Hot! Yearning to be Free: US Immigration Law and Thai Sex Workers

Engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, greeting newcomers to the United States, are the immortal words of Emma Lazarus: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

By Jon Fox

Immigration policy in the United States has always been a contentious issue. Yet as a nation of immigrants, Americans have a special tradition of accepting those fleeing hardship in hopes of a better life. Many Americans take great pride in this, and with the fact that so many view their country as a beacon of freedom and hope, often risking life and limb to make it to it to the shores of America.

Contrary to the plaque on Liberty Island, America’s doors are not as open as the plaque on Liberty Island would imply. Immigration into the United States is regulated by the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) of 1952 (also known as the McCarran-Walter Act). The INA includes several categories of exclusions baring entry. While most follow common sense, preventing individuals with a violent or criminal past, terrorists, or those with communicable diseases, many others do not. Earlier this year, the Obama administration lifted a 22-year-old ban that denied entry to persons with HIV/AIDS into the United States. Initiated in the late 1980s during the height of fear surrounding this “new” epidemic, the ban placed the United States among a small group of a dozen nations that continued to prohibit anyone living with HIV/AIDS from entering their borders.1

One of the reasons this ban was eventually lifted, was because of its continued injury to American citizens and their foreign partners. Denied entry into the United States, they were also denied access to cutting edge medical treatments, and the chance to enjoy life with their loved ones. Since the new rules were implemented in January 2010, many have been allowed to join their partners in America. Access to scientific research and new treatments has given couples living with HIV/AIDS in the United States a chance to live normal lives with their partners, no longer ostracized by fear and ignorance.

Access denied

As the recent immigration bill passed in Arizona clearly demonstrates, immigration policy is a heated issue. It turns even more impassioned and difficult when it involves overseas love, romance, and marriage. American citizens living abroad who want to travel to the United States with a foreign partner must arrange for a visa prior to their visit. However, they are increasingly encountering new obstacles when trying to acquire travel visas for their partners. This phenomenon is particularly true in Thailand and across Southeast Asia.

Sadly, there are cases in which a loved one is found inadmissible under the provisions of the United States Immigration and Nationality Act. Prostitution is one of the grounds outlined in the Act that bars a foreign alien from visiting the United States. Specifically, the Act prohibits entry into the United States for anyone who “is coming to the United States solely, principally, or incidentally to engage in prostitution, or has engaged in prostitution within 10 years of the date of application for a visa, entry, or adjustment of status.”2

While the law also tries to keep out the pimps and human-traffickers, it is a particularly egregious policy for those already victimized by the sex trade. Anyone who has engaged in prostitution, or benefited from its proceeds (such as Thailand bar girls), can be denied a visa to the United States. This policy makes it difficult for an individual, commonly a young woman with few alternatives to working in the sex industry, to receive a K1 fiancée visa in Thailand or K3 marriage visa and start a new life with their American partners. With Thailand’s seedy reputation as a sex-tourism destination, it is not surprising that increasing numbers of Thai spouses of American citizens are being denied visas to America under the suspicion that they have worked as prostitutes or have connections with the girly and go-go bar scene.3 

Targeting the victim
In most countries around the world where prostitution is illegal, the sale of sex is a criminal offense, not the procurement. Under this traditional legal framework, the sex worker is arrested and processed through the legal system, while the client or “John”, is released with a fine and social embarrassment.

In this system the sex worker, like the drug dealer or bootlegger, is seen as a criminal selling an illicit good. Among the various organizations working to help sex worker communities there is a growing consensus that this perspective is misconstrued, as legal penalization further harms individuals already vulnerable to abuse and humiliation. The argument is that prostitutes, victimized once by the pimps and the johns who force them to sell their bodies, are victimized again by society through its legal system. Instead of treating prostitutes as victims, they are treated as criminals. Instead of placing them in the care of social services, they are placed in prisons.

The Swedish Model

But there are alternatives to such draconian policies. In 1999 Sweden launched a controversial and groundbreaking new approach towards prostitution. Sweden set out to criminalize the purchase of sex, rather then the sale of sex. Swedish law now places heavy fines on the Johns, with prison terms of up to eight months, while pimps and human-traffickers face up to 10 years in jail. In a dramatic shift from the past, the true victims of prostitution – those forced to give up their bodies for the benefit of others- are handed over to the care of social services.4

This strategy seeks to undermine the demand side of prostitution – through aggressive campaigning to discourage those from seeking out prostitutes – while providing sex workers with the means and necessary support to find alternative livelihoods. In October 2004, Gunilla Ekberg, Sweden’s top anti-trafficking official, wrote “In 1999, it was estimated that 125,000 Swedish men bought about 2,500 prostituted women one or more times per year…[Since then], the number of women involved in street prostitution has decreased by at least 30 percent to 50 percent, and the recruitment of new women has come almost to a halt.”5 

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1. BBC, US lifts HIV/Aids immigration ban, 4 January 2010. Accessed May 2010 at:
4. Prostitution Research & Education,Fact Sheet on Violence against Women: 1999 Swedish Law on Prostitution. Accessed May 2010 at

5. Mark P. Lagon, Taking a Swedish cue on prostitution. Accessed May 2010

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