Human trafficking is primarily conceptualized through a criminal justice framework, which means efforts to combat this egregious human rights abuse typically focus on law enforcement and the punishment of perpetrators (Merry 2016). However, much less research has been conducted on the impact of these legal processes on survivors of human trafficking who must engage the law and often participate in prosecution efforts in order to seek redress or access state and federal resources intended to support victims of trafficking. The grant we received from the Dr. Lisa Sable Brown Endowed Fund for Human Rights enables us to fill this gap in our understanding by interviewing professionals who assist survivors of trafficking in navigating the complex legal system to obtain a T-visa, one of the few remedies available to foreign nationals who are victims of trafficking in the US.
With this grant, we originally planned to interview survivors of trafficking in person, but due to the travel limitations and related challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic, we decided to shift our focus to a less vulnerable population. Since receiving this grant, we have completed the IRB approval process and conducted semi-structured in-depth interviews with one mental health professional and five immigration lawyers throughout the country who have worked with hundreds of survivors in applying for the T-Visas. In addition, we have identified fourteen additional subjects with whom we are actively scheduling interviews through January. Using snowball sampling methods, we plan to continue expanding our interview pool to include law enforcement officers and service providers who work with survivors of trafficking, as well as more immigration lawyers.
Our hypothesis is that the legal framework in general, and the T-visa process in particular, tends to further marginalize those who have experienced trafficking by forcing them to assume a narrow role of “worthy victim.” The interviews we have conducted thus far already seem to support this hypothesis. While discussing what her work felt like, one immigration lawyer we interviewed stated, “You feel like you’re participating in a system that is designed to “re-traumatize.” Through this research project we thus expect to uncover further support for the claim that the laws meant to protect survivors of trafficking result in their marginalization and to identify policies and procedures that might be improved to limit such marginalization and better serve victims of trafficking. In addition to producing a publishable journal article contributing to this area of sociolegal studies, we will also produce a publicly available report targeted at policy makers and legal professionals that summarizes our findings and identify ways of improving the T-visa application process.