Devyani Khobragade case: Issues relating to violation of immigration laws cannot be brushed aside
The nation is outraged by the treatment meted out to Devyani Khobragade, but US laws give no quarter to exploitation of domestic employees.
The charges that Khobragade faces, as summed up by Preet Bharara, US attorney for the southern district of New York in a press statement on Thursday, are that she tried to evade US law designed to protect domestic employees of diplomats and consular officers from exploitation. “Not only did she try to evade the law but, as further alleged, she caused the victim and her spouse to attest to false documents and be a part of her scheme to lie to the US,” Bharara’s statement said.
The anger over the treatment meted out to a senior diplomat — handcuffed in public, stripsearched etc — may be justified, but has the Indian government done the right thing in brushing issues of violation of immigration laws aside?
For an answer, what’s key is to determine how serious are the charges of presenting false and fraudulent documents and making false and fraudulent statements to the US department of state in support of a visa application for the Indian national, Sangeeta Richard, employed as a babysitter and housekeeper.
“These are extremely serious charges of visa fraud and making false statements to procure an A3 visa [meant for personal employees, attendants, domestic workers, or help of individuals who hold a valid A1 or A2 diplomatic visa of the US]. She could face up to 15 years in prison if diplomatic immunity did not apply,” says Anu Peshawaria, US attorney and former legal adviser to the embassy of India at Washington DC.
And this is not the first time that an Indian diplomat in the US has been charged with mistreating domestic helpers. “Lately there have been many cases of wealthy people who have been involved in human trafficking and underpaying immigrant domestic workers in the US,” Luna Ranjit, co-founder and executive director of New York-based NGO Adhikaar, told ET Magazine. The organization has been working for the rights of Nepali-speaking immigrants in the US, including those employed as domestic workers, in gas stations and restaurants. Adhikaar had supported Shanti Gurung, a young Nepali-speaking domestic worker from India, who won a favourable ruling of $1.5 million in 2012, against her former employer Neena Malhotra, an Indian diplomat in New York.
Adhikaar is now trying to highlight the negative impact that l’affaire Khobragade is having on migrant domestic workers in the US and their struggles. “It is sad to witness the story unfold in the media as one only about foreign policy and mistreatment of Ms Khobragade at the hands of law enforcement.
We condemn the alleged mistreatment; however we are also concerned that the story has taken a turn that is negatively impacting migrant domestic workers rather than shedding light upon their daily struggles. The media coverage so far has done nothing to raise awareness about the universal struggle of migrant workers and domestic workers alike,” an official Adhikaar release has pointed out.
Most Indian Americans that ET Magazine contacted, too, felt that the charges against Khobragade are serious and need a greater degree of introspection by both private individuals who employed Indian domestic workers in the US as well as the Indian government. Indians in the US have to often face a perception that visa fraud cases are common among members of the community. “There have been several instances of immigration frauds by Indians including those involving domestic workers, recently,” says Sanjay Puri, director of the US India Political Action Committee.
The Khobragade case is likely to make matters worse. “It was like a warning signal. A person without diplomatic immunity would face 10 years in jail for a similar visa fraud and another five years for false submissions and statements,” says Dinesh Sastry, a political strategist and trustee of the Democratic Party in the US.
The Indian government, especially the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, has been sensitive to the exploitation faced by Indian women working as domestic workers overseas, especially in regions such as the Gulf.
In the case of Richard, she has testified that she was being paid less than her work contract stated. According to the directives of the United States Citizen and Immigration Services, a diplomat must pay close to American wages to get an A-3 visa for a domestic helper.
And this episode is likely to have its bearing on Indians seeking visas in future. “Those applying for visas for domestic workers, not just diplomats, but Indians with corporate jobs on L1 or H1B visas too are likely to face far greater scrutiny by the US government,” says Mumbai-based immigration lawyer Poorvi Chothani.