In this week's feature, a man named Steve Morrison was hit in his car and killed by Rosa Villegas-Vatres, a legal immigrant from El Salvador. Villegas-Vatres was allowed to stay here through the T visa program, which was founded about nine years ago by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft as a tool in the fight against human trafficking.
To earn her T visa, Villegas-Vatres had to have cooperated with law enforcement against the people who enslaved her and further to have proven that she would have suffered "extreme hardship involving unusual and severe harm" if she were returned to their home country. After three years in T status, the applicant may apply for permanent residency. Immediate family members can also be admitted through these visas.
According to the United States Department of Justice, an estimated 45,000-50,000 women and children (and a much smaller but increasing number of men) are trafficked into the United States each year. While most end up in the sex trade, some are put to forced labor in factories or farms or domestic servitude.
When reached by phone, Villegas-Vatres referred all questions to Michael Rojas, the lawyer who defended her in the negligent-homicide case. Rojas says that Villegas-Vatres was not in the sex trade. "She says she didn't do sex acts, but she had a job where it was just all work and then sleep and work and sleep," he says.
(Villegas-Vatres has yet to receive so much as a traffic ticket for the incident, much to the dismay of Morrison's survivors.)
Thanks to its diversity and proximity to the border, Houston is a human-trafficking hub. In 2005, authorities raided a string of cantinas on the northwest side belonging to a family named Mondragon. Female employees of the cantinas -- immigrants lured here from Central America on false pretenses -- were held against their will, forced to perform sex acts, and compelled to get abortions. The Mondragon raid was the second-largest in US history up to that time and for several years after.
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As a trafficking victim who actually acquired a T visa, Villegas-Vatres is a relative rarity. A November 2008 Houston Chronicle report stated that during the entire first seven years of the T program, only 1,094 people got the visas. (If you're doing the math at home, that's about one out of every 350 people the government believes is trafficked.)
As for why more people with legitimate claims on T visas don't come forward to claim them, fear of immigration officials and/or reprisals from traffickers' associates is often cited. And then there's all the red tape -- documents must be procured from the immigrants' countries of origin, they must relive their ordeal through testimony, and they need the assistance of pro bono attorneys. And then there's the price tag: most have to pay around $550 for the paperwork to be processed.
One local immigration attorney believes that the difficulties in the program are there for a reason. After all, the program was intended as a law-enforcement tool, not a humanitarian initiative. "The government only gives these out if they want something from you," she says. "It's not about 'Oh, you poor victim.'"
Meanwhile, it looks like more applicants may soon be finding out the difficulties of the T visa application process first-hand.