U.S. immigration officials in Portland today appealed to victims of human trafficking to take advantage of federal relief programs aimed at freeing them.
"If you open that door, there's someone waiting on the other side," said Karen FitzGerald, acting deputy director of the Vermont Service Center, a division of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Immigration officials have traveled in recent months to cities that are perceived as hot spots for human trafficking, often described as a form of modern-day slavery. Teams have visited Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Dallas and cities up and down California. They described Interstate 5, from Mexico to Canada, as a pipeline for traffickers.
They typically prey on poor women, luring into the U.S. with promises of employment or marriage. Once inside the country, they are often kept in harsh conditions and forced to work off their debts, a kind of indentured servitude, officials said.
An immigration program that began in 2002 offers visas to victims of human trafficking. Victims now in the U.S. must meet certain conditions, including that they be willing to work with law enforcement and can demonstrate they would suffer physical harm or extreme hardship if they were removed from the U.S.
During the fiscal year that ended last fall, a record 447 victims of human trafficking were approved for the visas, according to information provided by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Officials encouraged victims of human trafficking to phone their toll-free hotline to report their abuse. Interpreters are available 24 hours to handle calls in more than 170 languages. The number is 888-3737-888.
-- Bryan Denson