Federal immigration officials agreed Monday to long-awaited proposals that for the first time would provide a path to permanent legal residency to hundreds of human trafficking victims in Houston and across the United States.
The move came two weeks after the Houston Chronicle reported that only about half of the victims of human trafficking identified by federal investigators in the U.S. are getting promised visas to help rebuild their lives — despite their cooperation in prosecuting traffickers.
The federal government has spent seven years and tens of millions of dollars to rescue and assist foreign women exploited as slaves in America under the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act, yet only 1,094 victims have managed to qualify for T visas.
None have received green cards because of previously unexplained bureaucratic delays in issuing the required regulations.
The proposed regulation would help both victims of human trafficking as well as immigrant victims of other crimes, such as domestic violence, who assist government prosecutions.
"It is wonderful news and long overdue," said Diana Velardo, an immigration lawyer at the University of Houston who said the law will help at least 25 of her own clients here. "This helps our victims move out of uncertainty and finally move on."
'Many difficult ... issues'
Immigration officials said the delay of nearly seven years in issuing the regulation stemmed from "many difficult legal and policy issues (that) required resolution ... We recognize this is a vulnerable population and we want to ensure that our policies and procedures are sound, " according to a press release issued Monday by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Under the proposed rule, hundreds of trafficking victims and family members who received T visas in 2005 or before — could apply for green cards.
In 2001, Congress approved granting as many as 5,000
T visas each year under the Trafficking Victims act. Those T visas give victims and their qualifying family members temporary permission to stay up to three years in the United States to rebuild lives and avoid retribution they could face in home countries.
The law also called for regulations to permit trafficking victims to permanently resettle here after T visas expired.
But until Monday, those regulations had never been issued. That left hundreds of victims in legal limbo — including dozens here in Houston.
American Samoa victims
About 300 victims who could be eligible for green cards under the proposal were rescued in American Samoa in 2001 in the largest human trafficking case in U.S. history. All of those victims, mostly Vietnamese women, had been duped into paying their own way to the island for what they thought were legitimate jobs at the Daewoosa sewing factory, where they were forced to work without pay or adequate food, according to court records.
Twenty victims resettled here. The Daewoosa victims also were the first T visa recipients. They were unable to get green cards after their T visas ended — because of the regulation that was delayed until now.
"My clients are going to be ecstatic!" said Boat People SOS Attorney An Phong Vo, who represents the 20 Daewoosa victims who live here. "It's going to (make) a whole world of difference."
The rule will be published in the Federal Register and become final 30 days later. Source