Indians easy pickings for ‘trafficking’ visas by US


December 28, 2013

NEW DELHI: The US government's decision to give a rare "trafficking" visa to the family of Sangeeta Richard, diplomat Devyani Khobragade's domestic help, opens an interesting can of worms.

December 28, 2013

NEW DELHI: The US government's decision to give a rare "trafficking" visa to the family of Sangeeta Richard, diplomat Devyani Khobragade's domestic help, opens an interesting can of worms.

The visa, apparently given to Sangeeta sometime after July, enabled her family — husband and two children — to be given the same "T" visas by which they were taken out of India to the US just two days before Khobragade was arrested. This is a visa given to victims of severe sex or labour trafficking, where they are subjected to either sexual violation by their traffickers or kept in inhuman working and living conditions without regard to their human rights. Once established as trafficking victims — a rather lengthy process — their families are also given similar visas so they can all go to live in the US leaving their home country.

Immigration and human rights activists say the "T" visa category is rarely used. But the US has been generous to Indians for this category. Just for 2012, Washington admitted 49 Indians on T-2 visas and 79 on T-3 visas, according to US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). This means at least 49 Indians were deemed to be victims of severe forms of human trafficking that the US has allowed them to abandon their original visa status to be given a T visa. (Spouses of trafficking victims are given T-2 visas while their children are given T-3 visas). In 2011, 82 Indians were issued T-2 visas and 112 were given T-3 visas. These numbers were 13 and 14, respectively, in 2010. Worldwide, the US issued 151 T-2 category visas last year, one-third of which were from India.

This is way above any other Asian, African or European nation — the closest any country gets to India is Thailand and the Philippines. Even China, which is regularly pilloried by the US on human rights, has only four persons who were given a T-category visa. More Indians arriving in the US complain of being victims of either sexual or labour trafficking and are able to successfully get a good deal from the US government.

Martina Vandenberg, president of Human trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center, Washington, says the US is more than cautious about giving visas in this category. "Typically, it takes a trafficking victim between six months to a year to get a T-1 visa from the US." But she adds, "It's very unusual for the US government to give families T visas. We struggle to get those, and in the past 10 years, I have seen only two instances of families being given T visas. It is generally an indication that the US government believes these families to be at great risk in their home countries." Three members of the Richard family received T visas to the US in under six months.

Even in the US, various accounts by human rights activists say law enforcement agencies, who are required to "certify" whether a trafficking victim's claims are valid, has been so slow to do it that has endangered several genuine victims. One report from San Francisco, generally regarded as a high trafficking area, said in 2011, US authorities rejected 23% of the claims received.

The trafficking visa category was introduced in 2000 after the US Congress passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (VTVPA). Since then, in spite of an annual 5,000 quota, only a few hundred T visas have been issued each year. But the Department of Justice's website describes the visa as "a powerful new tool to protect the most vulnerable victims and prevent future trafficking".

By this token, Sangeeta would have been subject to the most degrading forms of exploitation by Khobragade. The visa is also issued, according to the US State Department's own list of conditions, after an investigation by law enforcement agencies to ascertain the veracity of the allegations. There is no record of such an investigation against Khobragade. Sangeeta, as applicant of this visa would have agreed to help US authorities with "primary evidence" to help investigations against her "trafficker" in this case, the diplomat.

The chargesheet against Khobragade, issued on December 11, a day after the Richards left for the US on their trafficking visas, only mentions charges on two counts — visa fraud and falsifying statements. It does not accuse the Indian diplomat of human trafficking, even though the alleged victim and her family were taken into US shelter under that very category. However, criminal lawyers say charges could be added on at later stages in a criminal case.

T-visa applicants need to show that if they leave the US for their home country, they would suffer "extreme hardship involving unusual and extreme harm". Sangeeta's job was made easier when Khobragade filed a case against her in Delhi High Court which issued a non-bailable arrest warrant against her.

Ultimately, the repeated issuance of trafficking visas to Indians is a serious indictment of the Indian judicial and law enforcement system.

Courtesy: PTI