For Labor Trafficked Immigrants, T-Visas Are A Life-Saving But Flawed Relief

August 22, 2023

In 2018, the police came to a home in Saugus, Massachusetts, to rescue Anabelle Masalon, a Filipina housekeeper who had been essentially a prisoner of the family from the United Arab Emirates that employed her.

She had been forced to work 21-hour days, earning no more than $400 a month, unable to leave the house alone. Now she was liberated — but she had no phone, no money and just a few hastily packed clothes. She was traumatized and dependent on acquaintances for housing.

Masalon was told she could apply for a form of immigration relief called a T-visa. The visa is a lifeline for those who have suffered sex or labor trafficking in the United States, allowing them a pathway to legal residency. But unlike asylum claims and other types of visas, most T-visa applicants cannot legally work until their visa is approved. And the process can take more than a year.

“It’s very difficult because we cannot get a job,’’ said Masalon. “How can I eat?”

Many survivors like Masalon escape from a trafficking situation with little more than the proverbial shirt on their backs.

The GBH News Center for Investigative Reporting spoke to nearly a dozen people in Massachusetts who say they were victims of forced labor, having to sneak down the back stairs to escape or call 911 for help. An ongoing GBH series on labor trafficking has found that those victims are often overlooked and their abusers go unpunished.

Victims of labor trafficking — even more than sex trafficking victims — lack sufficient government services, according to a recent federal report on human trafficking .

And immigration advocates say T-visa applications can take too long to process, too many applications are denied and there’s a lack of knowledge about who can even qualify for them. Although the federal government allows for as many as 5,000 T-visas a year, only a fraction of that number are issued — an average of just over 600 a year between 2008 and 2022 , according to federal data.

Julie Dahlstrom, director of the Immigrants’ Rights and Human Trafficking Program at Boston University School of Law, says despite a commitment at the federal level to support the T-visa program, there are many obstacles to making it work.

“It’s not functioning well, and it’s not protecting those who are most vulnerable,” Dahlstrom said. “It’s incredibly important for us to look at this program, look at the failures of it, and see how we can do this work better.”

Read the full story by Sarah Betancourt and Jenifer B. McKim on WBGH.