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Servant Abuse: When Prosecutors' Hands Are Tied

No country in the world has done more than the United States to combat modern forms of slavery and human trafficking, says State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos.

"The U.S. government commits about $400 million a year trying to put an end to this," he says. "It's a core basis of this administration."

Gallegos says whenever there's evidence that a foreign diplomat in the United States has enslaved a domestic servant, the State Department encourages victims to come forward and have their claims investigated.

He says there have been cases in which the State Department has asked diplomats to leave the United States because of domestic abuse. He would not say how many. NPR heard of three possible cases from government sources.

But it might be more likely that the U.S. government deals with diplomatic slavery cases more often by compensating the servant — while letting the diplomat go free.

In a number of cases — it's not clear how many — the U.S. government has designated servants of foreign diplomats as victims of human trafficking ... even when U.S. authorities don't prosecute the diplomat for a crime.

Officially Recognized as Victims

In the United States, being designated a victim of human trafficking can carry profound, life-changing benefits. Trafficking victims can qualify for cash assistance, medical care, food stamps and housing.

Among those designated by the U.S. government as victims of human trafficking: Three Indian women whose story was recounted by NPR's Frank Langfitt. The women are currently suing their former employer, a Kuwaiti diplomat, for allegedly holding them as domestic slaves in his suburban Washington, D.C., home. All three women have won specials visas reserved for trafficking victims.

Those visas allow them to remain in the United States legally and apply to bring their families to America, too. Eventually, trafficking victims and their families can apply to become permanent U.S. residents.

Their status as trafficking victims means the government investigates the diplomat. But it does not mean the government prosecutes.

A Contract of Virtual Slavery

The State Department's Gallegos says the problem of diplomats abusing domestic servants is a rare occurrence. But no one really knows how rare.

Last year, the State Department issued 1,957 visas for personal servants of diplomats. Some diplomats bring in two or even three servants. The dirty little secret is: No one tracks them once they're here.

The State Department does require an employment contract between the diplomat and the servant.

"Well, there's that contract, and there's the real contract," says Suzanne Tomatore, an immigration lawyer in New York.

She and others who have defended diplomatic servants say the real contract can be virtual slavery: Working 16 hours a day, at less than $1 an hour, with no time off. Passports are often withheld.

No one at the State Department checks to see if a diplomatic employer is abiding by the official contract, even though the contract is required for a diplomat to obtain a servant's visa. That means that when a diplomat ignores the contract, it's really visa fraud — a crime against the United States, says Washington lawyer Thomas Connell.

Connell is working pro bono in a lawsuit against an Argentine diplomat. A former servant has accused the diplomat of bringing her into the United States under false pretenses, lying about her contract and paying her about $1.60 per hour. That violates U.S. labor laws.

The Immunity Shield

Connell says the State Department has created a "very unfair situation" by creating rights for diplomatic servants with no way to enforce them. The State Department's Gallegos says the government expects diplomats to abide by the laws of the United States.

But in the case against the Argentine diplomat, the State Department recently argued that when a diplomat hires a domestic servant, his actions are shielded by diplomatic immunity.

Connell says the State Department's broad interpretation of diplomatic immunity is the problem. He says it encourages some diplomats to lie to get their workers into the United States, then pay a pittance once the workers arrive.

He says that ignoring such immigration fraud is shocking — especially in a post-Sept. 11 world.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Libby Lewis
Libby Lewis is an award-winning reporter on the National Desk whose pieces on issues of law, society, criminal justice, the military and social policy can be heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Day to Day, Weekend Edition Saturday, and other NPR shows.