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Diplomatic Abuse of Servants Hard to Prosecute

For years, stories have circulated around Washington, D.C., of foreign diplomats who mistreat their domestic servants in the United States.

Many diplomats assigned to America bring their domestic workers with them. Some servants have accused employers of withholding their passports, restricting their freedom of movement and burdening them with long work days for extremely low pay. Sometimes, allegations of physical abuse also come into play. But because the accused have diplomatic immunity, U.S. authorities can do little against them.

When Immunity Isn't at Issue

In many ways, the story of Harold and Kimberly Countryman is typical of such accusations of domestic slavery. The key difference: The Countrymans are U.S. citizens.

When Kimberly Countryman was planning the family's move from Korea to the United States, she called a labor broker to find someone who would move to America to work for her. Countryman didn't want to hire a native Korean like herself; she was looking for someone who would be subservient. A Cambodian woman — a survivor of the Khmer Rouge, a widow with four children — answered the ad.

In the United States, the Cambodian woman lived with the Countrymans in a plush, gated house outside Washington, D.C. But she didn't have freedom.

"They held her passport," says Chuck Rosenberg, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. "Her wages came out to roughly a dollar an hour."

He says the woman was berated and sometimes assaulted.

The Countrymans were not diplomats. So when a neighbor tipped off the authorities, the couple were not protected by diplomatic immunity. They were arrested.

Harold Countryman worked for the State Department. His wife hatched the plan to obtain a fraudulent visitor's visa for the Cambodian woman, and her husband went along with it. Now the couple have pleaded guilty to visa fraud, and they're paying the Cambodian woman $50,000 in restitution. Harold Countryman is on probation; his wife is headed to prison.

The Countrymans' story illustrates what the federal government can do when it decides to prosecute a forced-domestic-labor case — and diplomatic immunity isn't a barrier.

But when diplomatic immunity exists, "it's a game stopper," says prosecutor Rosenberg.

"If there's immunity, it's not really worth fretting over how much evidence we would have otherwise," he says.

Cases Difficult to Prosecute

Nobody really knows how often such servant abuse occurs at the hands of diplomats. No government agency tracks cases.

Recently, the U.S. government's human-trafficking experts asked immigration lawyers in New York and Washington, D.C., how many cases of domestic slavery they had handled in which the employer was a diplomat. The unscientific and unofficial count: more than 40 cases, involving workers from all over the world, from Cameroon to Peru to Russia. None of the cases resulted in convictions.

"The fact that there are these claims means there needs to be investigations," says Gonzalo Gallegos, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department. "And we encourage all of those out there, who believe this may be happening, to go to their authorities and to follow through, so we can find out exactly what is happening and where it is happening."

Immigration lawyer Suzanne Tomatore says she has reported 15 of these cases to authorities. None has been prosecuted. However, Tomatore says the U.S. government has recognized nine of those 15 clients as victims of human trafficking.

"We've actually been able to obtain nine T visas, which are special immigration visas for victims of human trafficking for folks who were trafficked by diplomatic or U.N. officials," she says.

Diplomats Asked to Leave U.S.

The State Department's Gallegos said he could not talk about specific cases. But he described his agency's approach.

"If there's a criminal act, we seek to lift the immunity of that official," Gallegos says. "If the country denies to lift immunity, we can and have asked them to leave the U.S."

Gallegos says the State Department has asked some diplomats to leave the United States because of domestic abuse. He wouldn't say how many.

But lawyers and human-rights workers argue that the State Department should narrow its stance on the scope of diplomatic immunity. That would allow more accused wrongdoers to be held liable for their actions and be prosecuted in a U.S. court of law.

John Miller recently retired as the State Department's top official on human trafficking. He agrees that the agency should redefine diplomatic immunity, and argues that it could go one step further: by rescinding the special class of visas the United States created for the personal servants of foreign diplomats. The State Department issued 1,957 of these "personal servant" visas last year.

"Why do we even have these visas for domestic servants for diplomats?" Miller asks. "When our diplomats go abroad, they don't require visas to take Americans to do domestic work."

Miller says foreign diplomats should simply hire Americans for their domestic work. Abolishing the special servant visas, he says, would eliminate the whole diplomatic dilemma.

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.