Texas seeks immigrants’ help to battle human trafficking

Over the last few years, as Texas has led the battle against human trafficking, one challenge has been to increase reporting of these crimes within immigrant communities.

Human trafficking is the third most profitable crime worldwide after illicit drugs and arms trafficking, according to the United Nations. In Texas, lawmakers have passed various laws and created special units and police task forces to put perpetrators behind bars. But this modern day slavery is grossly under-reported by immigrant victims, who may fear asking for help for fear of deportation, according to law-enforcement officials and legal experts.

“In trafficking cases, victims are often afraid of retaliation by their captors or they are aware that despite cooperation with law enforcement, they may not be able to obtain legal status in the U.S., giving them little motivation to report the crime,” said Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch, an immigration attorney in Austin.

In 2015, Texas ranked second nationwide in total of calls received at the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline operated by Polaris, a group that works to end trafficking and advocate for its survivors.

The hotline, which offers resources for victims, received 21,947 calls nationwide in 2015. Of them, 1,731 calls originated from Texas. At least 433 confirmed cases were reported as a result of these calls, which involved U.S. Citizens and foreign-born nationals.

In Austin, the reporting of human trafficking-related crimes by immigrants has decreased, said Austin Police Department Sgt. Bob Miljenovich, supervisor of the Human Trafficking and Vice Unit. Over the last two years, Miljenovich’s unit has seen the number of reported immigrant cases drop, he said. “Ninety-nine percent of all our cases have been U.S. citizens.”

Immigration rules are often relaxed for victims of these crimes. In the past decade the United States has offered non-immigrant status for victims of human trafficking and criminal activities, known as T visas and U visas, respectively, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

In 2015 alone, at least 17,694 type U visas and 1,304 T visas were approved nationwide, a spokeswoman from Citizenship and Immigration Services said.

In investigating trafficking, Austin police officers focus on pursuing offenders, not enforcing immigration law, said Miljenovich, who hopes more immigrants will report human trafficking-related crimes.

“We don’t care (about) somebody’s immigration status,” Miljenovich said. “If they are being exploited or taken advantage of, we want them to call us so we can go after those people.”

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