Skip to main content

Many journalists develop subject knowledge to report their stories, and in addition rely on the aid of experts to untangle complex issues, such as trafficking. Expertise is helpful as you clarify terms or work at making connections in a story about trafficking.

Here, we pose questions to a range of experts who have studied the issue, work directly with trafficking victims, and/or are survivors. For each question there’s a ‘quick take’ (you know, in case you’re up against a deadline), followed by a longer take with context added (‘say more’). Contact information is included in case you want to reach out to these experts for your reporting, and if there’s a question you’d like to see addressed here, email and let us know.

Q: To convey the significance of trafficking to my audience (and my editor), I want to include information about the prevalence and scope of sex trafficking in my reporting. Why are reliable figures so difficult to find?

Lisa Fedina, PhD, Assistant Professor in Social Work at the University of Michigan, whose expertise includes interpersonal violence across the lifespan (e.g., child maltreatment, intimate partner violence, sexual assault), health, and mental health outcomes.

A: There are a great number of challenges and limitations to estimating the extent of human trafficking—some that are unique to the problem of human trafficking, while others occur in estimating other forms of victimization, including violence in hidden and transient populations.

Say more: When it comes to human trafficking, definitional issues present a challenge. Conflating terminology of prostitution with sex trafficking, and smuggling with labor trafficking, as well as inconsistent anti-trafficking legislation at local, state, and country levels make it especially challenging to derive clearly and consistently defined global or national estimates of the problem.

Similar to other forms of victimization, accessing trafficked populations is extremely difficult. Random sampling techniques are often unsuccessful because trafficked people are underrepresented in the general population and because human trafficking involves hidden and marginalized populations. Consequently, prior studies have often relied on small, convenience samples of participants, which result in biased and inflated estimates. Other human-trafficking-prevalence studies rely largely on secondary data sources (e.g., law-enforcement or government data, media reports/news articles), as well as expert opinions to extrapolate estimates. However, most of the data sources used in existing estimates are weak or unreliable. Public-health research methods hold some promise, and that might be of interest to journalists, especially if their work recognizes the link between trafficking and public health.

If a reporter is compelled to offer figures on trafficking, they could cite federal agencies on reported cases, such as Department of Labor, Department of Justice or Department of Health and Human Services. But again, any figures must be qualified with the fact that human trafficking is such an under-reported crime.

What’s needed is better tracking across agencies of data and coordination to avoid duplicated numbers; so, in child welfare systems, juvenile justice systems, healthcare and so on. Some states have begun to work on this coordination, but we need more.

Q: Why do I only hear about female victims-survivors of sex trafficking? How can I make my reporting more inclusive of men, boys, and LGBTQIA people who experience trafficking?

Tara Richards, PhD, Associate Professor in Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska Omaha (UNO) and UNO’s Victimology and Victim Studies Research Lab (VVSRL), whose expertise includes intimate partner violence, sexual assault, and the role of gender in criminal justice system processes.

A: Historically, sex trafficking victims that don’t fit the image of the “stereotypical victim” haven’t receive the same type of attention as those that do, whether by news media or organizations that fund research and victim services. As a result, men and LGBTQIA people continue to be underrepresented. It really is a self-fulfilling prophesy—if we don’t collect data on something, then it doesn’t exist and doesn’t get attention from news media. And if it’s not on the public agenda, the funds needed for proper data collection or services might not be made available.

It’s analogous to other types of gender-based crime that we have historically understood to predominately impact women. We believed this for so long because of the data we had. We weren’t really digging in and asking men and LGBTQIA persons about experiences of sexual violence. You have to ask everyone about it.

Say more: Collecting data on human trafficking is difficult in general. It’s a hidden crime. It’s under-reported in law enforcement data, so we depend on victimization surveys, which involve data collection with victim-survivors. However, since sex trafficking is stigmatized, victim-survivors are hard to access. As a result, most of the data we have are collected within agencies, shelters, and non-profits. Those types of organizations predominately serve women and girls, so this data doesn’t reflect the general population. Most people associate labor trafficking with men, and sex trafficking with women. But women can be victims of labor trafficking, and men can be victims of sex trafficking. Often times there is poly-victimization – or multiple types of victimization – at play as well.

To make reporting more inclusive, the first step that journalists can take is to recognize that sex trafficking does happen to men, boys, and LGBTQIA individuals. It’s important for journalists to pay attention to these kinds of cases and leads, highlighting them so that we start to create a groundswell of attention for these underrepresented groups.

Additionally, journalists can help by reaching out to local organizations and asking questions about what services they provide—what populations do they serve? What services do they provide to men and boys, trans and LGBTQIA individuals? This type of reporting can help a community recognize what gaps in service need attention. By covering these kinds of cases, and by approaching them with a lens for finding potential gaps in services, journalists can help educate both the public and service providers. 

Q: What is the difference between a T-visa and a U-visa with regard to trafficking victims?

Nicole Daniels, Staff Attorney at JusticeMatters, whose expertise focuses on anti-human trafficking through immigration and family law.

A: The T-visa and the U-visa are colloquial names for what’s referred to as T nonimmigrant status and U nonimmigrant status, respectfully. Both types of status were created by Congress to encourage victims of certain serious crimes to seek protection under the law and to cooperate with law enforcement. Where an individual qualifies, both T- and U-visas can provide a path to citizenship. If eligible and where appropriate, a victim can pursue a T- and U-visa simultaneously. These temporary immigration benefits have distinct eligibility requirements, and any potential victim of human trafficking should obtain an individual analysis by an experienced immigration attorney.

An individual is only eligible for a T-visa if they fit within the statutory definition of a victim of a severe form of human trafficking. One element of the T-visa that is distinct from the U visa is that an individual must be physically present in the United States on account of the trafficking. This can be generally understood to mean that an individual cannot apply for a T-visa from outside of the United States. Also, unlike the U-visa, a T-visa applicant must demonstrate that they would face extreme hardship if they returned to their home country. An individual must prove all the elements of the T-visa as well as demonstrate their admissibility into the United States in order to receive T non-immigrant status.

The U-visa applies to victims of a broader scope of serious crimes; human trafficking is one of multiple qualifying crimes. Examples of other qualifying crimes include abduction, abusive sexual contact, or felonious assault. U-visa applicants must demonstrate that the crime occurred in the United States, but it is not a requirement that a U-visa applicant be present in the United States at the time they apply.

When deciding whether to pursue a T- or U-visa for a qualifying victim of human trafficking, the shared eligibility requirement of law enforcement cooperation is important to consider. For both the T-visa and the U-visa, applicants must demonstrate that they have been cooperative with law enforcement. However, while both T- and U-visas require law enforcement cooperation, a U nonimmigrant status certification is a required element of the U-visa application whereas the analogous certification for the T-visa application is only encouraged (but not required). This means that a victim of trafficking who is unable to obtain a signed certification from the requisite investigating or prosecuting agency is not barred from seeking a T-visa, though they would be unable to obtain a U-visa.

Moreover, visa availability is another distinguishing factor, as the number of visas available and wait times for T- and U-visas are distinct. There is a statutory cap on the number of T- and U-visas the government grants each year—10,000 for U-visas, and 5,000 for T-visas. While the cap for T-visas has never been reached, the cap for U-visas is reached and exceeded every year, resulting in a wait list that continues to grow each year. T-visas offer a faster processing time, which can make a critical difference for a victim who needs to access important benefits. At present, the average processing time for a U-visa is 4.5 to 5 years, while the average T-visa is processed in 1.5 to 2 years.

The USCIS (U. S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) website offers processing times for a range of applications including the T- and U-visa. Another source helpful for journalists reporting about T- and U-visas is TRAC (Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse), a Syracuse University-based data- gathering, research and distribution organization.

When determining which visa type is the most appropriate relief to seek there are also special considerations regarding minor victims, access to benefits, travel restrictions, immigration history, and derivative eligibility (i.e., eligibility for status based on familial relationship to another who qualifies for a T- or U-visa). As mentioned, any individual or referral agency should ensure that a potential victim receives an individual analysis by an experienced immigration attorney.

Say more: One common misconception about T- and U-visas is that individuals who seek out these visas are looking for any way to remain in the United States. However, most victims do not self-identify as victims of human trafficking or other qualifying crimes.

When reporting on T- and U-visas, journalists can dispel myths about people abusing humanitarian visas by emphasizing the true purpose of the visas: to protect victims and incentivize their participation in ongoing law enforcement investigations. Most of our clients at JusticeMatters do not self-identify as victims of human trafficking at the time of referral or first contact. We work with them to evaluate their circumstances carefully and determine the most appropriate form(s) of immigration relief to pursue.

When reporting on human trafficking, journalists can also help by including information about attorneys that specialize in anti-human trafficking work. You never know who may see your reporting and what they might take away from it. Encourage individuals to find out what relief they could be eligible for by getting a screening from an experienced attorney.

Q: What is the difference between smuggling and trafficking, and why is it important to distinguish between the two in news coverage?

Nancy Hagan, PhD, is the Senior Human Trafficking Analyst for Project NO REST, whose expertise includes coalition building and direct service with LEP Spanish-speaking individuals and community groups, in particular immigrants and farmworkers, around issues of lob and sex trafficking.

A: Both smuggling and trafficking are business enterprises, but they rely on different business models.

The terms should not be considered interchangeable:

  • Smuggling involves the illicit movement of goods or people across a sovereign boundary and constitutes a crime against the state. If smuggling involves the movement of a person, the agreement made between the two parties is voluntary and might include a fee.
  • Trafficking occurs when force, fraud or coercion are used to make a person perform sex or labor acts for profit. Movement of the person from one location to another might occur but is not required for it to rise to the level of trafficking, which is a violation of human rights and a crime against the individual.

Say More: What begins as smuggling may become trafficking if the arrangement changes. That is, if additional fees are added by the smuggler and force, fraud or coercion are used to gain them, if the smuggled individual no longer voluntarily participates in the arrangement, and/or if the smuggled individual is not free to leave.

Journalists interviewing survivors or law enforcement should pay attention to the terms their sources use. This is particularly true when interviewing survivors with low English proficiency, especially those whose first language is Spanish. Often the word used in western Spanish-speaking countries to signify human trafficking is el tráfico, rather than the internationally preferred la trata. However, Spanish speakers, including the media, will also use tráfico in reference to the smuggling of drugs, arms and people across international borders. Clarification is necessary for precision in reporting.

Even so, your sources may have difficulty discerning what is actually taking place—smuggling or trafficking, or some combination of the two, especially since these aren’t static events. Victims/survivors are often not aware of the distinction, and if they have been moved transnationally, for example, they may believe themselves to be guilty of participating in smuggling when in reality they might be victims of trafficking. Careful interviewing and gathering of evidence are essential to determine the phenomenon at hand.


[1] 2 Pub. L. No. 106-386, 114 Stat. 1464-1548 (2000).
[1]“Victims of Human Trafficking: T Nonimmigrant Status | USCIS.”, 7 October 2020,
[1] 8 Code of Federal Regulations § 214.11 (2020).
[1] 8 CFR § 214.11(b)(2),(g).
[1] 8 CFR § 214.11(b)(4).
[1]“Victims of Criminal Activity: U Nonimmigrant Status | USCIS.”,
[1] 8 CFR § 214.14(b)(3)-(4).
[1] 8 CFR § 214.11(b).
[1] 8 CFR § 214.14
[1] Victims of Human Trafficking: T Nonimmigrant Status | USCIS.”, 7 October 2020,