The headlines scream ‘Deputy Counsul General in New York Devyani Khobragade arrested for visa fraud’. In what appears to be the worst diplomatic faux pas in recent years between the US and India, Khobragade was arrested and handcuffed in public on Thursday before being released on a $250,000 bond after pleading not guilty in court.
The diplomat was arrested for submitting false documents and information in procuring a baby sitter from India and subsequently paying her wages far below that of which is legally allowed in the US. The incident is shocking not only because of the diplomatic status of Devyani but more in context of immigration laws that have been flouted quite regularly in recent times. A special mention must be made here about the recent case of visa fraud by Indian IT giant Infosys, which later had an out of court settlement agreeing to pay $35 million as compensation. It is also probably a clear indication that visa frauds such will no longer be tolerated especially as they are a direct violation of US immigration laws. The laws state that the employers who facilitate workers from outside on H1B and L1 Visas either for any kind of work, whether domestic or otherwise must pay them the same as those provided to the US citizens.
The uproar witnessed in diplomatic circles in India claiming total disregard of the Vienna convention has been rebuffed by the US State Department, which has made it clear that Devyani Khobragade does not enjoy immunity from US laws. A state department spokesperson specifically reiterated that, ‘the Vienna convention allows for immunity only with respect to acts performed in the exercise of consular functions.’
The message is clear and loud that if Indian diplomats are not spared of immunity for such transgressions, then the likelihood of top executives of companies that are often seen perpetuating visa fraud might actually find themselves behind bars, instead of the safer, out of court settlements?
The incident happens at the worst possible time when several Indian IT companies were lobbying against the landmark US immigration reform bill ( supported by President Barack Obama), which increased several regulations for the Indian IT industry. As per the new bill, higher wages have been designated for H-1B visa holders meaning higher costs for Indian companies, as well as individuals who like Devyani Khobragade who seek to bring low paying workers from India on different kind of work in the US. This not only hurts their pockets but given the fact that the bill states that every job opening must be posted on the US’s Department of Labor’s website for at least 30 days before hiring an H-1B visa holder to fill the position, it is also more time consuming. Also in the case of nannies like in the case of the Indian diplomat could cause quite a sum considering the fact that nannies in the US earn quite a bit, including perks like health insurance and paid vacations.
Apart from the diplomatic ramifications that are sure to follow, the case assumes priority in the light of the fact that for many Americans it highlights the duplicity that is often involved with immigrants in this country and often unjustly puts a smear on the rest of the law abiding immigrant community in the US.
The Deputy Consul General Devyani Khobragade, who has previously been vocal in her public campaigns for women’s rights and gender equality, had hired a woman to clean her house and look after her two young daughters while paying the babysitter less than $600 a month, which is $3.31 an hour. This is contrary to her statement to the U.S. immigration officials assuring them that the staffer would be paid $4,500 a month. The case assumes acute diplomatic embarrassment to the Indian Government and will probably go a long way in the further tightening of immigration rules as far as immigrants who come to the US on H1B and L1 Visas are concerned.
The charges levied against the diplomat could well result in a maximum sentence of ten years and five years in prison, respectively. Indian-born US attorney for Southern District of New York Preet Bharara, who announced visa fraud charges against Devyani said with regard to the case, “The false statements and fraud alleged to have occurred here were designed to circumvent (usual US) protections so that a visa would issue for a domestic worker who was promised far less than a fair wage. This type of fraud on the United States and exploitation of an individual will not be tolerated.”
Maitreyee B Chowdhury is a web columnist and a poet. Besides writing on cinema and issues related to women and the environment, she has also been featured in an anthology of contemporary Indian writing, ‘Celebrating India’. She is also a writer for the Shah Peerally Productions Inc.