— On a recent sweltering afternoon, two women sat at a restaurant table in a small American town, sharing conversation and a cookie and keeping cool. The normally busy eatery was quiet, but even if it had been packed they would have been the oddest couple in the room – a woman who came to this country illegally and a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent.
"How's your back? Is it treating you OK?" asked the agent.
"Very, very good," replied the woman across the table in a heavy South American accent.
We can’t tell you their actual names. Special Agent Jones, her gold badge clipped to her belt and and ICE logo on her black government-issue polo shirt, often works undercover. Naming her could blow that. And her companion, whom we’ll call Laura, is a crime victim. Using her real name or showing her face could give her tormentors all they need to retaliate. They are both women in their 30s, but the gray streaks running through Laura’s dark hair are suggestions of the pain she has endured.
Laura is a victim of human trafficking who risked her safety by testifying against the man who brought her to this country and forced her to work as a sex slave for at least seven years. Special Agent Jones was a part of the team that saved her.
Their unusual relationship is the result of an alliance that has developed over the past decade, as U.S. law enforcement agencies have sought to enlist victims to help dismantle the growing number of human trafficking rings operating in the U.S.
To do that, they must overcome the fear that the victims have for both their captors and for ICE and other law enforcement agencies. One of their main tools to accomplish that is a special “T Visa,” which offers the victims a path to freedom — and even citizenship — in exchange for their help putting modern day slave runners behind bars.
But a review of the program by NBC News shows that while the visas are effective in gaining cooperation, they aren’t being used nearly as often as they could be, leaving thousands more men, women and children at risk.
Whirlwind romance, heartbreaking betrayal
Laura can’t remember some details of her ordeal, including how long ago she was smuggled into the U.S. — somewhere between 10 and 12 years ago, she reckons. But others — like how she got here — are seared into her memory.
She met a man in her home country when she was in her 20s. He swept her off of her feet, and told her he loved her. She took him to meet her family. When he asked her to go to the U.S. for six months, they cautioned against it, but she was in love and couldn't say no. They boarded a flight north and only then, on the airplane, did he lay out what he really had in mind for her.
"You're going to the United States," she remembers him telling her, "to work like a prostitute." Laura said she wanted to scream for help, but he told her to remember that he knew where her family was. "I have a lot of friends and I know where everybody lives," he threatened.
It was a cold winter night when she landed in Washington, D.C. The man passed her off to a couple who took her directly to an old house. She laid awake all night in shock, listening to rats scrape around. All she could think about was how she wanted to phone her family — if only someone in this unfamiliar and unfriendly place could help her make a call.
But Laura had no allies in this frightening new land. She was now an unwilling sex worker in brothels catering to immigrant Latinos in Washington, D.C., Maryland, Atlanta and New York. She remained the "property" of her trafficker, who arranged her movements, as well as those of other women and girls he lured to the U.S. with similar false promises.
She remembers one especially horrific night in Maryland. "I slept with 103 men," she says. "That is the worst day in my life."
And she was not alone. "I remember, he say, 'You no make money, because the other women [had sex with] 130.' A lot of people don't believe it, and say 'No, it's impossible.'"
Not only is it possible, it happens all the time, all across America, according to Bradley Myles, executive director of Polaris Project, a nonprofit that operates the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.
"Basically there's this whole sex trafficking network that exists in the United States, and it predominantly targets and victimizes women and children from Latin American countries," Myles said.
Fear of incarceration due to her undocumented status and concern for the safety of her family kept Laura from attempting escape or contacting authorities. But one day, that fear turned into hope, when Special Agent Jones came through the brothel door.
* * *
During her early years as an ICE agent, Jones worked on Secret Service details for President George W. Bush, and Sen. John Kerry during the 2004 presidential election. An avid runner — ICE agents have to be in top physical shape — Jones helped guard Bush when he went jogging. But when she was asked by the Secret Service whether she would like to join the agency full-time, Jones declined. She had her heart set on working undercover investigations with ICE.
"I love to protect and serve the people of this country — whether they are citizens or undocumented aliens," Jones said.
She wanted to make sure that the protection extended to the community she was policing, that the illegal immigrants would be treated with humanity and fairness. "At the end of the day, we're all people here," she said.
Three years ago, after approximately eight months of surveillance and undercover investigation — including late-night stakeouts, digging through trash, getting evidence any way they could — Jones and fellow ICE agents approached a house on a quiet street in an average American suburb and knocked on the door. They knew that the front door was not shielding a family sitting around a dining room table discussing their day, but a brothel where women and girls as young as 14 were being forced to have sex with "Johns" who paid $25 for 15-minute sessions. The women and girls worked all day and night, and almost never saw a penny.
Laura had been in this brothel network for over seven years by now. She had managed to make contact with her family about five years into her ordeal. They told her that she needed to contact law enforcement.
"They say I need to call police," she said. "But I'm so afraid, and I don't do it."
She and the other women and girls were never left alone. They never went to stores, restaurants, movies or malls. And anytime they left the house they were accompanied by a minder. They moved from brothel to brothel and sometimes to stash houses — all in residential neighborhoods — always watched over by their traffickers.
On the day of the raid, Laura sat on a couch in the living room, where men awaited their 15-minute sessions, watching television. After seven years in the brothels she was no longer in high demand. New women and girls were constantly being brought in. The younger and fresher the faces, the more popular they were with Johns. The man she had fallen for all those years before in her home country still found a use for her though; she worked as the maid for this brothel.
She heard a knock on the door, peered out the window and saw the police. She didn't say anything — she just started to cry as she opened the door for them.
Laura said she hadn't cried about her situation in years. "You know, at one point you can't cry," she said. "You cry no more." But as she realized what was about to happen, the tears came rushing back. "Crying because I am too happy — not afraid — because I knew that this is over."
What happened next is a blur, but she remembers that the first person she saw come through the door was Jones. The officers told her they had arrested her trafficker. She asked if she was going to jail. They told her no.
The years of slavery had taken a physical and emotional toll on Laura.
"When we rescued her she appeared substantially older than her age," said Jones. "She had a lot of baggage. A lot of mental and emotional distraughtness."
Laura called her family, and they told her to get on the next plane home, but she couldn't do it. She recalled how they had warned her seven years earlier not to get on the plane with her trafficker, and how she hadn’t listened.
"I know it's not my fault, but I think I no [longer] have the face to look at them,” she said. “I think I’m like ashamed."
Jones hoped to secure her cooperation as the prosecution built its case against her trafficker and the network he was part of. But her captors had told Laura over and over not to trust law enforcement, and she had no idea if she could really believe anything that an ICE agent was telling her.
"When I first met Laura, she didn't trust us," said Jones. "She actually made the case harder by saying that the other women that we rescued were all doing it voluntarily, that her trafficker was innocent. But that is usually the way these victims have been brainwashed to believe. It's classic Stockholm Syndrome."
Jones was patient. As one of the oldest victims, Laura's testimony was crucial to the case. She decided to show her what her trafficker had deprived her of, and give her a taste of freedom.
"So we put her in a position where she could continue to thrive and see where she's going to go," she said. She arranged for Laura to get temporary status to stay in the country legally. She put her in touch with a relief agency that helped her find work, housing and mental health care. As Laura started to heal, Jones stayed in touch and kept asking for her cooperation, promising that her newfound freedom could be permanent. But Laura continued to resist.
After three years, Laura finally walked into the courtroom where her trafficker sat — the man she once thought she loved — and testified about her ordeal.
"I remember the day, but I no remember what I say," she said, "because I so nervous."
Her trafficker was found guilty of human trafficking. He is in federal prison now, and after five years, he will be deported to his home country. He is also required to pay restitution to Laura and the other nine women and girls he was convicted of enslaving
Working human trafficking cases, Jones has found an even stronger connection to her work. "These girls can be anybody's daughter, anybody's sister,” she said. “When I look at these girls — that could have been me."
* * *
Stories like Laura's would have a different ending if it weren't for the T Visa.
The Trafficking Victims Protection Act, passed early in the Bush administration, established a program where undocumented victims of human trafficking could be granted nonimmigrant status if they lived in the United States, agreed to cooperate with law enforcement and would be at risk if they were to return home.
Since T Visas became available in 2002, the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services has been authorized to issue up to 5,000 a year — or enough for 10 percent of the 50,000 men, women and children trafficked into the U.S. for prostitution and forced labor each year, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
But the bureau has not come close to that number. In 2010 – the program’s most successful year — just 447 T Visas were approved. In over nine years, barely 2,300 T Visas have been granted.
The problem, according to officials, is that understanding of the program is low among both victims and authorities.
"We need to raise awareness," said Lynn Boudreau, assistant director at the Vermont service center where USCIS processes T Visa applications. "This is just the tip of the iceberg."
Boudreau said that a form certifying cooperation in an investigation can be hard to obtain from law enforcement officers who don't understand the program. "Sometimes there's a hesitation on the part of law enforcement to actually sign those certifications," she said. "It's just a piece of the puzzle. We're the ones who adjudicate the case. We're the ones giving the benefit."
Even officers who understand the program, such as Special Agent Jones, have a hard time persuading victims that they really want to help.
"The biggest problem that we have combating these cases," she said, "is that once they hear the words 'Immigration and Customs Enforcement,' they immediately run. They do not trust us. They immediately think we are going to deport them."
Reluctance to report
In cases like Laura's, where the brothels she worked in served mostly illegal immigrants, there can be a reluctance to report any crime. Laura believes her neighbors knew what was happening inside the houses, but were scared to report anything. "They don't want to have problems," she said. "They don't want to call the police for nothing because they do not want to have problems. But they knew."
Many of Laura’s fellow victims also refused to testify, their fear of the traffickers outweighing any possible advantage for their cooperation. "They are so afraid to go," she said. "Nobody helped them. They not going to do it because they know they have families in their countries."
Brock Nicholson, Special Agent in Charge for ICE Investigations, said he has a hard time getting the message out to victims. "Don't be afraid of us," he said. "We're trying to help. We're not going to deport you. You are a victim; our goal is to save you."
Despite the staggering numbers of victims, and their horrifying stories, the highest number of annual human trafficking convictions over the last five years was 103.
But without the T Visa program, that number would be even smaller, said Jones.
"If we didn't have that tool as law enforcement officers … I would actually have to deport (the victims)," she said, "and we wouldn't have any witnesses to prosecute these traffickers.”
* * *
Sitting at the table in the restaurant, Jones took Laura's hand into her own as she inquired about her new life.
"How is life outside of work? How are your friends?" asked Jones.
"We're good," replied Laura. "We go shopping."
Jones offered encouragement mixed with gentle criticism. She pushed her to get her driver's license, told her she was not a fan of her smoking and made sure her work life was OK.
"She's my angel," said Laura.
Today, Laura is married and has a job and a home. For fun, she watches movies, goes to the park, has cookouts with her family and plays in the pool — small freedoms that she was not allowed during her seven years of slavery. She said her life is beautiful now, all she's ever wanted.
"What I want to do," she said. "Just live like this, be happy, no problems around me. Just have a family life. Quiet, stay at home, that's what I want."
"Is anybody threatening you? Making you feel afraid?" asked Jones, as both friend and law enforcement officer.
"No, nothing will make me afraid again," said Laura.
The two laughed about their unlikely friendship.
"Some people don't know what they have," said Laura. "Because I no laugh for many years, now I laughing for everything. The small things make me very happy. Very small things."