Yearning to be free: US Immigration and Thai Sex Workers
by Jon Fox
30 June 2010
The “Swedish” model, as it has come to be known, has since been adopted elsewhere in Europe, most recently in Norway and Iceland, and even domestically in the United States. In November 2009, Illinois’ Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart (who famously sued the web-based classifieds service Craigslist for allegedly promoting prostitution through its “Adult services” section) announced an adaptation of the “Swedish” model in local polices’ approach towards prostitution. Although no legislation was changed, Cook County law enforcement agencies targeted the men who bought and traded in sex, while at the same time providing social services to the women and girls caught up in prostitution.6 Sheriff Dart hoped to break the cycle of arresting prostitutes, releasing them, only to eventually arrest them again on the same charges later on. Sheriff Dart argued that it was both financially and socially more beneficial to provide these women with the help of social services, rather then funneling them through the pricy prison system.7
The U.S. Department of Justice views sex trafficking as a particularly degrading form of human trafficking. It defines it generally as recruiting, enticing, providing or obtaining either ”an adult for commercial sex by force, fraud or coercion, or a juvenile for commercial sex, regardless of the means.”8 In 2008, Scott Hatfield, chief of the human smuggling and trafficking unit for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), said the agency takes a “victim-centered” approach to women trafficked for prostitution, not deporting immigrants who were found to be victims.9 Many U.S. government agencies readily acknowledge that individuals engaged in prostitution are forced to do so against their will.
Further, the US t-visa for victims of human trafficking permits those that are trafficked to the US for purposes of sex work to apply to reside in the US as a permanent legal resident. One of the principles behind the t-visa, therefore, is that these trafficked individuals are victims of traffickers, not illegal or criminal migrants. Acknowledging victims of trafficking is a progressive step in US immigration policy not evident in other areas, such as the fiancée or marriage visa.
Despite significant progress in the United States in dealing with victims of human trafficking and prostitution, this enlightened viewpoint seems not to have permeated through all branches of government.
Most of the sex-workers in Thailand’s tourist hubs are trafficked there to meet the demands of the flesh market. While some are trafficked from outside Thailand, many Thais get caught up in prostitution as well. Lured from poor rural areas through false promises of good jobs or easy money, they quickly find themselves trapped in the sex trade through threats and violence. Even though U.S. government agencies recognize prostitutes as victims, when they approach U.S. Immigration officers, they are nonetheless seen as criminals.
This is the process of re-victimization that some Thai women go through in order to join their American husbands and build a new life. While it makes sense to bar known criminals from entering the United States, it makes less sense to deny their victims a new start in life.
The Thai predicament
Since 2007, there has been a decrease in the overall amount of visas issued in Thailand to the United States [see Table #1 below]. For those working with U.S. citizens trying to bring their Thai spouses to the United States, this comes as no surprise.
Source: U.S. State Department, FY 2009 Annual Report
Fortunately, American immigration policy provides conditional waivers for those who would otherwise be bared from entry. After being denied a visa, a foreigner wishing to enter the United States can fill out an I-601 -Application for Waiver of Ground of Inadmissibility. An individual can qualify for a waiver under INA section 212(h)(1)(A) if:
a) the crime he or she committed took place over fifteen years prior to the date of application for admission;
b) admitting the alien would not be contrary to the welfare the United States, and the individual is capable of showing their rehabilitation.
Additional grounds for a waiver is provided under INA section 2121(h)(1)(B), which stipulates that if the applicant seeking entry into the United States is a spouse, parent, or child of a U.S. citizen and / or denying admission would result in an extreme hardship to the U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident (LPR). With that in mind, certain crimes have no waiver, such as torture, murder, and conspiracy to commit torture or murder. With dogged determination, and a good immigration lawyer by your side, it is possible for most foreigners seeking entry into the United States to overcome their past and start a new life with their partners.
Without getting into the arguments regarding different definitions of prostitution in different cultural contexts, a few key points remain clear. First, the right to a family is an undisputed right all Americans enjoy, whether at home or abroad. Preventing foreign-born spouses from living with their partners can, and often does, create “extreme hardship” for American citizens. Second, having gone through the traumatic experience of prostitution, these women should not be victimized again for the past, but rather enjoy the support of their loved ones in their efforts to rebuild their lives.
US Visa Denials on the Grounds of Prostitution Increasing?
T-visa for Victims of Human Trafficking
Prostitution Research & Education,Fact Sheet on Violence against Women: 1999 Swedish Law on Prostitution
. Accessed May 2010 at http://www.prostitutionresearch.com/swedish.html
5. Mark P. Lagon, Taking a Swedish cue on prostitution. Accessed May 2010 at: http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/columns/OpEd-Contributor/Taking-a-Swedish-cue-on-prostitution-8503882-69523472.html
7. Mark P. Lagon, Taking a Swedish cue on prostitution.
8. Robert Moossy, Sex Trafficking: Identifying Cases and Victims, NIJ Journal No. 262. Accessed May 2010 at: http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/nij/journals/262/sex-trafficking.htm
9. Theresa Vargas, Immigration-Linked Prostitution Cases Pose Challenge, March 7, 2008. Accessed May 2010 at : http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/03/06/AR2008030603665.html