When most of us think of human trafficking, we think of forced sex workers and unpaid laborers slaving away in horrific conditions. We don’t think about the university student who is forced by the head of the school to manipulate computer systems, falsify information, and create programs to hide tuition payments. But when that international student isn’t free to leave the university and is threatened with deportation, could that be considered human trafficking?

Yes! Human trafficking is modern-day slavery. It’s when fraud or coercion is used for forced labor or for a commercial sex act. It’s when the victim isn’t allowed to leave.

When Sai (name changed) first spoke to me about his case, I was skeptical. What he told me he went through at his former university sounded unpleasant, even criminal, but I wasn’t sure it was a case of human trafficking. He hadn’t been promised a job and then been withheld wages. He hadn’t been forced to work in the sex industry. However, the more he talked and then the more I researched, the more I realized that human trafficking goes beyond these stereotypes.

Sai had been forced by the former school administrator to create the types of computer programs described above – to help hide students and hide money. The school itself wasn’t even legitimate. There was the fraud.
To make sure that he complied and didn’t tell anyone about her scheme, she told him that she controlled his destiny in the United States. She wasn’t wrong. She had control over his SEVIS records – the system that reports international students to the Department of Homeland Security. With a click of a button, she could have reported Sai as out of status and triggered an ICE investigation and possible initiation of deportation proceedings. There was a threat.

Sai was petrified. His parents had sacrificed so much for him to get to the United States – he couldn’t disappoint them, he couldn’t leave before his studies were done. He felt that he had no choice – that he had to stay and do what he was told. He had to work for her to create these systems. That’s forced labor. At that point, Sai became a victim of human trafficking. We had fraud, threats, and forced labor.

Eventually, the school was investigated and Sai was able to tell his story to law enforcement. We applied for Sai to get T status based on trafficking since there is no backlog like there is for U status applicants and because the T can provide more benefits than the U in some situations.

We weren’t sure if USCIS would come to the same conclusion we did about Sai’s experiences being a type of trafficking, but we connected the dots. We defined every word in the trafficking definition and explained how it related back to Sai’s experience.

This week, after over a year of waiting, Sai’s T visa was granted. After being manipulated and abused, after being lied to, after living for years in fear, he can finally begin to move on with his life. He has a work card and in three years, he’ll be able to apply for his green card.

Tragically, trafficking is all around us. We cannot be blind to all of the ways that people take advantage of vulnerable populations one person at a time. To report suspected human trafficking, call 1-866-347-2423. If you are a victim of trafficking and need help, call 1-888-373-7888 or text HELP or INFO to BeFree (233733).