August 2021 Cover Story - T Visas Are Available for Survivors of Domestic Servitude

by Diego Menendez-Estrada

Maria, I a native of the Philippines, had been married to Tom for well over a decade. On the outside, everything in their marriage seemed perfect. The couple’s two daughters were “A+” students at the local elementary school, and the family attended mass together every Sunday. Tom owned the local hardware store. Shoppers were in awe that Tom and Maria could run such a busy establishment all by themselves, or so it seemed. The truth about Tom and Maria’s relationship was much more disquieting. The spotless façade of their life—the immaculate home, the perfectly inventoried business, and the delicious meals—were a result of years of forced work, brought about by sexual and psychological exploitation and abuse.

Human trafficking and domestic violence are not mutually exclusive. A trafficking situation may arise in the context of a personal relationship such as a marriage where there is domestic violence, as was the case in Maria and Tom’s marriage. This article seeks to shed light on how domestic servitude within marriage qualifies as human trafficking for purposes of obtaining T Nonimmigrant Status (T Visa) for noncitizens.

Tom forced Maria to work twenty-hour days cleaning the family home, feeding him, and running his small business. Maria did this under Tom’s complete control. Tom beat Maria if she awoke too late or left any dish unwashed. He threatened to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and have her deported if she failed to complete even the smallest task that he demanded. Tom withheld food and water from Maria if she was late to work or if she tried to leave their home on her own. He further isolated her by taking away her cell phone and passport so she would not leave him. Maria’s marriage devolved into one marked by Tom’s coercive control over her for his own personal benefit. Tom had become Maria’s trafficker, forcing her into domestic servitude.

Human trafficking is estimated to be nearly a $150 billion-per-year global industry that enslaves more than 24.9 million people at any given time around the world. Human Trafficking by the Numbers, Hum. Rts. First (Sept. 2017), https://www.humanrightsfirst.org/sites/default/files/TraffickingbytheNumbers.pdf. Human trafficking need not be transnational in scope; it can occur entirely within national or even sub-national boundaries. See id. Contrary to popular perception, over one-third of human trafficking victims are forced to work as laborers in the home, far from agricultural fields or manufacturing facilities. See Kristen Bracy, Bandak Lul & Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, A Four-year Analysis of Labor Trafficking Cases in the United States: Exploring Characteristics and Labor Trafficking Patterns, 7 J. of Hum. Trafficking 25 (2019).

Congress created the T Visa to combat human trafficking and to provide immigration relief for those who are trafficked into the United States.2 Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA); INA § 101(a)(15)(T); 8 C.F.R. § 214.11. The T Visa grants survivors of human trafficking four years of lawful immigration status with employment authorization, the chance to apply for lawful permanent residency if the T Visa holder meets certain criteria, federal refugee benefits, and the ability to petition for T visas for certain family members in the United States or abroad. See 8 C.F.R. § 214.11(k); see also 9 FAM 402.6-5(E)(1). The T Visa is especially helpful for survivors who are ineligible to obtain lawful permanent residence under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). See INA § 204(a)(1)(A) (permitting noncitizens to self-petition under VAWA only if abusive spouse is a U.S. Citizen or lawful permanent resident, or if self-petition is filed within two years of divorce).

To be eligible for a T Visa, the applicant must demonstrate that she or he suffered a severe form of trafficking in persons. That is, a showing: (1) that they were recruited, harbored, transported, provided, or obtained for her services; (2) through the use of force, fraud, or coercion; (3) for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery. See U.S.C. § 7102(8); 8 C.F.R. § 214,11(a).

Notwithstanding misogyny, power imbalances, and already-existing emotional, physical, and sexual abuse in a marriage, many marriages that succumb to trafficking may do so only after an extended period, rather than at the start, making it less likely that the trafficker-spouse acted as an applicant’s recruiter. A trafficker-spouse, as in the case with Tom, is most likely considered to have harbored the applicant. USCIS’s Administrative Appeals Office (AAO) has provided guidance as to the meaning of harboring for T Visa purposes, which includes instances when the trafficker: controlled the applicant’s movements and demanded that she work under an established and enforced schedule (see Matter of J-H-S-, AAO, Apr. 10, 2019), locked doors and would not let the applicant leave an enclosure (see Matter of Matter of M-A-R-A-, AAO, Mar. 27, 2019), and kept the applicant captive under armed guard (see Matter of A-V-D-L-P-, July 29, 2019). Unsurprisingly, the examples provided by the AAO closely follow the definition of isolation set out by the Domestic Abuser Intervention Project’s Power and Control Wheel. See Power and Control Wheel, Domestic Abuser Intervention Programs, https://www.theduluthmodel.org/wheels/ (last visited June 10, 2021) (“Controlling what she does, whom she sees and talks to, what she reads, and where she goes. Limiting her outside involvement.”).

The trafficker-spouse’s control need not be absolute. While there is not an exact percentage of time that the spouse must be under the complete control of the trafficker-spouse, the applicant must demonstrate that the trafficker-spouse’s threats or actions caused them to continuously return to the place of trafficking. For instance, applicants may be able to leave the home of their trafficker-spouses on their own, but the trafficker-spouse may only permit them to leave at certain times or days or track their movements. See Matter of J-H-S-, Apr. 10, 2019. An applicant should highlight the trafficker-spouse’s control of their movement even in the public domain, or at a minimum, the lack of choice the applicant felt to refuse to follow the trafficker-spouse’s orders. See id.

The applicant may point to physical, emotional, and sexual abuse that may exist in the marriage to satisfy the second element required under the statute, that the trafficker-spouse used force, fraud, or coercion3 to force the applicant into domestic servitude. See U.S.C. § 7102(8); 8 C.F.R. § 214,11(a). The T Visa applicant must demonstrate that the coercion included threats of serious harm to or physical restraint against them; any scheme, plan, or pattern intended to cause them to believe that failure to perform an act would result in serious harm to or physical restraint against them; or the abuse or threatened abuse of the legal process. See 8 C.F.R. § 214.11(a).

For instance, in Matter of J-H-S-, a 2019 non-precedential decision, the AAO found that the applicant was coerced by her trafficker-spouse when he subjected her to physical, verbal, sexual, and emotional abuse and intimidation to force her to stay with him; threatened to have her deported if she reported him to law enforcement; and threatened to harm her children and take them away from her. See Matter of J-H-S-, AAO, Apr. 10, 2019. Similarly, Maria (in our example above) may point to how Tom beat her, threatened to have her deported, and deprived her of food. The definition of coercion under the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) aligns closely with patterns and behaviors employed by abusive spouses, such as behaviors that frighten, intimidate, terrorize, manipulate, hurt, or wound the spouse. Vera E. Mouradian, Abuse in Intimate Relationships: Defining the Multiple Dimensions and Terms, Nat’l Violence Against Women Prevention Res. Ctr., https://mainweb-v.musc.edu/vawprevention/research/defining.shtml (last visited June 13, 2021).

Lastly, the trafficker-spouse must have acted with the purpose to subject the applicant to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery. See 22 U.S.C. Section 7102(8); 8 C.F.R. Section 214.11(a). Domestic servitude in marriage aligns most closely with the definition of involuntary servitude, which is “a condition of servitude induced by means of any scheme, plan, or pattern intended to cause a person to believe that, if the person did not enter into or continue in such condition, that person or another person would suffer serious harm or physical restraint . . . ” 8 C.F.R. Section 214.11(a). Servitude is not defined in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), but the AAO has adopted Black’s Law Dictionary to define it as “the condition of being a servant or slave, or a prisoner sentenced to forced labor.” See Matter of S-H-S-, Jan. 16, 2019, at 3 (citing Black’s Law Dictionary (B.A. Garner, ed.) (10th ed. 2014)). The key issue here is for the applicant to demonstrate the trafficker’s intent, as opposed to merely the end result, i.e., the nature of the forced work.

In Matter of S-H-S-, a 2019 non-precedential decision, the AAO found that an applicant who had been forced to cook and clean his smugglers’ home and serve others for six days was not subject to involuntary servitude because his smugglers’ goal was to extort his family for ransom, not compel the applicant to provide labor or services for them, his captors. See Matter of S-H-S-, Jan. 16, 2019. This suggests that an applicant must demonstrate that her trafficker-spouse has reaped a pecuniary benefit from her services. In Maria’s case above, she may argue that she was subject to involuntary servitude because Tom forced her to provide free labor for his business, clean his home, and cook all his meals, all under threat of physical and sexual violence. There is no requirement that the nature of the forced work be inherently dangerous either. Rather, the applicant must show that she felt no other option but to work for her trafficker-spouse’s benefit, and as such, that she was treated as a slave or forced prisoner.

The shelter-in-place orders enacted to slow the spread of COVID-19 have provided trafficker-spouses with opportunities to coerce applicants into submission and forced work, and data indicate intimate partner violence has been more severe during the pandemic. Jeffrey Kluger, Domestic Violence Is a Pandemic Within the Covid-19 Pandemic, Time (Feb. 3, 2021), https://time.com/5928539/domestic-violence-covid-19/. While trafficker-spouses are more likely to be working from home, or out of work, there are more opportunities for threats, force, and coercion, and fewer opportunities for applicants to seek help. See Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic on Trafficking in Persons, U.N. Off. of Drugs & Crime (Apr. 29, 2020), https://www.unodc.org/documents/Advocacy-Section/HTMSS_Thematic_Brief_on_COVID-19.pdf.

It is more important than ever to be aware of the possibility of a T Visa as a way for a person to escape circumstances that amount to trafficking. The T Visa can also be an invaluable tool for applicants who may be ineligible for other forms of relief, whether due to timing or immigration status of the trafficker-spouse or otherwise. Immigration practitioners must be able to consider and evaluate all possible forms of relief when meeting with clients seeking status in the United States. Applicants are in a particularly vulnerable situation, and it often takes years for them to not only recognize the circumstances of their trafficking, but also to break free to safety.


  1. Maria and Tom are not the real names of these people, but the facts are real and apply to numerous households in Orange County.
  2. Note however, that the T Visa applicant need not demonstrate that she was brought into the United States by her trafficker, rather, the applicant must establish that her current presence is on account of the trafficking. See 8 C.F.R. § 214.11(g)(1); see also Interim T Rule, 81 Fed. Reg. at 92273. Examples may include the need for the T Visa applicant to access mental health services, continue to cooperate with law enforcement, or even if the applicant continues to be subject to trafficking, among others. See 8 C.F.R. §§ 214.11(g)(1)(i)-(v).
  3. This article will focus on a trafficker-spouse’s coercion of the applicant. Coercive control is a strategic form of ongoing oppression and terrorism used to instill fear, which affects between sixty and eighty percent of women seeking assistance for abuse. See Cindy Lamothe, How to Recognize Coercive Control, Healthline (Oct. 10, 2019), https://www.healthline.com/health/coercive-control.

Diego Menendez-Estrada is an Immigrant Justice Corps Legal Fellow at Public Law Center, in Santa Ana, California. Diego may be reached at dmenendez@publiclawcenter.org. PLC is a civil legal services organization that provides free legal assistance to low-income individuals in Orange County. If you or someone you know may need help, please call PLC at 714-541-1010. If you are interested in volunteering with PLC, please email Leigh Ferrin, lferrin@publiclawcenter.org..