The 23 immigrant women who federal authorities say were forced into prostitution at two Suffolk bars could be eligible for visas if they are deemed to be victims and cooperate with law enforcement.
Mostly undocumented immigrants from Central America, the women are being held at an undisclosed hotel as Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents continue investigating. If authorities decide they're not victims, they will face deportation.
Peter J. Smith, special agent in charge of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office of Investigations New York, said the six- to seven-month operation was sparked by an informant, who was one of the women. "This is not uncommon," said Smith. "This is very similar to . . . ones we've done nationwide.
"They promise these young girls everything and basically stick them into the sex trade," he added.
The T Visas ("T" for trafficking) were established in 2000 and allow immigrants and their family members to eventually apply for legal permanent residency. Victims can also be eligible for U Visas, which are available to undocumented immigrants who are victims of a broader range of crimes.
However, advocates say applying for the visas is a lengthy and unwieldy process and few are granted. There is a national 5,000-person annual cap for the granting of T Visas and fewer than half of that have been granted since 2001, according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics.
Carlos Piovanetti, managing attorney of OLA Inc. of Eastern Long Island, said he's applied for T Visas for clients numerous times and has gotten them only two or three times. "It's very hard to get one," he said.
Experts and authorities say although this case fits the pattern of many sex trafficking cases, there are some differences.
While some of the women were recruited through ads for jobs as waitresses, a common tactic, others entered the country illegally on their own and sought jobs at the establishments, less common in trafficking cases.
Crystal DeBoise, director of social services at the Urban Justice Center Sex Workers Project in Manhattan, said the agency has more than 100 cases in the New York region.
"This stuff goes on every day," said Piovanetti. "It's horrible."