A U.S. agency is taking steps to deport people who were trafficked illegally into the country if they cannot prove their ordeal, a move likely to have a chilling effect on victims coming forward, experts said on Wednesday.
Victims of human trafficking can apply for a special "T visa" that allows them to stay in the country, receive government benefits and even put them on the path to U.S. citizenship, according to anti-trafficking experts.
About 1,000 people apply for the visa each year, with 70 percent being granted, according to the U.S. government. The policy change was ordered by President Donald Trump in a crackdown on anyone in the country illegally.
To get a T visa, victims must prove their story to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), but if their application is denied, a policy that took effect last week means they will be ordered to appear at a hearing that begins the deportation process.
Previously, those with applications denied were not necessarily put on an immediate path to deportation, experts said.
The change means victims see more risk in coming forward and advocates are more selective in what cases they bring because of fear of failure, said Martina Vandenberg, president of the Human Trafficking Legal Center.
"Lawyers are having to make extremely difficult decisions about whether or not to file at all. You don't file anything even slightly risky," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. The order is intended to improve security in the United States, said USCIS Director L. Francis Cissna.
It allows USCIS "to support the enforcement priorities established by the president, keep our communities safe, and protect the integrity of our immigration system from those seeking to exploit it," Cissna told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an email.
The process of obtaining T visas has slowed down considerably to almost two years, experts said. The longer the process, the harder it is for people if they are forced to leave the country, said Anita Teekah, senior director of the anti-trafficking program at New York's Safe Horizon, a victim assistance organization.
"The stakes really continue to get higher the longer you're here," she said.
The U.S. government estimates about 50,000 people are trafficked every year from foreign countries to the United States.
Globally, some 40 million people are believed to be victims of labor or sex trafficking, according to the International Labor Organization and other leading groups.