Friday, July 8, 2011

Trafficking in Persons Report: Stopping the Abuse of Visa Programs Will Take More than a Few Minor Tweaks

Welcome to my 4th post in the series on the 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report. (Please check out posts #1, #2, and #3). Today’s post looks at the Department of States’s (DOS) assessment of problems within certain employment visa categories that leave people vulnerable to trafficking.

This element of the report probably raised the fewest red flags for me, not because it is a minor problem (its not), but because DOS actually seems to realize that this is an extensive problem that is going to need a lot of attention to cure.

DOS candidly acknowledges that traffickers have been able to abuse several visa programs. These programs are:

  • the H-2 visa program, which provides visas to temporary guestworkers;
  • the J-1 visa program, which provides visas to temporary student workers;
  • and the A-3 and G-5 visa programs, which provide visas to the domestic servants of diplomats, consular employees, and employees of international missions such as the World Bank.

The report outlines the steps currently being taken to address these problems, and recommends additional steps.

DOS has begun tracking the application process for A-3 and G-5 visas, requiring employers to pay their domestic servants through bank accounts, and tracking allegations of abuse. The report recommends adding briefings for in-coming domestic workers about their rights.

The report also mentions new DOL regulations that limit the types of fees recruiters can collect from guestworkers, while acknowledging that many recruiters have found ways around these new rules.

The report also describes DOS’ new pilot program for the J-1 visa process, including a requirement that applicants have verified employment before coming to the United States, prohibiting third party staffing agencies, and increasing DOS oversight of the program. Hopefully all of these positive steps will be continued and expanded for all of these vulnerable visa programs.

Fortunately, the government has already begun taking some steps to address these issues, as discussed above, and DOS acknowledges that more needs to be done. My primary criticism is simply that the government needs to do a lot more. H-2 regulations, in particular, still need a lot of amending, and DOL’s new regulations only scratch the surface. We need considerably more regulation of foreign recruiters and the recruitment fees and other fees collected from guestworkers, both in the United States and while they are still in their countries of origin. H-2 and J-1 visa holders also need to be briefed about their rights just as much as A-3 and G-5 visa holders. Misinformation about their rights and options, and about U.S. law, is a primary tool traffickers use to keep victims from seeking help.

I was curious about one statement in the report: DOS states that the threat of suspension of foreign missions’ ability to acquire A-3 and G-5 visas for domestic servants has been "effective." What does this mean? The report does not say how we know it has been effective.

Have there been fewer complaints regarding abuse? Have there been fewer lawsuits filed against diplomats?

If DOS considers fewer lawsuits to indicate less of a problem that would seem naïve. Lawsuits against diplomats can often be ineffective due to the diplomats’ immunity from civil suits, and thus the existence (or lack) of lawsuits is not necessarily the best indicator. They are also immune from criminal prosecution, which may discourage victims who are aware of this fact from reporting their situation to law enforcement. Given the complexities of addressing abuses by diplomats, I would have liked to see a more thorough explanation of what has been done and how it has worked or could be improved.

But the silver lining is that the report does seem to look pretty closely at the problems within all of these visa programs, and recommends further examination and improvement of the programs. Hopefully the government will take its own advice.

Keep an eye out later today for my concluding thoughts on DOS’ evaluation of U.S. anti-trafficking efforts in the 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report.

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