The arrest of an Indian diplomat who allegedly submitted fraudulent documents to import a babysitter at an illegal wage to the United States has sparked an unusual spat between the two countries.
But advocates for immigrant domestic workers say the accusations underlying the case are nothing new: The exploitation and trafficking of domestic workers by foreign officials on American soil is all too common.
"Unfortunately, this particular visa program is plagued with this kind of problem," said Tiffany Williams, campaign coordinator for the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
One group she works with, Break the Chain, has assisted 250 workers since 1997 who lodged complaints that they were grossly underpaid, abused or essentially held captive by consular or World Bank staffers, mainly in New York and Washington.
And the Damayan Migrant Workers Association, a small New York-based non-profit for Filipinos, has handled a dozen similar cases since 2006, often helping exploited women escape and seek permission to legally stay in the U.S.
The U.S. government itself has acknowledged the concern. A 2008 report by the Government Accountability Office said it had identified 42 household workers with A-3 or G-5 visas who alleged they were abused by foreign diplomats in the previous eight years.
"But the total number is likely higher," the report said.
The feds have been cracking down. For example, in May, Homeland Security rescued two Filipinas from a Saudi diplomatic compound in Virginia — although diplomatic immunity can thwart prosecution.
In the latest case, Deputy Consul General Devyani Khobragade was charged by the Manhattan U.S. Attorney with visa fraud, essentially lying to the State Department about the terms under which she sponsored a visa for a woman in India to come work as nanny and housekeeper in New York.
A criminal complaint says Khobragade told the U.S. Embassy in India the woman would be paid $4,500 a month, but then had her sign a secret contract to pay her only $3.31 an hour — in violation of the rules that require visa holders be paid minimum wage.
In addition, prosecutors say, the woman complained Khobragade paid her even less than $3.31, verbally abused her, took her passport away and told her she had no choice but to continue working under those conditions.
As a consular employee, Khobragade had immunity only for acts involving official business, not ordinary crimes, and she was arrested last Thursday, strip-searched and locked in a cell before posting $250,000 bail.
Indian officials have slammed her treatment as "despicable and barbaric" and blocked perks such as cheap alcohol and food imports at the U.S. Embassy in a dispute that has reached the White House.
Newspapers in India have quoted officials as saying the U.S. rules are unreasonable, given that the country's diplomats don't make American-level wages and the domestics' illegally low pay would be considered a windfall at home.
"Which Indian would pay a help 6,500 rupees ($100) a day," Shakti Sinha, a government worker who has been posted overseas, commented in the Times of India.
Reacting to the overseas backlash, Manhattan federal prosecutor Preet Bharara late Wednesday put out a statement enumerating Khobragade's alleged misdeeds and saying, "this office’s sole motivation in this case, as in all cases, is to uphold the rule of law, protect victims, and hold accountable anyone who breaks the law – no matter what their societal status and no matter how powerful, rich or connected they are."
But while Khobragade's case focuses on the paperwork and wage issue, immigrant rights activists say the plight of diplomatic household staff doesn't stop at paltry paychecks.
Damayan's campaign coordinator, Leah Obias, cites the story of Daedema Ramos, who she said was making the equivalent of 69 cents an hour while working for a Kuwaiti diplomat in New York City.
"She wasn't allowed to leave the house unless she was taking the kids to and from school, and then a driver would go with her," Obias said. "She was working 16 to 18 hours a day, constantly on call. She would get intruded on in the bathroom to roll the employer's cigarettes for him. She slept with the children in their room.
"There was really no rest for her.'
Ramos, who went public last year, was granted a visa as a trafficking survivor and settled out of court with her ex-employer, Obias said.
In 2012, a Manhattan judge ordered a diplomatic couple to pay $1.5 million to a young Indian woman who complained that they didn't pay her and threatened to beat and rape her if she tried to flee.
The workers are so vulnerable because the diplomats have control over their visas and they fear that if they quit, they will be undocumented, advocates say. It's not unheard of for an employer to confiscate a worker's passport. In addition, consular officials often have even more power back home, and some workers fear their families could suffer if they try to leave.
"We’ve actually had to do rescues," Williams said. "We've had cases where a worker has been able to pass a note over the fence to a neighbor but is afraid to call the police. In that case, we take a rental car and stand outside and she pretends she is taking the trash out and jumps into the car."