MCLEAN, VIRGINIA—Immigration officials have removed two Filipino domestic workers from a Virginia home owned by the government of Saudi Arabia as part of an investigation into a report of human trafficking.
(In Manila, the Department of Foreign Affairs said it had relayed the report on the incident to the Philippine Embassy for confirmation and comment).
Agents went to the home in McLean on Tuesday night, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokesperson Brandon Montgomery said on Thursday. Fairfax County police were called in to help.
Montgomery said the investigation was in the early stages. The two women who were removed from the home are from the Philippines, Montgomery said, but that there has been no formal determination that they needed to be rescued.
Officials received a tip that alleged two workers were being held in circumstances that amounted to human trafficking, said John Torres, ICE’s special agent in charge for Homeland Security Investigations in the Washington field office. But he declined in an interview Thursday to discuss the case in more detail.
The ICE is investigating whether there may be other potential victims connected to the home, Torres said.
According to the ICE, cases like this are very “victim-centric,” meaning that once there is “confirmation of suspicions,” authorities immediately go in and remove the victim and then begin the investigation.
There was no word on the identity of the Saudi diplomat who lived there.
Long hours and unpaid
The two women, who currently work at the Saudi Embassy in Washington, claim they were mistreated, according to a State Department official, CNN reported.
The women are charging that the Saudi attaché kept their passports, made them work extremely long hours and did not pay them, according to another State Department official, CNN said. The official said they had not seen anything to indicate the women were physically harmed.
The official also pointed out these allegations were similar to several other cases they heard from domestic workers who work for diplomats from the Persian Gulf.
The Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.
Torres wouldn’t discuss the specific allegations but said that generally in cases of domestic workers, the ICE prioritizes those involving allegations of workers being held against their will or threats of violence against workers or their families.
According to real estate records, the Virginia home is owned by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s Armed Forces Office.
A representative of the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia could not be reached for comment. A guard at the gated home, near the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley, waved off a request to speak to residents there Thursday morning.
At a press briefing, State Department spokesperson Patrick Ventrell said that the agency was aware of the case but that ICE was taking the lead on the investigation. He referred questions there.
Respect for US laws
Ventrell declined to answer specific questions about whether diplomatic immunity had been invoked. Countries traditionally grant immunity to foreign diplomats to receive reciprocal treatment for their own diplomats and to ensure open lines of communication.
Ventrell said that in general, the State Department honors its treaty obligations that provide for immunity while expecting diplomats to observe and respect US laws.
Trafficking cases have been a priority in recent years for the Justice Department, which reports that it has brought an average of 24 cases alleging forced labor in each of the past three fiscal years—nearly twice as many as the prior period.
Recent cases have involved an Italian government worker at the consulate in San Francisco who was prosecuted in 2011 for keeping a Brazilian woman as an involuntary servant. The same year, a naval officer from the United Arab Emirates was acquitted at a federal trial in Providence, Rhode Island, on charges that he had kept a Filipino woman as an unpaid servant.
Tilted toward employers
Tiffany Williams, an antitrafficking campaign coordinator for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, works specifically on the issue of diplomats exploiting domestic workers. She said such exploitation can be a particular problem in the diplomatic community because officials know they hold immunity, and it is difficult to punish them.
Generally, though, she said the underlying issue is no different than in cases involving the community at large: The power dynamic is tilted heavily toward the employer. Domestic workers’ visas are tied to employment with a particular household, so quitting or standing up to abuse runs the risk of deportation.
For domestic workers who live in the home, leaving a job also can mean homelessness, Williams said.
Torres said trafficking cases involving domestic workers were a particular problem in the Washington area, in part because of the presence of a large diplomatic corps and cultural differences—some countries consider it acceptable to treat workers more harshly than is allowed in the US. With a report from Associated Press