A U.S. District Court ruled last week that the owners of a French Bakery in Beverly Hills and Torrance, California, must pay more than $15 million in damages for exploiting 11 Filipino workers. The case is an important reminder that protections provided by U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) allow immigrant workers who are victims of human trafficking to fight back while seeking to remain in the United States.

The bakery workers moved to Southern California in 2012 on E-2 visas at the behest of the bakery owners. E-2 visas allow entry into the U.S. for foreign nationals who are investing in a businesses and their employees who have specialized skills.

In 2015, the workers filed a lawsuit stating the bakery owners paid them less than minimum wage and no overtime while forcing them to work 17-hour days. The lawsuit also claimed the bakery owners forced the workers to complete construction work at an apartment complex owned by the bakery owners and do cleaning and landscaping at the bakery owners’ Los Angeles-area home.

Understanding protections provided by T visas

The bakery workers are remaining in the U.S. through protections provided by T visas, which provide immigration protection to victims of human trafficking. T visas were created in 2000 when Congress passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act. They are among the least-common type of visa issued, partly because victims are unaware of them and, in some cases, may be hesitant to testify against the alleged perpetrator for fear of retribution.

In order to receive a T visa, a foreign national must show that:

  • He or she is in the U.S. as a result of human trafficking. In other words, the victim was recruited to the U.S. for work purposes or brought here against his or her will.
  • He or she is willing to cooperate with law enforcement authorities in the investigation or prosecution of human trafficking. (Victims under 18 years old do not have to assist law enforcement in an investigation or prosecution of human traffickers.)
  • He or she would suffer extreme hardship involving “unusual and severe harm” if removed from the U.S. This may include becoming a victim again or suffering punishment upon returning to a home country.

Consult with a knowledgeable immigration attorney

T visas and other immigration matters are complex. If you face an immigration problem, it is always smart to contact a knowledgeable and experienced immigration attorney as soon as possible.