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Broken Temporary Work Visa System Facilitates U.S. Labor Trafficking

New data spotlights how foreign labor recruitment fees and “tied visas” are aiding traffickers

WASHINGTON, D.C. (June 5, 2018) – Polaris released a report today analyzing data from the National Human Trafficking Hotline that spotlights how human traffickers are weaponizing structural flaws within the temporary work visa system. A total of 797 individual victims of human trafficking holding guest worker visas were identified through the Hotline from 2015 to 2017. In fact, nearly half of all the victims of labor trafficking reported to the National Hotline during this period whose immigration status was identified were foreign nationals holding legal visas.

The report details with new data how human traffickers are exploiting workers on the H-2A, H-2B, and other popular temporary work visas largely through tactics that are built into the structure of the visa programs. Specifically, the threat of deportation is one of the most powerful weapons for traffickers to control victims.The vast majority of temporary visas are “tied” to a single employer, meaning that the worker is immediately deportable if he or she leaves the job with that employer. The practice of foreign labor recruiters charging workers recruitment fees for everything from filing paperwork to travel services can to lead to unmanageable debts that become the foundation for economic control.

Click here to read Human Trafficking on Temporary Work Visas: A Data Analysis 2015-2017 or here for an executive summary.

“Foreign workers entering the United States with hopes of a stable job and paycheck through the temporary work visa program are experiencing rampant human trafficking within the gaps of our nation’s patchworked visa system,” said Bradley Myles, CEO of Polaris. “These are gaps we know how to close. The U.S. government could take simple, yet significant steps to reduce labor trafficking within our own borders by untying all visa categories from a single employer as a condition of work and enforcing a ban on recruitment fees.”

“U.S. law should not facilitate human trafficking. Yet, elements built into the guest worker visa program leave guest workers vulnerable and create opportunities for exploitation,” said Naomi Tsu, senior supervising attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “While human trafficking is the worst abuse faced by guest workers, other abuses—such as wage theft and retaliation for standing up for legally protected rights are also very common problems with guest worker programs. Despite these problems, guest worker programs continue to grow as the U.S. government issues more visas to employers hungry for foreign workers who literally cannot leave their job without fear of retaliation, including the threat of deportation.”

“Our transnational model allows us to support workers recruited for temporary visas throughout their journey, whether in their home communities, in transit in the United States, at the job site, or after returning home,” said Elizabeth Mauldin, Policy Director at Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc. “Migrant workers’ stories contain common patterns of abuses that begin with exorbitant recruitment fees, false promises, and high-interest loans, and that lead to economic coercion on the job and retaliation. Guestworker programs facilitate trafficking and exploitation—they should be replaced with labor migration that honors human rights.”

Key highlights from the report include:

  • DATA: Polaris identified 797 victims of labor trafficking through reported cases to the National Human Trafficking Hotline from January 2015 to December 2017 who held temporary work visas at the time of their abuse. Of those victims:

    • The vast majority of human trafficking on temporary work visas, 97 percent or 771 victims, involved labor trafficking.

    • The visa categories with the most reported abuse were the H-2A (327 victims), H-2B (248 victims), and the J-1 (67 victims) visas.

    • The majority of victims (420) were Mexican nationals.

    • Seventy percent (558 victims) were male and 25 percent (202) were female when gender was identified.

  • TRAFFICKING ANALYSIS: Victims of labor trafficking on temporary work visas were found across numerous industries including agriculture, domestic work, landscaping, hospitality, restaurants, and construction.

    • Seventy-five percent of all the victims identified were recruited through what appeared to be legitimate job offers. Victims were often not clear of the relationship between the person who recruited them and the actual employer.

    • Economic abuse and threats were the most common forms of control, with the potential for reporting a worker’s immigration status being by far the most pervasive and effective threat against guest workers.

  • RECOMMENDATIONS: The report offers numerous recommendations that the government can take to significantly reduce the trafficking of guest workers in the United States, including policy changes within the federal government and legislation in Congress. The most significant steps the government can take are to:

    • Untie all visa categories so workers are no longer required to work for a single employer as a condition of their work visa.

    • Enforce bans on recruitment fees so foreign labor recruiters are barred from collecting any money from would-be visa holders for any services or activities, including the facilitation of paperwork or travel services. Companies should also be held liable for the use of recruiters who charge or take money from workers as a condition of employment.

    • Pass the Visa Transparency Anti-Trafficking (VTAT) Act to create a uniform system for reporting data that the government already collects on temporary visa programs and require that the information be made publicly available. Click here for more info.

People can receive help or report a tip of suspected human trafficking in the United States by calling the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or texting “BeFree” (233733).


About Polaris
Polaris is a leader in the global fight to eradicate modern slavery. Named after the North Star that guided slaves to freedom in the U.S., Polaris acts as a catalyst to systemically disrupt the human trafficking networks that rob human beings of their lives and their freedom. By working with government leaders, the world’s leading technology corporations, and local partners, Polaris equips communities to identify, report, and prevent human trafficking. Our comprehensive model puts victims at the center of what we do – helping survivors restore their freedom, preventing more victims, and leveraging data and technology to pursue traffickers wherever they operate. Learn more at Follow Polaris on Facebook and on Twitter.

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Need help? Polaris operates the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline.