series of blogs from the finalists of this year’s Policy Idol competition. These blogs were originally presented as policy pitches at the live final of the competition earlier this year. Policy Idol is an annual competition open to all staff and students at King’s.

By Carlyn Greenfield and Carina Uchida

Undocumented immigration has been a focal point of the Trump administration’s policies and a hot topic in the recent presidential election. In the United States, undocumented immigrants have no right to work, to legal representation or to appeal deportation. These limitations lead them to become vulnerable to exploitation such as human trafficking, as they easily fall under the radar and are silenced through their legal status.

It is estimated that approximately 14,500 to 17,500 people are trafficked every year into the United States, although in reality this figure may be higher due to limitations in the data gathering. Their abuse, whether legally, financially or mentally, is easily masked due to the inability of undocumented immigrants to report to authorities. The American economy runs on undocumented work, and this clear violation of human rights can no longer stand.

Carina and Carlyn try to impress the judges and audience

Carina and Carlyn try to impress the judges and audience

At the federal level, there are systems in place to assist victims of human trafficking, namely the T-visa. The ‘T’ non-immigrant status was created through the passing of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (VTVPA) in 2000, making 5,000 T-visas available to victims every year. The T-Visa gives undocumented immigrants temporary US citizenship, for four years, leading to permanent resident status. Between 2002 and 2016, however, only 9,964 visas had been given out, well below the 70,000 available during that period. The low volume of visas awarded could be partially attributed to how stringent the visa process is: the visa requires a high level of documentation, requires the victim to be willing to testify against the trafficker, and victims are not allowed to work while the visa is being processed – which can take over a year. This creates a situation where a victim who has few resources or is extremely intimidated by their trafficker may be unwilling to come forward. Furthermore, the scope of crimes considered when determining eligibility for a T-visa are extremely limited and specific – for example, requiring proof of force, fraud and coercion.

Considering all of this, reforms to the current T-visa system are needed. In Canada, the requirement for victims of human trafficking to be willing to testify against their trafficker was removed, which led to more victims coming forward. Given the low number of applications, it is crucial that the T-visa is made more widely available: this would mean synchronisation between government websites so all necessary information is concise and clear, and ensuring information is available in other languages such as Spanish. (The two primary countries of origin for human trafficking are Mexico and the Philippines, with those with limited English abilities being especially at risk.) Finally, the scope of abuse considered to determine eligibility for a T-visa should be broadened. Wage theft, while common and may constitute involuntary servitude, is difficult to prove under the current requirements.

This is highlighted through the story of Nicky Diaz Santillan, an undocumented immigrant and maid of former Ebay CEO Meg Whitman. Santillan sued Whitman for ‘exploitation, emotional and financial abuse’, however, since it is not covered under trafficking laws, Santillan, as an undocumented worker, was powerless to get out of the situation until it received media attention. The current scope of crimes affects individuals in vulnerable contexts, which should not be tolerated. Despite mass media allegations for and against Santillan, it is clear that undocumented immigrants who are victims of human trafficking have lesser access to legal representation, a precarious condition in proportion to incidence rates.


At the local level, state governments can support T-visa applicants through stipends, food banks, and shelters, as applicants cannot work while the visa is being processed. Programmes set up in sanctuary cities could be a model for these. They are cities and states that have laws limiting the amount local police can cooperate with the federal government in relation to immigration. These protect undocumented immigrants from being detained and deported, as they are less likely to be handed to Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE). Additionally, local governments should look to reach out to their constituents, making them aware of the T-visa programme and helping to boost the number of victims applying.

A ground-level initiative is essential to ensure that T-visas are accessible to those in need. As such, civil society initiatives should be encouraged in the form of community gatherings in public spaces such as schools, churches and community centres. These meetings should be informal events that allow those who feel marginalised in society to reintegrate and receive adequate information regarding the T-visa application process and any form of support necessary. These meetings will be crucial in closing the data gap on the experiences of victims and undocumented immigrants in general, by collecting individual experiences and crucial information. Consequently, they can be used for future long-term policymaking without excluding the individual experiences of human trafficking.

The balance between top-down and bottom-up solutions is the only way to ensure that the complexities of human trafficking are dealt with both structurally and personally. Changing the conversation around human trafficking is key to reducing the stigma surrounding the issue. Despite human trafficking being commonly associated with sex trafficking, a San Diego University study showed that 31 per cent of undocumented immigrants were or are victims of labour trafficking. There is a need to change the focus towards victims of labour trafficking, which by definition is modern slavery.

Human trafficking, in whatever form, is a severe violation of human rights and should not be normalised in a developed country such as the United States. Current policies are not sufficient to provide safety to the high number of victims currently being trafficked. By reforming all levels of policy, the United States can bring security to more undocumented immigrants who are marginalised and vulnerable.

Carlyn Greenfield and Carina Uchida are both in their second year studying for a BA in International Relations in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.

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