MIAMI (CBSMiami/AP) – Roughly half a million illegal immigrants who were brought into the U.S. and forced into prostitution or servitude are offered visas each year if they agree to testify against the smugglers.

But in the first eight months of this year, only 524 victims applied for the visas and less than half were issued.

To raise awareness about the program whose goal is to put more predatory human traffickers in prison, U.S. Citizens and Immigration Services officials are conducting a national tour, speaking to immigrant advocates and law enforcement officials.

But they are facing the challenge of convincing illegal immigrants to come forward when sentiment against them is on the rise, and the Obama administration is touting a record number of deportations over the last year.

“Someone who came illegally and knew they were coming illegally might think they have no redress, and they are mistaken,” said immigration services Director Alejandro Mayorca. Just because someone agreed to be smuggled into the country doesn’t mean they should be victimized, he said.

Mayorca also stressed that law enforcement officers, prosecutors or a judge must sign off on the immigrant’s application, ensuring against those who try to game the system.

The visas aren’t just rewards to the individual who helped law enforcement. They send a larger message to the immigrant community that they don’t need to be scared of law enforcement and that helping police could benefit them, said Gail Pendleton, co-director of the Des Moines, Iowa-based immigrant victim advocacy group ASISTA.

The trafficking visas, or T Visas, are part of a larger pool of visas Congress approved overwhelmingly in 2000 for immigrant victims of crimes. Recipients can eventually apply for citizenship. Another 10,000 U Visas were authorized for victims of crimes such as domestic violence, sexual assault, other violent acts and even extortion — but again, only for those who cooperated with law enforcement.

Experts say part of the problem is that although the visas were approved in 2000, officials didn’t release regulations for implementing the visas until 2007. Many law enforcement agencies didn’t want to promote a visa that wasn’t even officially available.

But applications for U Visas jumped 56 percent from 10,742 in fiscal year 2010 to 16,768 in fiscal year 2011. And for the last two years, officials have approved the 10,000 U Visas, plus additional ones for the immigrants’ relatives. Those immigrants who qualify, but for whom officials don’t have space, can get “deferred action,” which enables them to stay in the U.S. until new visas become available.

(TM and © Copyright 2011 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2010 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)


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