Opting for the 'T-visa route' to get much-cherished green cards

When Meshael Alayban travelled from Saudi Arabia to United States in May this year, her 30-year-old Kenyan domestic help accompanied her to work at her new home at Irvine in California. Two months later, the local cops arrested Alayban after her maid accused her of holding her against her will, of taking away her passport, of forcing her to work long hours and of paying her only a fraction of what she had been promised.

Alayban is not a diplomat and she travelled to the US on a tourist visa. But the 42-year-old is a princess - married to a scion of the royal family of Saudi Arabia. No wonder, the Consulate General of Saudi Arabia in Los Angeles posted the $ 5 million bail for her. Intense diplomatic contacts between Riyadh and Washington DC followed. And, on September 30, the US District Attorney for Orange County, California, moved the court for dismissing the case against Alayban, dropping charges that could have sent her to prison for 12 years. Her attorney, Paul Meyer, later said that the Kenyan maid’s allegations against Saudi Arabian princess were “a scam to gain permanent resident status in the United States.”

This is also the argument put forward by the Indian Government officials, who are defending Devyani Khobragade after the 39-year-old diplomat posted at the Consulate General of India in New York was arrested by the US law enforcement officials on December 12. They allege that Khobragade’s maid Sangeeta Richard accused the 1999 batch Indian Foreign Service officer of exploitation, only because she wanted to subvert the US laws to stay back and secure permanent residency for herself, for her husband, son and daughter.

Sangeeta, herself, expressed her desire to stay back in the US, when she met Khobragade at the office of an immigration lawyer in New York on July 8 – a fortnight after she left the diplomat’s residence. She refused to return to India, demanded $ 10000, change of the status of her passport from official to ordinary and immigration relief required to stay in the US.

Her demands were rejected by Khobragade and the Consulate General of India in New York. The official passport issued to her for travel to New York with Khobragade in November 2012 was also revoked and her stay in the US thus became illegal. Sangeeta then opted for the “T-visa route” to get the much-cherished green cards for herself and her family.

The ‘T-visa’ is a special category of visas that the American Government issues to the victims of human trafficking to enable them to stay on in the US for four years to assist in the investigation or prosecution of the traffickers. Even the members of the families of the human trafficking victims are also entitled to get derivative T-visas.  

Shortcut status

Sangeeta got the T-1 visa as the primary trafficking ‘victim’, while her husband Philip, who too is a prosecution witness in the case against Khobragade, got T-2 visa after he was evacuated by the US authorities along with the couple’s two children, Jatin and Jennifer. The children got the T-3 visas.

A T-visa can also be used as a shortcut to permanent residency status in the US. Along with the visas, the trafficking victims and their family members are also issued Employment Authorisation Documents or EADs, which enable them to work and earn while staying in the US. And one can apply for Green Card just three years after receiving a T-visa. So, even as India and the US would struggle to leave behind L’affaire Khobragade and mend fences in the coming months, Sangeeta, Phillip and their children would settle down in New York and begin a new life in pursuit of their American dream, no matter whatever may be the outcome of the legal proceedings against Khobragade.

The T-visas have also come in handy for the runaway maids of the diplomats of other countries posted in the US. Kenyan national, Beatrice Oluoch, got the visa in this category, after she initiated legal actions against her employer, Stella Kerubo Orina, a diplomat of the Southeast African nation posted in New York, in 2007.

The American Congress created the special category of the visas when it passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act in order to strengthen the legal regime to investigate and prosecute human trafficking as well as to offer protection to victims.

The US Government Accountability Office in 2008 reported at least 42 instances of housekeepers of foreign diplomats being allegedly exploited by their employers. 

The apprehension that the T-visas can someday be misused was expressed even when the VTVPA was being given shape by the US Congress. A report by the Committee on Judiciary of the American House on the VTVPA in 2000 stressed the need to ensure that the law does not provide a “general amnesty” to even the “aliens”, who “voluntarily sought out smugglers to bring them illegally to the US”. None of course then imagined that the VTVPA and the T-visas created by it could someday spurt allegations against foreign diplomats in the US.

Ever since Khobragade’s arrest triggered a diplomatic spat between India and America, New Delhi’s official version persistently sought to lay the blame on the lure of T-visa and Green Card that prompted Sangeeta to turn against her employer.

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