MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Now the mistreatment of servants working for foreign diplomats in this country and allegations of slavery. This morning on MORNING EDITION we heard the story of Kumari Sabbithi, an Indian woman who was the servant of a Kuwaiti diplomat here in Washington. She and two co-workers sued the diplomat, accusing him of treating them like slaves.
KUMARI SABBITHI: He would beat me at times. They would push me against the wall. They would hold my head and drag me.
NORRIS: Stories like Sabbithi's are not new in Washington, where thousands of diplomats come each year. Lawyers say these cases will not go away until the U.S. government decides to deal with them.
NPR's Libby Lewis reports.
LIBBY LEWIS: The story of Harold and Kimberly Countryman has echoes of the stories of foreign diplomats accused of domestic slavery, except the Countrymans are U.S. citizens. When Kim Countryman was planning the family's move from Korea to the U.S., she called a labor broker to find someone to come work for her in the U.S. Not a native Korean like her, but someone subservient. A Cambodian woman with four children answered the ad.
She had survived the Khmer Rouge. In the U.S., the Cambodian woman lived with the Countrymans in a plush gated house outside Washington. But she didn't have freedom.
CHUCK ROSENBERG: They held her passport.
LEWIS: Chuck Rosenberg is the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. Her wages...
ROSENBERG: Came out to roughly a dollar an hour.
LEWIS: She was berated and sometimes assaulted. But the Countrymans weren't diplomat. So when a neighbor tipped off the authorities, the Countrymans didn't get diplomatic immunity, they got busted. Harold Countryman worked for the State Department. His wife hatched the plan to get a fraudulent visitor's visa for the Cambodian woman, and he went along with it. Now they've plead 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.
Their story is just one that shows what the federal government can do when it decides to prosecute a forced domestic labor case, and when diplomatic immunity isn't a barrier. And when it is?
ROSENBERG: Well, let me say it this way.
LEWIS: Prosecutor Chuck Rosenberg.
ROSENBERG: It's a game stopper. If there's immunity, it's not really worth fretting over how much evidence we would have otherwise.
LEWIS: How often does it happen? Nobody really knows.
JOHN MILLER: These stories have popped up for decades. And there is no question that this is a problem that has to be addressed.
LEWIS: That's John Miller, who recently retired as the State Department's top official on human trafficking. Not long ago, the government's human trafficking experts asked immigration lawyers in New York and Washington, how many cases of domestic slavery have you handled where the employer was a diplomat? The unscientific and unofficial count was more than 40. They come from all over, from Cameroon to Peru to Russia. If all those cases prove to be actual slavery, then that would be more than 40 cases with zero convictions.
GONZALO GALLEGOS: The fact that there are this claims mean that there needs to be investigations.
LEWIS: Gonzalo Gallegos is a spokesman for the U.S. State Department.
GALLEGOS: And we encourage all of those out there who believe this may be happening to go to their law enforcement authorities and to follow through so that we can find out exactly what is happening and where it is happening.
LEWIS: But immigration lawyer Suzanne Tomatore says she has reported 15 of these cases to the authorities. None of them has been prosecuted. Even so, she says the U.S. government has recognized nine of those 15 clients as victims of human trafficking.
SUZANNE TOMATORE: 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 U.N. or diplomatic officials.
LEWIS: The State Department's Gallego said he could not talk about specific cases. But he said the State Department's approach is this.
GALLEGOS: If there's a criminal act, we seek to lift the immunity of that individual. And if the country refuses or denies the lifting of that immunity, then we can and have asked them to leave the United States.
LEWIS: He said the State Department has asked some diplomats to leave the U.S. because of the domestic abuse. He wouldn't say how many. But lawyers and human rights workers argue the State Department could narrow its stance on the scope of diplomatic immunity. That way more wrongdoers could be held liable in court or prosecuted. John Miller agrees, and he has an even bigger idea. He talked about it at the State Department.
He says the root of the problem is that the U.S. created a special class of visas just for the personal servants of foreign diplomats. The State Department issued 1,957 of these personal servant visas last year.
MILLER: Why do we even have these visas for domestic servants for diplomats? When our diplomats go abroad, they don't require visas to take Americans to do domestic work; they hire foreign nationals.
LEWIS: So let those foreign diplomats hire Americans for their domestic work. Abolish the visas, Miller says, and there goes the whole problem.
Libby Lewis, NPR News, Washington.