How New Immigration Laws Are Putting Some Sex Workers at Risk

One woman says a new immigration act has made her work more dangerous than ever.

Photo Credit: P. Lewis

Sally Anne thinks of herself as a poster child for the decriminalization of prostitution. A South Asian woman in her early 40s, Sally Anne was brought to the United States through adoption when she was 18 months old. Bright and articulate, she speaks with the twang of someone who’s spent many years in the Southern U.S. A Bible-believing Christian with strong faith, Sally Anne has been pushed to the underground corners of the adult industry by what she says are negligent and misfeasant practices of the United States Citizens and Immigration Services.

In the 1970s, when Sally Anne became a naturalized citizen, USCIS still kept its records on microfiche. Those microfilms are now maintained according to date and location, but Sally Anne doesn’t know when or where her green card was issued—her father was a Department of Defense civilian attached to the Air Force and the family moved constantly. As a teenager, she had a green card, a passport, a Social Security card, and a driver’s license. She regularly traveled internationally with her parents, graduating from a military dependents’ high school in Japan.

Sally Anne’s relationship with her parents was difficult. She says she “opted to separate from them at the first opportunity," right after graduating from high school. She left with her birth certificate and Florida driver’s license, which she renewed regularly with no problems. She was able to drive, hold employment, rent places to live, and get married and divorced.

In 2005, the government passed the Real ID Act, changing the requirements for getting and renewing state IDs. States instituted the new policy slowly (according to Wikipedia five states still haven’t) and Florida didn’t get around to it until 2009. However, it wasn’t until Sally Anne tried to renew her license in 2011 that she learned she would have to produce “proof of legal presence.” The DMV wasn’t unreasonable; it gave her several extensions to come up with her green card or alien registration number. That shouldn’t have been a problem, but USCIS couldn’t find her record.

It turns out all those microfiche files are in storage now. In a few known cases, there have been errors in updating the records into a modern electronic format, giving the appearance that a person simply doesn’t exist. But Sally Anne didn’t know that yet.

At the time, she still had her expired driver’s license, a Social Security card, an expired driver’s license, and a military spousal ID card from her ex-husband that was her only non-expired form of picture ID. In 2012, she was caught driving with her expired license and it was seized. Soon after, she was selected for a random ID scan on a military base, and they seized that ID when they discovered she was no longer a military spouse. While in jail on the traffic violation, Sally Anne was evicted from her apartment and lost all of her important papers, including her Social Security card. It turns out one needs a photo ID to get a new Social Security card, and by then all Sally Anne had was an official card printed on paper used to identify her within the criminal justice system. That is still her only form of identification today.

It’s “a quasi-ID,” she explains. “It is—but it isn’t.”

With no real form of identification, Sally Anne says she “can’t get a job to save my life.” Previously, she worked in strip clubs and lingerie studios, legal arenas of the adult industry she says were “very safe, protected” spheres. But even strip clubs require two forms of ID to work. Without an ID or credit card, Sally Anne can’t even advertise as an escort on the Internet. Instead, she goes to resort hotels and introduces herself to new men and then offers them massages and clothing-optional modeling.

“I don’t like it,” she says. “I don’t like the situation it puts me in…When we go up to the room, I say a prayer, I cross myself, I literally do. I do it kind of in secret, but I’m like, oh my God, please let me get out of that room alive, intact."

Before all of this, Sally Anne might have believed in the "whorarchy"—a hierarchy of sex workers, in which those who allow the least contact for the most money are at the top, while street workers are at the very bottom. Not anymore, she says. “I admire [street workers]. I’m like, Lord, if you can do that, you can do anything. You could be a CEO. It takes a lot of determination and a lot of drive. I think people underestimate the strength that these women have.”

Although the government —meaning USCIS—can’t seem to find any proof of Sally Anne’s existence, the government—meaning the police—seem to have no trouble verifying her identity. Once, she was arrested and charged under a Georgia statute with “masturbation for hire” (different, under Georgia law, than prostitution) and held on pre-trial for over three months. After getting out of jail, Sally Anne connected, through church friends, with a couple of ministries that help sex workers, Serenity’s Steps and 4Sarah. These ministries are somewhat unique in that they provide services to women even if they are unable or unwilling to leave the adult industry.  

“Sally Anne is a great example of the kinds of persons that we work with,” Leroy Lamar of Serenity’s Steps explained. “This is her life and we’re just trying to figure out how we can come alongside of her and help her in that.”

4Sarah procured an attorney for Sally Anne who made some requests of USCIS to help clarify the matter, but ultimately didn’t resolve it. Serenity’s Steps has started a crowdfunding campaign to get Sally Anne an immigration attorney. Lamar said his organization has helped many other sex workers or sexually exploited women to get IDs, and has never run into a situation like this before. Sally Anne’s circumstances are so specialized, in fact, that none of the three attorneys contacted to comment on this article felt qualified to do so.

“I need competent legal counsel so I can...have my lawyer convince a judge in federal court to order USCIS to bring forth what they call a production of documents,” Sally Anne explained. “In other words, there’s a paper trail that correlates to my arrival and my presence in this country. It all started out with an orphan visa. After the orphan visa, I was issued a permanent resident card, which is called a green card. I don’t know exactly when all of this took place, but I do know that it did take place. A judge can use my sworn testimony under oath as a basis to force the production of these documents.”

Sex work activists have long complained about the enforcement of heavy-handed laws aimed at rescuing sex trafficking victims and the lack of meaningful services for sex trafficking victims or those who wish to leave the sex industry. A Truthout special report earlier this year found that anti-trafficking NGOs in the U.S. receive well over $300,000 per sex trafficking case each year, yet offer little to no services beyond raising awareness.

Under federal law, sex trafficking is the use of force, fraud, coercion, or minors in the sex industry. I asked Sally Anne if she felt like she was being forced or coerced into sex work.

“Is somebody actively twisting my arm? Is somebody keeping me captive? Is somebody forcing me? No, there’s [no one]. It’s the circumstances I’ve been placed in that are forcing me to engage in survival sex work,” Sally Anne says.

“[USCIS] are the one who have created this situation,” she continued. “I’m not saying that they engineered it, I’m not saying that they’re doing it on purpose. I’m saying that this is an agency which is guilty of such extreme negligence and misfeasance—not malfeasance, mind you, because it’s not deliberate on their part, they’re just lazy, disorganized, fragmented, don’t have it together—they just have ruined my life, my life as I knew it.”

Sally Anne is not the only one making this claim. Just a couple of weeks ago, immigration attorney Greg Siskind filed for a temporary restraining order against USCIS on behalf of thousands of immigrants whose lives were about to be ruined because of what seems to be a similar case of negligent record-keeping. People are tweeting about it with the hashtags #visagate2015 and #shameonUSCIS, a hashtag Sally Anne also uses.

Sally Anne says this has been a pivotal moment in her life. Her Christian faith has strengthened, she’s clarified her values and she is not content to waste her life anymore. When she regains her legal identity she plans to become an ambassador for foreign adoption and the decriminalization of prostitution. Decriminalization would mean that if she were assaulted by a client, she could go to the police and report it, just like a person with any other job.

“A gas station clerk at the 7-Eleven, [if they were the] victim of a crime, they have no qualms about picking up the phone and calling the police,” she says. “I could not do that, because then I’m going to be the one to get arrested.”

“As a result of everything I’ve been through and the situation that I’ve been forced into, to be like an underground sex worker, constantly on the down-low, constantly hiding, constantly afraid of being arrested, I am going to work very hard to further the cause of decriminalization here in the U.S.”

Learn more about Sally Anne on her website or donate to her legal fund.

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