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U.S. owes India apology over strip-search

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor
December 18, 2013 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • India is retaliating against the U.S. over treatment of consular official who was strip-searched
  • Ruben Navarrette: The official was not a threat to safety and the charges are murky
  • He says the Marshals Service may have overreacted and created a diplomatic furor
  • Navarrette: U.S. relationship with India is vital and shouldn't be lightly endangered

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter @rubennavarrette.

San Diego (CNN) -- Here's a scary thought: There's a country where officials are suggesting that the visas of gay partners of U.S. diplomats be revoked and these individuals be put in jail -- not because the country recently outlawed same-sex relationships but to crack down on Americans.

In that country, the government is also curtailing the privileges traditionally granted to U.S. consulate staff, taking down protective barricades in front of the U.S. consulate and snubbing U.S. diplomatic officers.

Where do you suppose you'll find this anti-American backlash brewing? North Korea? Cuba? Iran? Surely, it must be a place where the citizens hate the United States. Perhaps it's a political adversary with which relations have never been particularly good.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

Nope. All this is happening in India, which has long been a good and dependable friend and ally to the United States, most recently during the war on terror.

These are tense times in U.S.-India relations. And it's all because of how agents with the U.S. Marshals Service treated Devyani Khobragade when she was recently arrested and detained.

The 39-year-old deputy counsel general of India was taken into custody in New York on December 12 after she dropped her daughter off at school, and she was charged with visa fraud for allegedly lying on the application that she filled out to get permission for her nanny to legally work in the United States.

Court documents allege that she stated on the application that she was paying the nanny the minimum wage in New York -- $9.75 per hour, when she was really only paying her what worked out to be about $3.31 per hour.

Even that part of the story is fuzzy. Imagine someone coming into your home and calculating what you're paying a housekeeper or nanny or gardener by the hour, when you're paying them a flat rate for the day. I know friends who have live-in nannies, and those baby sitters are essentially on-call around the clock. They're probably making less than minimum wage as well, but with room and board thrown in.

U.S. strip searches Indian diplomat
Arrest sparks diplomatic feud

Anyway, what happened next isn't being disputed by either side.

Khobragade was put in a holding cell with other female detainees and strip-searched. She eventually posted bond, and she was released. She is now staying at India's Permanent Mission to the United Nations.

The U.S. Marshals Service claims that a strip-search is standard operating procedure and that none of its policies were violated in this case. A spokesman says that Khobragade was treated just like anyone else.

That's the problem. Khobragade is not just like anyone else. She is a diplomatic officer with limited immunity. She's in the United States representing a proud country filled with reserved and modest people, many of whom consider a strip-search to be, as one Indian official said, "barbaric."

This is a country that in recent years has had good relations with the United States and where we have foreign officers stationed who we expect to be treated fairly and humanely.

Besides, she is not a violent criminal or a terror suspect, and she doesn't appear to be a threat to public safety.

If there is a labor law violation here, it would a civil crime, not a criminal offense. And if the U.S. government is going to throw the book at people who mistreat workers, I could -- as someone who writes about the immigration issue -- provide dozens of names of U.S. citizens, from farmers to soccer moms, who belong in a lineup.

Lying on a visa application is no small matter, but we're still not sure that is what happened given how wages are sometimes arrived at. Either way, it does seem that U.S. marshals might have overreacted in this case.

Like other law enforcement officers, many federal agents already get what is referred to as cultural sensitivity training. But, it turns out, what they really need is a crash course in International Relations 101.

The Indian government is incensed, and it has a right to be.

There are questions about the procedure that agents followed in this case, and they need to be answered. Those policies need to be reviewed. Indian officials also want an apology, and they should get one. Secretary of State John Kerry should deliver it himself, going beyond what the State Department said in a statement is Kerry's "regret" over the incident.

Questions of Khobragade's guilt or innocence can wait for another day. Yet, decency and common sense can be dealt with now. Those things tell us something went wrong in this case. It's up to the Obama administration to make it right before this diplomatic crisis gets any bigger.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

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