McLEAN, Va. – Immigration officials have removed two domestic workers from a northern Virginia home owned by the government of Saudi Arabia as part of an investigation into a report of human trafficking.
Agents went to the home in McLean on Tuesday night, Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Brandon Montgomery said Thursday. Fairfax County police were called in to help.
Montgomery said the investigation is in the early stages. The two women who were removed from the home are from the Philippines, Montgomery said, but 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.
ICE is investigating whether there may be other potential victims connected to the home, Torres said. He wouldn't discuss the specific allegations but said that generally in cases of domestic workers, 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 Thursday. A guard at the gated home, near the CIA headquarters in Langley, waved off a request to speak to residents there Thursday morning.
At a press briefing Thursday, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said that the agency was aware of the case but that ICE is taking the lead on the investigation. He referred questions there.
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 U.S. 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, R.I., on charges that he had kept a Filipino woman as an unpaid servant.
Tiffany Williams, an anti-trafficking 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 are 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 U.S.
To be proactive, Torres said ICE works with nonprofit groups and provides brochures and information to all incoming diplomats who want to bring domestic help from other countries.