ALBANY, N.Y. – A woman accused of keeping an illegal immigrant as a servant at her upstate New York mansion says the housekeeper has become a prosecution witness in an effort to get legal status to remain in the United States.
But prosecutors say the woman, who faces a federal felony, kept her emigre servant overworked, underpaid and essentially captive for several years.
Both sides agree the housekeeper, identified in court papers only as V.M., a middle-aged widow from India, worked for Annie George, her late husband and six children for five years. Immigration investigators removed her in May 2011 after her son in India called the National Human Trafficking Resources Center, which says it has identified hundreds of similar U.S. cases.
Bradley Miles, executive director of the nonprofit Polaris Project, which runs the 24-hour phone service, said the most frequently reported type of labor trafficking the organization hears about on the hotline are domestic servitude cases. Since 2008, it has received more than 2,500 calls directly from survivors of sex and labor trafficking, and about 60 or 70 daily looking for referrals, resources, training or "crisis calls," he said.
"I feel it's just the tip of the iceberg," Miles said. They try to determine if there are specific indicators of force, fraud or coercion and since 2008 have recorded 340 domestic servitude situations "with high indicators" that the cases constitute human trafficking. The callers are referred to a network of nonprofits and police across the country.
Miles said other highly publicized household forced labor cases over the past decade involved émigrés from the Philippines, Indonesia and Egypt. His organization is guided by a federal definition of human trafficking from the 2000 federal law and looks for types of control that include violence, threats, isolation or holding debt over someone's head.
The 40-year-old George, who faces trial Aug. 27, is accused of harboring an illegal immigrant for private financial gain, a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison. U.S. District Judge Gary Sharpe dismissed the charge in July on a scheduling technicality but prosecutors got a new indictment days later. George has pleaded not guilty.
Her lawyer, Mark Sacco, had requested dismissal and said he hoped prosecutors had better things to do with their time. He also said the pay dispute, using corrected math, was about $40,000 and could easily be settled in civil court. Prosecutors said V.M. is due at least $240,000 in wages and $79,000 in overtime based on the minimum wage.
In a trial brief, Sacco said V.M. had legal papers and was working with a family in New Jersey in 2005. She left that job for a romantic relationship that ended, leaving her homeless. She was taken in by a church — which she asked to help her find work — claimed to be a legal U.S. visitor, and was hired by George's husband, Mathai Kolath George, in 2006 to work for his family as a live-in domestic servant for $1,000 a month. She filled out no paperwork and didn't change her visa status.
"She was provided room, board and a stipend which was forwarded to her children in her home country," Sacco wrote. "As an avenue to secure permanent legal status in the United States for both herself and her children, she has condemned my client."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Belliss said V.M. is still in the United States and self-supporting at this point. She has temporary status in the country pending the outcome of the trial, he said. She also may testify at trial, along with the immigration investigators who removed her from George's home, after first being told she wasn't there.
Prosecutors said V.M. was eventually pushed out a side door of the mansion without her bags, later got them and found her diary missing.
They said V.M. was paid about $26,000 for more than five years of cooking, cleaning and child care every day from 5:30 a.m. to almost midnight. She spoke little English, never saw a doctor or dentist, seldom left the house and was taken to an immigration lawyer once but got no documents.
She worked in the family's homes first in Catskill in the Hudson Valley, suburban Albany and then the more than 20,000-square-foot stone mansion called Llenroc, 15 miles northwest of Albany.
Prosecutors could claim the mansion as the "vehicle ... used in the commission of the offense" if George is convicted.
Mathai George, a native of India who built a hotel and real estate development business in the U.S., was killed in 2009 along with his 11-year-old son and another man when their private plane crashed after takeoff.
Online: Polaris Project