Although January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, the month kicked off with a startling report revealing that human traffickers are exploiting the US visa process to smuggle victims into the country.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) data from 2005 to 2014 indicates that work and fiancé visas were the predominant means by which more than half of the human traffickers known to federal law enforcement legally smuggled victims into the United States, according to an audit by the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of the Inspector General (IG).
The IG also determined that 274 subjects of ICE human trafficking investigations successfully petitioned USCIS to bring 425 family members and fiancés into the United States. ICE could not say exactly how many visa petitioners were human traffickers; however, 18 of the 274 had been arrested for trafficking-related crimes, including sex trafficking, labor trafficking, peonage, and involuntary servitude.
The IG’s report explained that fiancé visas are used to lure human trafficking victims to the US as part of marriage fraud schemes. The traffickers confiscate the victims’ passports and often subject them to psychological and physical abuse, such as forced sex and/or forced labor.
The auditors determined that ICE and USCIS could improve data quality to better identify instances of human trafficking. Lack of communication between ICE and USCIS also created vulnerabilities in the visa process.
“ICE had to extensively manipulate its system to provide us with reasonably reliable data for our data matching and analysis,” the report stated. “USCIS did not always collect names and other identifiers of human traffickers that victims had provided in their T visa applications. Due to incomplete data, we were limited in our ability to match, analyze, and draw conclusions from the components’ databases.”
The IG made three recommendations:
Recommendation 1: Develop and implement procedures to capture the names and other identifying information on human traffickers found in victims’ statements, which are submitted with T and U petitions, in USCIS information systems.
Recommendation 2: Collaborate with ICEto institute a mutually acceptable procedure for transferring USCIS data on alleged human traffickers to ICE.
Recommendation 3: Collaborate with USCIS to identify a mutually acceptable procedure for obtaining names and other identifying information on alleged human traffickers that is available in USCIS systems. ICE and USCIS concurred, saying they would address the IG’s recommendations.
Each year, millions of men, women, and children are trafficked from countries around the world, including the US. ICE, which is one of the primary federal agencies responsible for combatting human trafficking, describes human trafficking as one of the most heinous crimes it investigates.
A recent statement from ICE indicates that in Fiscal Year 2015, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the investigative arm of DHS, arrested 1,437 individuals for human trafficking. From those cases, nearly 400 trafficking victims were identified and offered critical services. Since 2010, HSI has arrested over 7,000 individuals for human trafficking-related offenses.
“Our special agentswork tirelessly to disrupt criminal trafficking networks and help their victims, but there is still so much to be done,” said ICE Director Sarah R. Saldaña. “While the efforts of law enforcement are crucial to the cause, educating the public to recognize signs of trafficking and supporting the organizations who work to make victims whole are also important parts of our overall strategy.”
The IG’s report emerges amid a heated controversy over the exploitation of loopholes in the US visa process by terrorists. Just recently, it came to light that one of the alleged shooters in the San Bernardino attack, Tashfeen Malik, came to the US on a fiancé visa. The FBI determined both Malik and her husband, Syed Farook, were radicalized years before Farook brought her to the US.
“We’re also looking at flaws in the [K-1] Visa process, and whether there are gaps or loopholes that need to be plugged,” one of the federal counterterrorism officials involved in the investigation recently told Homeland Security Today’s Anthony Kimery on background.
In addition, House Committee on the Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who reviewed Malik’s immigration file, commented, “It is clear that immigration officials did not thoroughly vet her application.”
From the San Bernardino shooting, the worst act of terrorism on US soil since 9/11, to the exploitation of the visa process to smuggle human trafficking victims into the US, the ramifications of failing to properly vet visa petitioners can be devastating.
“The United States is a nation of immigrants and we have a proud tradition of welcoming people from all over the world seeking opportunity and freedom. But since 9/11 we have learned that terrorists have and will continue to exploit our legal immigration system in order to cause harm to Americans and threaten our way of life,” Goodlatte said. “As terrorists continue to adapt and evolve in order to carry out their heinous plots, we have a duty to strengthen the security of our immigration system so that we keep bad actors out of the United States.”