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  1. Opinion

Alex Acosta gave a pass to Jeffrey Epstein years ago. He's still failing victims today. | Catherine Rampell

Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, when he was a federal prosecutor in Miami, helped negotiate an agreement that greatly reduced the severity of the conviction of Jeffrey Epstein, a sexual abuser of girls. [Olivier Douliery | Abaca Press/TNS]
Published Jul. 9

It's scandalous that more than a decade ago then-U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta gave a sweetheart deal to a known sexual predator.

Even more scandalous? That now as labor secretary, Acosta (among other Trump appointees) is overseeing policies that encourage and enable many more such predators today.

On Monday, multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein was indicted on federal sex-trafficking charges in New York involving victims as young as 14. But he arguably should have already been in federal prison. A decade earlier, he was accused of running a similar sex-trafficking ring out of his mansion in Palm Beach. Despite the 53-page indictment that the FBI prepared against him, he managed to cut a cushy non-prosecution agreement with Acosta in a deal kept secret from Epstein's victims.

We know about this egregious miscarriage of justice because of a heroic series by the Miami Herald's Julie K. Brown. Incidentally, Brown began reinvestigating this case just after President Donald Trump nominated Acosta to head the Labor Department — which is on the front lines of, you guessed it, detecting trafficking crimes.

The Trump administration has claimed to be deeply devoted to combating this scourge. "My administration has made the fight against human trafficking one of our highest priorities," Trump declared in February.

Its actions suggest otherwise.

Justice Department human trafficking cases have dropped, from 282 newly initiated prosecutions in fiscal 2017 to 230 in fiscal 2018. Federal protections afforded victims, including those who cooperate with authorities to hold their traffickers accountable, have also frayed.

For years victims of severe forms of trafficking have been able to apply for a special category of visa (T visa) allowing them to remain in the United States for up to four years if they assist in a trafficking investigation. (A similar category of visa, a U visa, exists for victims of other crimes.) The point is to provide more security to victims, whose abusers can keep them in line by threatening retaliation — including by calling ICE.

But the Trump administration appears to have been slow-rolling approval of these visas, which face a record backlog, Human Trafficking Legal Center president Martina Vandenberg points out.

Victims waited an average of nine months in fiscal 2017 before getting a decision, according to Citizenship and Immigration Services. The estimated wait today is 16 to 33½ months.

Moreover, lawyers say that immigration authorities have become more likely to apprehend trafficking victims stuck in the growing queue.

"It used to be the case that when a client had a T-visa application pending, ICE would often agree not to detain them as (a) matter of priorities," says Stacie Jonas, who oversees human trafficking cases at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. "Not anymore."

It's always been difficult to convince trafficking victims to come forward, she says, but the current climate has made it almost impossible.

So where does Acosta's Labor Department fit in?

This T-visa application process — which ultimately gets adjudicated by the Department of Homeland Security — often begins with asking an agency to certify that an applicant is believed to be a trafficking victim and is cooperating with an investigation. The Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division is one of the agencies that can do this step.

Wage and Hour investigators are often the "eyes and ears" on the ground in migrant housing and other settings where workers are vulnerable to exploitation, explains David Weil, a division administrator during the Obama administration.

About two months ago, though, a new division administrator, Cheryl Stanton, was appointed. Among her first orders of business was to impose a seven-week moratorium on certifying any new T- or U-visas, as Bloomberg Law's Ben Penn first reported.

Last week, Stanton lifted the moratorium but issued new guidance adding layers of bureaucracy to the certification process. The guidance basically says department investigators must wait to certify a visa until an outside criminal law enforcement agency, such as a police department, conducts its own investigation.

Which sounds reasonable, except that Wage and Hour as a matter of practice already reports these suspected crimes to criminal agencies, and these agencies have a lot of other priorities. Waiting on them to make a determination before even beginning the lengthy visa application process could add months or years that victims can't afford.

"If a person is really caught up in a trafficking web, time is of the essence," says D. Michael Hancock, who served as the division's assistant administrator in the Obama administration. "They're here today, gone tomorrow."

Acosta's dereliction of duty in the Epstein case might sound like ancient history. But it also looks an awful lot like the present.

Catherine Rampell's email address is crampell@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.

© 2019 Washington Post Writers Group

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