Sunday, December 17, 2017

‘We have to comply with US laws’

The case of Indian Deputy Consul Gene­ral Devyani Khobragade, who was indicted in the United States for allegedly giving false information to authorities there, has been cited by Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Dookeran as he sought to justify Government’s position with respect to staff members at the Trinidad and Tobago’s New York Consulate.

Khobragade is accused of exploiting her India-born housekeeper and nanny, allegedly having her work more than 100 hours a week for low pay and lying about it on a visa form. 

Staff members who had been employed on A2 visas in the consulate, as well as at the Washington mission, will lose their jobs as a result of an opinion given by Attorney General Anand Ramlogan that Trinidad and Tobago missions in the US must hire only people who are already resident and entitled to work there (ie, permanent residents or US citizens). Such people would not need any visas to work in the missions.

Speaking to the Sunday Express on Friday, Dookeran said: “I don’t know if you notice what is happening with India (and the US), where they sent back this lady? It is a similar situation. Very similar. And we have to comply with the US laws,” he said. 

“It is a matter of law. Locally-based staff (staff living in the United States), we cannot apply for visas on their behalf. We can apply for visas for the diplomatic staff that we send there from Port of Spain.”

He acknowledged that in the past the consulate applied for visas for staff recruited in the United States.  

“We are trying to correct something which in the past had been wrong. And it is the integrity of the State at stake,” Dookeran said.

Asked what policy was followed by other consulates in the United States, Dookeran said: “We don’t know what the other consulates do. But we were not following (the rules) in the past.”

Asked whether there was any complaint from the US State Department about the use of the A2 visas to regularise the immigration status of staff at the Trinidad and Tobago missions, Dookeran said: “No. No. The matter came by virtue of the Consul General having to renew it (the A2 visas)... And they found out that it was not right to apply (for it) in the first place,” he said.

Dookeran was asked if the US authorities were the ones who found out the proper procedure was not being followed. 

“No, no. We found out.” 

Suggesting the US was not involved in the Government’s decision on the matter, he said the Government’s position “did not come from them (the US). But if we do that (apply for the A2 visas) we would be breaking the US law” .

He said if the visas were renewed now, it would be on the basis of false information.

“And that is what happened with the Indian diplomat,” he added.

Dookeran, who said he met with Consul General Nan Ramgoolam on Friday morning, “and got further clarification from her” on the issue of the A2 visas, stated: “I saw the documents today which contained the false information.”

He added that he was told this issue of the A2 visas being improperly given affected the Trinidad and Tobago New York Consulate and its Embassy in Washington, DC. It did not affect its mission in Miami, he said.

“The directive I have received after the matter was investigated by law is that this procedure must cease. So I have instructed all our missions that this procedure—of hiring locally recruited staff on A2 visas—should cease.”

Dookeran said from now on only people who have a legal status in the United States will be allowed to fill positions assigned to locally recruited staff at this country’s missions.

Dookeran said now that the matter had been ventilated in the public domain, he had no doubt the United States Embassy was now aware of the situation. 

“And when I saw the matter with the Indian diplomat, I asked the Consul General how similar is our situation, and she said ‘very similar’.” 

The Express last week had asked an official of the US State Department, in Washington, whether the US State Department had expressed concerns about the use of the A2 visas.

The official said the State Department could not discuss diplomatic communication between governments. 

 The official, however, explained all visa applications are adjudicated by consular officers in keeping with the Immigration and Nationality Act. He said diplomatic applicants must meet specific requirements. “For you to qualify for an A1 or A2 visa, the applicant must be travelling to the United States on behalf of his/her national government to engage solely in activities for that government.”

 The official said personnel decisions were the responsibility of the foreign mission. 

“Though US law states that A1 or A2 diplomatic visa applicants are subject to limited ground of ineligibility, diplomats are nevertheless obligated to respect the laws of the host country,” he said.

Last week, in response to questions, public affairs officer at the US Embassy Alexander McLaren gave an explanation of the A2 visa. “Diplomatic visas (A1 or A2) are normally issued at a US Embassy before foreign government officials and diplomatic personnel depart, and may be renewed in the United States, upon request. These visas and any renewals require a diplomatic note from the foreign government explaining the purpose of travel and requesting a visa be issued”. 

He referred the Express to the State Department in Washington for further information.