U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has approved the creation of a special immigrant visa for people who have been smuggled into the United States and forced into prostitution, farm labor or domestic service.
Some 5,000 immigrants a year will be able to benefit from the new T-visa, if they cooperate with law enforcement efforts to crack down on the smuggling rings.
The T-visa is the newest element of the government's campaign against the illegal smuggling of immigrants into the United States.
Attorney General John Ashcroft has said the visa aims to help protect victims of human trafficking.
"America will not stand idly by as those who seek to profit from modern-day slavery ignore the humanity of their prisoners, and show disdain for the rule of law," he said.
Mr. Ashcroft estimates more than 50,000 people are smuggled into the United States each year, mostly women and children.
The INS says most of the victims are smuggled into the United States from Mexico, Russia and several African and Asian countries. Some women and children are kidnapped and smuggled into the country for prostitution, domestic servitude or indentured farm work.
"It is specifically designed for the victims of severe forms of trafficking in persons, who cooperate with law enforcement against those responsible for their enslavement," he said.
The plight of enslaved immigrants was highlighted last year by a young Guatemalan woman who was kidnapped from her home three years ago and smuggled into Florida. She was then forced to work as a field hand and turn over all her earnings to her abductor, who also sexually abused her. Her abductor was convicted last year under the human-trafficking law. At least 90 other cases are under investigation. The legislation, which was passed two years ago, provided the rules for creating the T-visa.
Immigration expert Arthur Helton of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations says the government's efforts to tighten border controls had fueled illegal trafficking operations.
"Efforts to manage borders, control borders and crack down on unauthorized migrants produce incentives for these networks to evolve, and offer trafficking as a form of entry to some hapless individuals," he said.
Immigration analysts like Mr. Helton say T-visas will be an important tool in the crackdown on illegal smuggling rings, because granting the visa is linked to the applicant's cooperation in prosecuting the traffickers.
For now, the Immigration and Naturalization Service will approve only about 5,000 T-visas a year. But the law will allow T-visa holders to apply for permanent residency after three years.