SAN ANTONIO — Undocumented survivors discovered in a sweltering tractor-trailer in San Antonio Monday could legally remain in the United States with special visas.
The Department of Homeland Security sometimes grants trafficking victims certain protections. Those people must apply for a so-called ‘T’ or ‘U’ visa and agree to help investigators prosecute their smugglers.
In order to qualify for these temporary visas, “the victim must prove to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services that he or she cooperated with law enforcement,” according to a DHS memo.
Immigration attorney Sara Ramey says the government may also offer T visas to applicants who’ve experienced trauma because of a smuggler, even if they cannot testify against the criminal.
“If a young child, for example, is a victim of human trafficking and they’re not able to testify, that’s not going to… preclude them from applying for a T visa,” she said.
Ramey is executive director for the Migrant Center for Human Rights. She said she’s helped immigrants apply for “dozens” of T and U visas.
She noted the federal government can also offer the rare ‘S’ visas to some undocumented witnesses who help identify smugglers.
“Often, (victims) are crucial in the process of bringing the perpetrator to justice,” Ramey added.
But some undocumented immigrants are hesitant to cooperate with law enforcement officials, the DHS memo explains. Special visas can encourage those immigrants to trust investigators, officials say.
“There’s never really a case where you have someone who doesn’t want to help law enforcement,” Ramey explained. “That said, I do see a lot of hesitation about talking to law enforcement because there is this fear that law enforcement might take the side of their abuser.”
She added that some immigrants naturally distrust authorities, since they may come from countries with corrupt officials who are easily-bribed. She also said that, in order to extort silence, traffickers often threaten to report their victims to immigration authorities.
Ramey called for DHS to extend other protections to the survivors found Monday, including mental health services and legal services. She said she hopes immigration officials will show compassion.
“This is a perfgect case where the government should be exercising its prosecutorial discretion,” she said.