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The prosecution of an Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade in New York for allegedly forcing her maid to toil for little pay highlights a problem advocates say is all too common - workers for foreign governments who bring along the baggage of human trafficking to the US.
Because of the complications surrounding immunity laws, many abuse cases often go unreported or uncharged, advocates say. Victims' claims often end up in civil court for that reason, they say.
There have been at least 20 cases in the past decade filed by workers who said they were brought to the U.S. by diplomatic officials and threatened with abuse, forced to work endless hours and kept isolated, with their employers not charged criminally.
"We've seen it across the board, we've seen it with country missions to the U.N., we've seen it with consular officials, diplomats of all levels,'' said anti-trafficking attorney Dana Sussman, who is representing the maid in the Indian case.
The case against Devyani Khobragade, India's deputy consul general in New York, is unusual in part because the U.S. State Department has said she does not have immunity, a claim her attorney and the Indian government are disputing. Devyani Khobragade, 39, was charged with visa fraud and accused of lying on a visa form by stating she paid her housekeeper $4,500 a month when she actually was paying her under $3 an hour – less than half the minimum wage.
Devyani Khobragade's attorney Daniel Arshack has said that his client is innocent and that investigators made a critical error by misreading her visa applications, which were not fraudulent.
The case has prompted outrage and protests in India, where officials there say she is the innocent victim of a scheming worker. They say her strip-search and jailing by federal authorities was inhumane. Devyani Khobragade has transferred to India's U.N. mission, a move that awaits U.S. State Department approval. She would have broader immunity in that position, but it's not clear how that would affect her current case.
Advocates worry the outcry could silence further prosecutions.
"Everybody in the advocacy community hopes this doesn't set us back,'' said Avaloy Lanning, the head of anti-trafficking program at the nonprofit Safe Horizon. "All of us are applauding the federal government for taking this stand, it was quite courageous and precedent-setting, and sends the message that we care about victims in these cases.''
Nations provide immunity to diplomats so they can engage in their jobs without