Annie George And 'V.M.': Slavery Through Immigration Law

Analysis

  on March 03 2012 7:02 PM

Annie George, the owner of a lavish 34-room mansion in upstate Rexford, N.Y., stands accused of keeping an Indian woman in forced labor as a domestic servant in her home, making her cook, clean and care for George's six children since 2005 for far below minimum wage.

According to the criminal complaint against her, George, 39, induced the Indian woman, identified only as V.M., to overstay her work visa in exchange for leaving the family of a U.N. worker, where she had been previously employed, and living with George.

V.M.'s case, on the surface, appears to be a cut-and-dry case of an illegal alien put into modern-day slavery.

But her circumstances, and the unanswered questions surrounding her time in the U.S., combine human trafficking and modern day slavery laws with a tangled web of immigration law, compounded by the modern-day struggles still faced by domestic workers, regardless of citizenship, to secure the most basic rights.

'She did not leave the premises.'

The Rexford resident promised V.M. a starting pay of $1,000 a month. In total, V.M. claims she was promised upwards up $200,000 for the six years she worked there.

Instead, she was paid roughly 87 cents an hour, and received only $29,000 for all six years she worked for George and her family.

V.M. worked 17 hours a day, seven days a week. Despite living in a 30,000 square-foot home with 34 rooms, she was ordered to sleep on the floor of a walk-in closet.

According to an affidavit filed by Daria Botten, a special agent with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations, V.M. said through a Hindi-speaking translator that she could not speak English or drive. She seldom left the geographically isolated residence, and communicated with Annie George only in Malayam, an Indian dialect from her home state of Kerala. George is herself of Indian descent.

She did not leave the premises, Leslie Thiele, an immigration lawyer and partner at Whiteman Osterman & Hanna, told CBS.

Ms. Thiele is one of the founders of the International Trade and Business Practice Group, which deals with immigration law.

She was not paid the monies that she was owed and her freedom to move around was restricted.

An Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations affidavit by special agent Daria Botten notes that V.M.'s status as an illegal immigrant was compounded by the fact that George and her husband, who died in a plane crash in 2009, resisted all efforts either to register her legally or give her employee benefits. They appear to have been intent on keeping her off both the grid and under their control.

At no time during her employment by Annie George and her husband did V.M. complete an employment application, tax forms, or any other documents related to lawful employment, the affidavit reads.

V.M. claims that she asked Annie George and her husband to let her return to India at one point during her time there, but was told she lacked the necessary immigration documents to do so. George brought her to see an attorney, deducting $4,000 from her pay for the privilege, but V.M. never got any of the documents she was promised.

Investigators have released portions of three recorded phone conversations between V.M.'s son and Annie George as evidence that she was hiding her as an illegal worker.

In those, Annie George acknowledges that V.M. did not have a passport or visa, and tries to coach him to lie to authorities, court records allege.

If she says anything about working, it would become a big crime, the document quotes Annie George as telling V.M.'s son. They'll start adding up all the taxes and everything for all this time.

In 2011, federal authorities received a tip about V.M.'s illegal employment and forced labor. They went to the mansion to investigate, and removed V.M. from the home after George tried to hide her in the basement.

George was released on her own recognizance Tuesday on charges of encouraging an illegal immigrant to live in the United States, charges her lawyer, Donald Kinsella, told CBS were put forward based on gross misstatements.

Despite the charges of maltreatment against her, from having her sleep in the walk-in closet to paying her almost nothing for six years of work, George has not been charged with enslavement.

Slavery in the U.S.

Human trafficking, and modern-day slavery, are thorny areas of investigation, categorization, and sentencing.

Human trafficking is used as an umbrella term to signify almost any case of someone obtaining or holding a person in compelled service, whether be it for forced labor, sex trafficking, debt bondage, as child soldiers or sex workers, or, as it seems in this case, for involuntary domestic servitude.

Anti-Slavery International estimates that there are approximately 27 million slaves in the world today. The State Department puts the number of new cases of slavery in the U.S. at approximately 16,000 a year, encompassing U.S. citizens, those trafficked across the border and those, like V.M., who came to the U.S. legally with a worker's visa.

These numbers are staggering. According to Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, which specializes in monitoring child sex trafficking, more people are enslaved today than at any other time in history, including during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade from the 16th through the 19th century.

This alarming spike is due in part to the process of globalization, a move which has made international borders less rigid and has brought back the demand for cheap labor, coupled with a heretofore unprecedented mass human migration.

And of those 16,000 a year, the Department of Justice estimates that around 25 percent of slaves in the U.S. today are domestic workers. Oftentimes, this form of forced labor enslaves not through shackles or whips, but through the insidious nature of immigration law and domestic rights themselves.

Domestic Servitude: 'There is nothing mediating that relationship.'

Domestic employees are a little different, Leslie Thiele said when discussing forced labor in the U.S., Simply because they tend to be employed not by businesses, not by small businesses, but in private homes.

Until very recently, agricultural and domestic labor were outliers when it came to workers' rights in the United States.

The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 provided for unionization and collective bargaining, workplace safety standards and a minimum wage. It also explicitly excluded agricultural and domestic work, a move that some legislators noted was as racially motivated as it was economically so.

In 2010, New York introduced the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. It was the nation's first such protection for domestic workers.

It extended basic employment and law protections including sick days, vacation days and overtime pay to nannies, housekeepers and others in domestic service who had gone without such ironclad assurances as disability benefits or protection against workplace discrimination until then.

Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, told the New York Times that the bill was crucial in order to mediate between employees and employers.

You have some employers that are very good and some that are not, and there is nothing mediating that relationship, she said. So early on, workers said, 'We need basic protections and guidelines so that we won't be at the whim and mercy of our employers.'

These recent guarantees, coupled with legislation already in place to protect workers' contracts with employers, apply to any domestic employee, regardless of whether they are legally allowed in the U.S.

Immigration status is irrelevant, Thiele confirmed. If an immigrant is about to be deported, then the employer is still required to pay them before they go home.

Many illegal immigrants, however, are reluctant to report violations to government agencies precisely because it will get them deported, even in cases of essential slavery.

Like V.M., many can find themselves in a situation almost as bad when they are freed as they were in while in captivity.

V.M. does not speak English, all her friends and family remain in India, and her employers are the only ones who can give her access to transportation, the money she's owed, and who can communicate with her in her native language. She has no access to social services or to medical care.

If you are legal in this country, you will benefit from it [the new laws], Rhea Bolivia, who immigrated from the Philippines, told the New York Times. But if you are not, then I don't think it will do much for you.

'We don't know the answers to these questions.'

Regardless of whether she was actively coerced, this V.M.'s options were limited and restricted based on the complicated web of immigration law, domestic service rights and modern-day slavery laws.

Forced labor in the U.S. is often painted one monolithic offense that is always abusive and coercive. Scholars like Laura Agustin, however, have documented the fact that illegal migration and work, while it can easily become criminal and abusive, often also involves what is essentially voluntary bondage in exchange for the opportunities available abroad.

It is a point that Thiele stresses when discussing the Annie George case.

With the evidence provided, it is not immediately clear whether V.M. was barred from the leaving the house, or simply had nowhere that she could go; whether she was forced to sleep in the closet and take barely any wages, which would constitute slavery, or accepted them, with the combined pressures of work and family, in order to stay in the U.S.

She legally entered the U.S., legally worked for that [U.N.] family but then voluntarily left that family to work for the George's because they were offering her more money. Thiele noted.

But once she left her previous employer, a move which violated her work visa, she would not have been able to fix her immigration status in the U.S., something she may not have known when she switched jobs.

In 1996, in order to get tough on illegal immigration, Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA).

Known as the 3/10-year bar, IIRAIRA bans immigrants who have stayed in the U.S. illegally for over six months from returning to the U.S. for three years. Illegal immigrants in the U.S. for more than twelve months are barred for ten years.

The 3/10-year bar, however, by necessity can only apply to those who have left the U.S. after staying there illegally. As such, it provides a powerful incentive for those who are already illegal aliens and want to apply for a green card to stay in the U.S. to cut in line, rather than applying from abroad.

And while the first four years of the law saw under 12,000 people banned from re-entering the U.S., the illegal immigrant population within America grew from six to eight million people, with at least 600,000 illegal aliens getting green cards.

If V.M. was not aware that she would have to re-apply for another visa back in India, by the time she was settled with the Georges it was already too late.

Even if Annie George did use V.M.'s money to contact a lawyer about her immigration papers, her status as an illegal immigrant, unable to get other work in the U.S. without returning to India and without the funds or a position back home, made the issue dead in the water, according to Thiele.

People who end up leaving home to work abroad have mixed motives, Agustin told Reason Magazine in an interview about her new book on sex workers, Sex at the Margins.

They may be poor and without many choices. But they also are normal human beings who have desires and fantasies.

Leslie Thiele agrees, noting that the details of the understanding between Annie George and V.M. are still largely unknown, including what treatment U.S. citizens might consider appalling and what the woman in question might consider, however egregious, to be part of the job.

Her choices, however, no matter what the circumstances, were stark. She could stay in the U.S. and work for Annie George, or risk being sent back to India without most of her money and with no opportunity to return for work for years.

If she could find someone who could drive to take her away at all. It is not known if V.M. was literate, how much education she has had, or her family background within the still-existant caste system in India.

Did she decide it was the better choice? Thieile mused. Did she decide to take the risk? I don't know. We don't know the answers to these questions.

'The Wrong Kind Of Victim.'

The handling of the case against Annie George, focusing as it does on immigration law rather than on the maltreatment V.M. suffered because of it, is indicative of the pattern of abuse that is encouraged by laws like the 3/10-bar.

Recently, Anti-Slavery International and Amnesty International released a 167-page report on the abuse of illegal immigrants in the UK: Wrong kind of victim?

 In the report, they blasted the British government for being overly concerned with immigration issues over assisting the victims of traumatic crimes, and for failing to recognize the ways in which illegal immigration and domestic abuse were often inexorably linked.

The same might be said of the U.S.

Controlling illegal immigration and combating modern-day slavery may often be treated as separate issues by the U.S. government. Many of the same people who fight against immigrants stealing our jobs would be appalled by the conditions many of these immigrants, especially domestic and agricultural workers, live in.

Though there are many initiatives to halt the surge of human trafficking in America, and to deal with a burgeoning population of illegal immigrants, little coordinated effort has been made to address the fact that often, once immigrants are in the U.S., they are forced to tolerate the conditions foisted upon them as if they were being literally enslaved.

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