NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Prosecutors in New York have charged a former Moroccan ambassador to the United Nations and others with visa fraud, accusing them of bringing workers to the United States using fake employment contracts and then exploiting them.
Abdeslam Jaidi, his ex-wife Maria Luisa Estrella and her brother Ramon Singson brought in more than 10 workers from the Philippines and Morocco since about 2006, according to the indictment filed in federal court in New York.
The visa applications said the workers would be employed as administrative or technical staff at the consulate or Moroccan U.N. mission, and some included fake employment contracts, it said.
Instead, the workers were used as personal drivers, domestic helpers and farmhands, the indictment said.
They were paid low wages - sometimes less than $500 a month - and worked long hours without time off. Some had to hand over their passports, it also said.
“This case sends a strong message that diplomatic immunity does not equal impunity,” said Martina Vandenberg, head of the Washington-based Human Trafficking Legal Center.
“Even high-ranking diplomats can be called to account if there are allegations of visa fraud and exploitation.”
Jaidi served as U.N. ambassador from Morocco.
Other foreign diplomats in the United States have been accused in recent years over treatment of their employees.
Earlier this year, the U.S. government suspended new visas for domestic employees of Malawian officials after one of its diplomats failed to pay $1.1 million in damages to a woman she trafficked in the United States.
Supporters have warned that domestic workers employed by diplomats are vulnerable to abuses and even human trafficking because their visas chain them to specific employers.
Being tied to a specific employer means they cannot switch to a better job and if they quit, they typically must leave the country.
The charges, filed on Thursday in U.S. District Court in White Plains, N.Y., were conspiracy to commit offenses and defraud and conspiracy to induce aliens to come to, enter and reside in the country.
The crimes carry maximum sentences of five and 10 years in prison, respectively.
Estrella, 60, was arrested in March, while Jaidi, 82, who lives in Rabat, Morocco, and Singson, 55, who lives in Manila, are at large.
Her lawyers declined to comment.
Reporting by Christine Murray, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org