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What could be next for massage parlor workers discovered in Florida sex-trafficking bust

If the women are designated as human trafficking victims, they would be eligible for a special visa, experts say.
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On Friday, Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots, was charged with two misdemeanor counts of soliciting prostitution at the Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Jupiter, Florida.

Kraft, who was not charged with human trafficking, was one of 25 people arrested as part of a months-long sex trafficking investigation, officials in Florida said. His spokesperson categorically denied that Kraft was "engaged in any illegal activity," adding that "Because it is a judicial matter, we will not be commenting further.”

After the charges against the men were announced, police said their attention is focused on possible victims.

"Obviously our concern in this investigation centers around our our possibility of victims of human trafficking," Jupiter Police Chief Daniel Kerr said during a press conference Friday.

The women working at the massage parlor appeared to be living at the business, according to a Jupiter Police Department probable cause affidavit. One investigator noticed personal items, such as clothing and medicine, next to beds. Additionally, officials noted that the business' kitchen had a refrigerator with food and condiments that indicated the women were living on the premises.

"We're working with advocacy groups and interpreters and getting as much support for them as we possibly can," Kerr said of the women.

While it's unclear how the women in the Orchids of Asia Day Spa will be designated, officials have described the bust as possible human trafficking.

In an email to NBC News on Saturday, Denise Brennan, a professor at and chairwoman of the anthropology department at Georgetown University, said there are several red flags that would help officials determine if the women were trafficked.

"Restriction of movement is a classic page from traffickers' playbook. If the women working in the massage parlor were not allowed to leave the premises — and if when they left they were accompanied and/or monitored — then this might be a trafficking case," she said. "If we learn that their passports were taken, then we are looking at trafficking."

Brennan also made clear that the sex work itself is not a calling card of human trafficking, but rather it's the lack of autonomy.

"Trafficking — forced labor — can happen in any labor sector, and massage parlors are no exception," Brennan said. "It is not, however, a case of trafficking simply because it involves sex work."

If the women, many of which are believed to have been brought to the United States from China, according to police, are charged as participating in criminal activity, they could be subjected to deportation or prosecution. But if they are designated as victims, they will be eligible for T visas, a visa solely designated for human trafficking victims.

One of the most crucial first steps in victims getting help to stay in the United States is being designated by law enforcement as human trafficking survivors, according to experts.

In 2017, Sarah Paoletti, director of the University of Pennsylvania Law School’s international human rights and immigration clinic, told NBC News the designation between victim and prostitute can be the determining factor in whether or not the women receive help and will be allowed to stay in the country.

“If it’s a law enforcement bust, [police] can treat them as trafficking victims and connect them to the Department of Justice and services at the Department of Justice,” Paoletti said at the time. “Or they treat them as prostitutes, or people who were smuggled, and they can end up being treated as criminals rather than victims.”

The T visas were created in October 2000 with the passing of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and 5,000 are available for applicants each year.

In addition to proving they were trafficked, the victims would need to comply with law enforcement requests, and prove they would face danger if they were to return to their home country.

They also have to prove they are admissible to the United States, meaning they have not been charged or convicted of a crime or illegally entered the county. However, because a trafficker may bring a victim into the country illegally, a wavier can be filed if a person is deemed inadmissible for the the T visa.

If approved by USCIS, a T visa recipient can apply for permanent residence after three years, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website.