United States of America: Almost 20 years later: Trafficking survivors need more than a patchwork of benefits

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by AnnaMarie Bena, Esq.

Almost twenty years ago, Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), a trifecta of measures intended to address the rise in human trafficking—prevention, protection and prosecution. The protection measures of the law were written to provide victims with services needed to rebuild their lives. For adult foreign national victims of trafficking, the law allows them, once certified by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), to be eligible for the same benefits accorded to refugees. It appears, however, that after nearly twenty years, the victim assistance provisions of the law have failed in their execution.

In fiscal year (FY) 2018, HHS issued 412 certification letters to adult foreign national victims of trafficking. Based on that number, one might think we’ve almost eradicated human trafficking in the United States. We haven’t. And although Congress has attempted with three reauthorizations to correct the problems with the assistance provisions of the original TVPA, the resulting patchwork of benefits falls short ofwhat trafficking survivors need to rebuild their lives. It doesn’t provide the assistance originally intended by the certification process—benefits to the same extent as a refugee, which arethe most comprehensive benefits available for any immigrant group. In this paper, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) recommends an alternative to the certification process and other changes to provide the necessary care and services trafficking survivors require to live healthy and productive lives.

Of the many immigrants coming to the United States, this group needs targeted support and access to short and long-term benefits and services. Traffickers sexually assault or physically abuse victims and inflict psychological pain and manipulation. In both labor and sex trafficking situations, traffickers terrorize and threaten victims with death, harm to their families, deportation, and arrest. They create drug dependencies and use other fraudulent and abusive methods, including beatings and torture, to maintain control over their victims and make them fearful of asking for help.

In 2003, Congress added a provision to the law to allow HHS “to assist potential victims of trafficking in achieving certification…” This provision allowed HHS to work with community organizations through comprehensive service grants to provide essential services to trafficking survivors before certification. And Congress continues to appropriate funds for other federal agencies, including the Department of Justice, to provide additional services for trafficking victims without a certification. However, Congress is circling around the problem—the certification provisions—and putting in stop gaps, as opposed to fixing the problem.

USCRI, with a track record of over 100 years of addressing the needs and advocating on behalf of refugees and immigrants, has a history of challenging the status quo. In the 1990s when refugees were being held in camps for decades, USCRI launched its global anti-warehousing campaign, objecting loudly and asking where in any international or domestic law does it suggest refugees should be kept in camps.

Now, USCRI believes there’s a need to question the status quo in the care of survivors of trafficking. USCRI, with grant funding from HHS, provides care and services to trafficking survivors throughout the United States through a network of over 200 providers. We know thereality for trafficking survivors, and what follows are our suggestions for shaking up a system that has become dulled to the special needs of this population.