Domestic Workers and Diplomats: Struggle for Justice Continues

Photo credit: Adhikaar for Human Rights & Social Justice

Photo by Adhikaar for Human Rights & Social Justice

By Elizabeth Keyes

When I heard the story about Sangeeta Richard, the remarkably courageous domestic worker demanding her just due from a system set up to fail her, I couldn’t help thinking of “Mary.” Mary, too, worked for a diplomat, and she was one of my first clients when I graduated from law school a decade ago. Among the other horrifying details I learned about Mary’s story, I learned that the diplomat’s wife told Mary, while beating her with a shoe, “go ahead and call the police. I am a diplomat.”

The system truly is set up to fail workers like Mary and Sangeeta. What I saw from handling many, many such cases between 2004 and 2011 were failures at every level. Diplomats entered into contracts that they had no intention of honoring, contracts that almost uniformly promised 40 hour workweeks and compensation at or above the U.S. federal minimum wage. The U.S. consulates overseas approved the visas during interviews when sometimes only the diplomat talked, or where the diplomat acted as the interpreter for the worker. With only one exception, the foreign embassies in the United States sided with the diplomat, not the worker, and did not even attempt to broker solutions to resolve the conflicts. And for far too long, the State Department sat idly by as complaints were filed by the relatively small portion of workers who found their way out (an even smaller section of whom found legal counsel).

I have heard every excuse in the book about why exploiting them is “justified”–they are better off in America, they are treated “like family,” their wages are worth a lot back home, or the diplomat does not earn enough to pay the contractual wage. None of these excuses in any way justifies what happens to the people, who come here hoping to work hard and earn money to help improve their lives and the lives of their families. And none of these excuses in any way changes the way the diplomats are committing fraud in issuing these contracts and securing these visas.

  • Are workers “better off” in America? Hardly. My clients were paid anywhere from 35 cents an hour to zero cents an hour, while working all hours of the day, and sometimes well into the night. For example, on top of providing childcare, cooking and cleaning during the day, Mary had to sleep with the family’s baby in the living room of the small Greenbelt apartment, so she could tend to the baby at night when the child awoke. In return, the diplomats threatened them with deportation if they complained, beat them, sometimes sexually assaulted them, and/or threatened the lives of family members back home. That is not what I call being “better off.”
  • Are workers “like family?” Maybe, but only because family, too, can be exploited. In some of the countries where my clients came from, elite families–the very kinds of families that might join the diplomatic corps at some point–had traditions of bringing distant relatives in from the countryside to work in the family home. Technically, yes, this was family. But the purpose was to obtain cheap, compliant labor and exploit it for the family’s comfort and prestige. The visa system for bringing workers here merely mirrors that practice from the home country–but with the stamp of approval of our government.
  • Are the paltry wages in the U.S. worth a lot back home? Yes, but utterly beside the point. If they wanted to earn those wages, they could have stayed home, closer to family and friends who would have been a source of support for them if the employment turned abusive.  Workers incur a huge cost leaving home to do what will likely be long, hard, difficult and possibly abusive labor. Earning the promised wages would have made that cost worthwhile. Every single client of mine expressed her feeling that if she had known what it would be like here, she would have stayed home to earn the same wage without losing their safety net.
  • Diplomats do not earn enough to pay the contractual wage? The entitlement demonstrated by this “excuse” is not so much buried as shining brightly in tall neon letters. I, too, do not earn enough to pay a full-time domestic worker the minimum wage. But somewhere along the way, probably well before I was ten years old, I learned that if you can’t afford something, you don’t get to have it. The diplomats talk themselves into believing that they cannot do their jobs without these workers taking care of the home front, sitting for the children while they attend evening functions, cooking for lavish parties diplomats are expected to host, and so forth. And I know these workers do make the diplomats’ jobs and lives easier. Of course they do. But there is simply no way to justify leaping from that truth to the morally bankrupt proposition that “therefore” workers do not deserve the full pay promised. My wanting an easier life does not let me rob a worker of her wages—it really is just that simple.

Mary, like Sangeeta, knew what was happening to her was wrong, and she fled. She fled without her belongings but with her sense of justice and worth so fully intact that one of the first places she went was a court; with only an outraged clerk to steer her to the right forms, she sued to get her passport. She won, at which point the diplomat informed the court that he was immune to suit. Judgment dismissed.

But let us not dismiss our own judgment of these diplomats who exploit their workers.  Groups like Mujeres Activas y Unidas, Adhikaar, CASA de Maryland, the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center, Domestic Workers United, and the National Domestic Worker Alliance are holding diplomats’ feet to the fire in a variety of ways: publicly shaming them, privately seeking restitution, working with the government to find better ways to prevent abuses. And occasionally finding a brave ally like the prosecutor in Ms. Richard’s case, Preet Bharara, who (like Ms. Richard herself) is withstanding strident criticism from many, including some of Ms. Richard’s compatriots in India and from the Indian disapora. Happily, groups like SAALT, and the National Coalition of South Asian Organizations, are standing firmly in support of Ms. Richard and Mr. Bharara.

Mr. Bharara sees through all these excuses at least as clearly as I do, and had the courage to do something about it. May we all be moved to see things as clearly.


Elizabeth Keyes
University of Baltimore School of Law, Assistant Professor of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic
Follow her on Twitter: @LizkeyesTkPk

Sci-Fi Age of E-Verify

I recently attended a session at the Migrant Policy Institute that focused on E-Verify, the system that would require employees to verify their identities and legal status through an electronic program. The Migrant Policy Institute discussion focused on possible ways to expand this system and perhaps better it for everyone involved. The only people who don’t seem to benefit from the expansion of E-Verify are the employees. They would have to jump through additional hoops to maintain or obtain employment.

I was more than a little surprised by the types of solutions offered by MPI to improve E-Verify, as they seemed very invasive and expensive, not to mention Big Brotherish. Possible solutions included biometric cards and registering for a personalized PIN that would be provided to employers who could then access a database that verified identities.

While MPI said it was trying to address issues of identity fraud in order to protect employees, I really don’t think that the workers’ interests are at the heart of these proposals or the E-Verify system. Another concern is how E-Verify might be used to check the statuses of current established employees as well as new-hires, which would require people settled in their employment to go over the same hurdles as a new-hire. There must be a better way to regulate employment practices than to strike fear in the hearts of immigrant employees who just want to create a new life for themselves and their families.

Shah Rukh Khan – Bollywood Border Stop

This piece by Deepa Iyer (SAALT) has also been posted at Race Wire (

The Shah Rukh Khan incident at Newark International Airport over the weekend has elicited a range of viewpoints and opinions. Shah Rukh Khan, a famous Bollywood actor, was detained for over an hour, and interrogated by U.S. Customs and Borders Protection (CBP) authorities at Newark International Airport where he had landed. Mr. Khan believes that he was detained and interrogated because of his last name and his religious affiliation. The CBP (a part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security) claims that officials were following standard protocol.

Mr. Khan’s incident might be gaining international attention because he is a celebrity, but the truth is that ordinary American citizens and immigrants here in the United States grapple with racial and religious profiling routinely at airports. Especially since September 11th, 2001, South Asian, Arab American, Muslim and Sikh travelers have been subjected to arbitrary secondary inspections, detentions, and interrogations while traveling.

Recently, the Asian Law Caucus and the Stanford Law School Immigrant Rights’ Clinic published a report that details incidents of intrusive questioning that many US citizens and legal permanent residents have faced when returning to the United States from trips abroad. The report provides information about the abuse of watchlists and first-hand accounts of profiling, as well as recommendations to safeguard civil rights.

Racial and religious profiling must be eliminated whether it happens on the streets, on our highways, at borders, or at airports. Profiling people based on their last name, skin color, accent, or religious affiliation is an ineffective enforcement technique that violates civil rights protections. In fact, the use of profiling tactics has not been an effective law enforcement strategy in either the War on Drugs or the War on Terror.

The Obama Administration and Congress have an opportunity to review and strengthen current administrative anti-profiling policies, and to pass federal legislation that bans profiling [the End Racial Profiling Act is set to be introduced in Congress again this year]. These are important steps in ensuring that the civil rights of everyone – whether a celebrity or ordinary American – are preserved.

Deepa Iyer is Executive Director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), a national, non-profit organization that addresses civil and immigrant rights issues. Learn more at

Getting in Touch with the Netroots (pt.7)

Final session of Netroots (for me with my flight home this afternoon, everyone else looks to be getting down with the official part-ay tonight by DailyKos), and its about a core issue, immigration reform. It’s great that we have a session about this topic, which is so important to the South Asian community, but I’m a little bummed to see that, while it has a pretty good turnout, its not bursting at the seams. This is the only session I could find that dealt explicitly with immigration reform (there have definitely been others that touched upon it) and I had really hoped that more of the Nation would come out about this.

Anyways, the panel has representatives from Breakthrough, America’s Voice, FIRM and SEIU. Thus far, its been mostly context-setting and talking about what each organization is doing in the area. Nicola from fIRM shared that what got their organization into online organizing was actually storytelling. After the New Bedford raids, they needed a way to get the stories out to people since the media wasn’t paying any attention. Now they’re working to build social networking tools that are more responsive and are able to “go offline.” Joaquin from SEIU showed advocacy efforts SEIU has undertaken to highlight the plight of DREAM Act students facing deportation.

Since this is my final post from Netroots, I’ll bring together some of my observations and thoughts from the weekend. Being here at Netroots and seeing the groundswell of support and resources that exist in the progressive movement is definitely an amazing thing. It can feel, sometimes, that we’re the little guy and we’re outgunned and out-resourced by “the other side” which obviously shifts debate to debate and issue to issue. Its not that Netroots has shown me that we’re drowning in easy, accessible resources. Instead, it showed me how progressives have and continue to fight against entrenched elites using whatever’s available and changing the rules of the game. Its that spirit of “never say die” that I will take back with me. A lot of the people here aren’t necessarily involved and active in the same issues, there is definitely interest and will to work together to make things happen in each others’ areas. Ultimately, we have to use whatever tools are out there to make things like immigration or healthcare reform, strengthening civil rights, fighting racial profiling happen. People all over America are suffering right now and it’s up to us to bring these issues up and bring about progress.

Getting in Touch with the Netroots (pt.6)

Hey y’all, after a great session with Valerie Jarrett (you can check out all the action at Netroots here), I’m at “Articulating a Theory of Change.” In this session (with New Organizing Institute and Progressive Change Campaign Committee), we’ve been talking about how articulating a theory of change plays a role in online organizing. Most people’s exposure to online organizing is getting emails that say, “do this now.” Well, how does articulating a theory of change that is compelling and accessible help make that ask more effective? Something I am always fascinated by, especially in the context of the work that SAALT does, is to find unifying theories-of-change that go beyond “do this to let so-and-so know that people care about whatever issue” to really show how doing these actions come together to create a better society and world. Because the ask changes, but the theory of change, in a macro sense, should stay the same. We come together around certain values and online organizing is all about bringing people together to take actions towards a world that is closer to those values.

Economic townhall with Corzine next, then the immigration reform session, more to come!

Getting in Touch with the Netroots (pt.3)

Third session of the day and it’s Who’s Being Left Out of Online Organizing. This panel was all about who’s not part of all these shiny, awesome online spaces we’ve been talking about all day at Netroots. The panel’s actually still going on, but I thought I’d put out some quick observations:

-What does it mean to be left out? Left out of what? If its “the discourse” or “democracy”, then the online organizing is simply a tactic. If its only about online political spaces, maybe we’re missing the point.

-We need to meet people where they are. It’s not just a matter of whether certain populations prefer MySpace or Facebook, its whether SMS or text messages are what people actually use. We’ve seen innovative ways that certain progressive campaigns have sought to integrate things like cell phones which is used in really interesting, subtly different ways by communities of color and women.

-Someone shared an anecdote that during the past election, a certain candidate’s campaign successfully used online organizing tools only when they were targeted towards offline actions (donating money, calling someone, etc). Can we have a conversation about online advocacy that isn’t missing the essential whole of what participation and organizing means.

-Cost and access came up over and over during the panel, whether its along racial, gender, geographic or age lines. Ultimately, if we want to break open the doors of the internet to those missing from the circles of power and agency, maybe philanthropic advocacy needs to be on our radar so that work gets funded.

Pres. Bill Clinton keynoting tonight!

Getting in Touch with the Netroots (pt.2)

Second session of the day: Blogging the Economic Battles. It was a great session with panelists from The panelists broadly dealt with three issues: the current healthcare debate, the bogeyman of deficits and negative trigger words. There were a couple of really interesting observations that I took from the panel.

1. one of the msot negative aspects of the current polarized nature of the debate is that it shifts perceptions such that the centrist or just-left-of-center positions get cast as the far-left when the rhetoric of the far-right is so “wingnut”-y as some panelists and audience members noted.

2. as progressives, we have to reframe the debate from its currently defensive position. In reference to the bogeyman of budget deficits, one of the panelists, Digby, noted that when asked how deficits personally affect them, most people have no answer. Now ask them how healthcare affects them, they have a ready answer. We need to remind people that government does great things for them. Don’t believe it? Get off the interstate! We need to stop just fighting this notion that things like deficits are poison, we need to start from a place where people have to acknowledge that the government does certain things really well and we shouldn’t have to act like that isn’t a patent truth. Getting government out of one’s Medicaid would be hard, wouldn’t it?

3. Not reframing the debate and getting out of our defensive position keeps us back as a country from truly speaking and fighting for every person, especially those who are most disempowered by the current system’s inequities. We can’t figure out how to address Rust Belt workers in Pennsylvania when we’re trapped in a black-and-white paradigm where “trade” is good no matter what and “protectionism” is bad no matter what it actually refers to.

4. The ability to balance the debate is in our hands. The stories of how, say, the healthcare system is failing people is in our backyards. If we want to counter over-heated rhetoric that loses sight of the actual stakes, show them the real stories you know. I found a great example of exactly this in a story from the Christian Science Monitor from a professor in the town where I went to college (from the rival school, no less). Now its a mainstream media outlet, but technological advances have made it possible for us to get our voices out there in ways I couldn’t have imagined years ago, no one’s going to do it but us!

Anyways, just some thoughts, but I took away a real mandate to take up our own roles to counter the negativity we find in the discourse. Stay tuned for more sessions!

Getting in Touch with the Netroots (pt.1)

So I am at the Netroots Nation conference in gorgeous Pittsburgh (where its an incredibly pleasant 81 degrees which is a nice change from the swamp that DC has been for the last few days) . The conference brings together progressive activists and advocates, many of whom are particularly technologically-oriented. I thought since the conference is all about blogging and SAALT has a blog, what a natural fit!

After a short flight and a very long bus ride into the city, I barely made the Asian Pacific American Caucus session. There were about 10 people in the session and we spent most of the time identifying how we could work in issues like healthcare and Census 2010 in the Asian Pacific American community. I heard a lot of great ideas, from bringing Asian American causes to mainstream online spaces to critically analyzing how to use technology to reach audiences like school kids to get to non-technologically connected older Asians.

While it was great to be able to share the space with fellow Asian American activists and bloggers, I sometimes wonder whether these separate conversations sometimes hold us back from casting these actually mainstream, important issues as broadly as they could be. Anyways, I’ll keep posting as much as possible from beautiful Pittsburgh!

Death in Detention: Tanveer Ahmad

Here’s a case for you to ponder about. When you first read it, you might not think it that sympathetic. But, by the time you read the end of this post, maybe you’ll change your mind.

The New York Times recently reported on the story of Tanveer Ahmad. He came to New York City from Pakistan on a visitor’s visa. In 1997, he was arrested for possessing an unlicensed gun. He married U.S. citizens and applied for marriage-based green cards to stay in this country. His wife was threatened with marriage fraud allegations by the government. Immigration authorities later caught him in 2005 for overstaying his visa and detained him because of his gun offense. A few weeks later, he died in detention in New Jersey.

At first blush, you might be thinking, “Hey, the government should be going after these criminals! Why should I care that he got locked up and happened to die?” After all, the latest buzz word within immigration enforcement circles is to go after “criminal aliens”, right? But dig a little deeper into the facts – things aren’t quite that cut and dry.

What’s the most shocking about this case? Is it that Mr. Ahmad showed his gun while preventing a robbery at the gas station where he worked the night shift and that had been held up 7 times in about a month? Is it that following 9/11 his U.S. citizen’s wife’s friends said, “You better watch it. You may be married to a terrorist,” causing him to always watch his back? Is it that he was detained nearly 10 years after his offense even though he paid the requisite $200 fine for the misdemeanor? Is it that his arrest was considered a “collateral apprehension in Operation Secure Commute” as part of the government’s sweep of immigrants overstaying visas following the 2005 terrorist attacks in London? Or is it that when he suffered a heart attack in detention, the jail guard reportedly blocked medical attention for one hour, even after the jail received numerous previous complaints about detainee abuse and neglect?

I’ll leave it to you to decide. But remember that our immigration and detention policies can change to become more humane. In fact, there is a bill in Congress known as the Immigration Oversight and Fairness Act (H.R. 1215) proposed by Congresswoman Roybal-Allard of California that would codify detention standards and improve medical care for immigrant detainees.  In my mind, such a case should not have come to this, but, sadly, it did. And we can let Congress know that through policy reform, hopefully, they won’t happen again.

(Check out this previous article in the NYT on this story, too.)

Intro to ISNA

This past July 4th weekend, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) hosted its 46th Annual Convention in DC, fittingly named “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” It was my first ISNA experience, and I was in awe of the huge crowd. Thousands of people were in attendance as various speakers and panelists discussed topics relevant to the modern American Muslim. Many of those informative sessions were geared towards young people, as part of the MSA National and MYNA portions of the convention. While there was definitely a strong interest in the ISNA Matrimonials event, many attendees were drawn to the DC Convention Center by the dynamic speakers and the variety of goods and art available at the Bazaar.

It was exciting to see the number of Muslims who came to DC for the event, and I was particularly impressed by the number of South Asians I observed attending the convention. Throngs of desis could be found in Chinatown restaurants, out on DC streets, and strolling the National Mall. My own cousins came to DC for the first time from California and Oklahoma specifically for ISNA weekend, and they were surprised by the number of South Asians in DC. So was I! While there are many South Asians living and working in and near the District, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many in one place before. ISNA had a strong pull for our community, with sessions geared specifically towards South Asian Muslims, featuring South Asian speakers or moderated by South Asians, as well as many, many bazaar stalls that were put up by South Asian small business owners and artists.

I liked that there were networking events, such as the Muslim Lawyers networking social that I attended Friday night, and info sessions, such as the one about getting jobs at federal agencies, that involved Muslims helping other Muslims. Not surprisingly, many of the faces at both those events were South Asian. It’s great to see people in the community taking interest in mentoring others!