An Irvine man and his former wife pleaded guilty Thursday to forcing a 12-year-old illegal immigrant from Egypt to work as their domestic slave.
Under terms of a plea deal with federal prosecutors, Abdel Nasser Eid Youssef Ibrahim, 45, and his former wife, Amal Ahmed Ewis-abd Motelib, 43, each face up to three years in prison.
The girl, whose name was not released, was brought to the United States in 2000. Every morning she helped the couple's youngest children get ready for school, washed clothes, cleaned the house and prepared food. Following up on an anonymous tip, police in 2002 found the girl living in squalor in a 12-by-8-foot converted area of the family's garage.
Ibrahim and Motelib, who were married at the time and have five children, had both slapped the girl at least once and told her that if police saw her outside their home alone, they would arrest her, prosecutors said.
The girl, now 16, is living with a foster family in Southern California and attending a public high school where "she is doing great," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Robert J. Keenan. She has received a green card granting her permanent residency.
The case shed light on a common though illegal practice in Egypt in which children from poor families are sent to work for the well-to-do. The servants, known as Khadamah, usually range in age from 9 to 18 and often are forced to sleep in kitchens.
Two of the girl's older sisters had worked in Ibrahim's home in Egypt before he moved to Irvine in 2000. Ibrahim caught one of the sisters stealing, prosecutors said. He threatened to have her charged with theft unless the girl's impoverished parents sent their 10-year-old daughter to work as his family maid in the United States. The girl's parents signed a document offering her for a "10-year sponsorship" with the family in exchange for about $30 a month, Keenan said.
"It works out well for everyone except the girl. Her parents are happy, the defendants are happy, and she has 10 years of her life flushed away," Keenan said.
The girl came to the U.S. on a visitor's visa that expired six months after she came to Irvine.
At Thursday's hearing in Santa Ana, Ibrahim wore a gray suit and a somber expression. Motelib wore a white head scarf, a pink blouse, white high heels and a black skirt that touched the ground.
The 2 1/2-hour hearing before U.S. District Judge James V. Selna was touched with drama when it appeared that the plea agreements were about to unravel.
When prosecutors read the allegations against Motelib, she became upset.
"I never hit her. I never insulted her or called her names," she said through an Arabic translator.
When the judge asked if she disagreed with any other allegations, Motelib bowed her head and stood in silence for about a minute. The judge gave her five minutes to confer with her lawyer, Vincent LaBarbera Jr. Motelib left the courtroom with tears in her eyes, and one of her teenage daughters wept quietly.
Motelib composed herself and returned, but when she had difficulty telling the court what crimes she was admitting, the judge called another recess.
She returned 10 minutes later, and the judge again asked her to tell him what she had done wrong.
"We did a mistake here in the United States of America because we didn't respect the law," she said through her translator. "At that time we were new here."
She conceded slapping the girl and telling her she would be sent back to Egypt if she didn't do as she was told. But Motelib insisted she didn't slap the girl in the face.
Both are charged with keeping a child in involuntary servitude and harboring an alien. As part of the plea deal, they must pay the girl about $100,000 in restitution and back wages. Both will be sentenced Oct. 23.
Keenan argued that Ibrahim should be considered a flight risk and kept in custody. The prosecutor pointed out that the Egyptian citizen had an Interpol warrant for his arrest stemming from alleged fraud in Egypt in 2002. The judge set a bail hearing for Tuesday. Ibrahim remains free on $100,000 bond, Motelib on $25,000 bond.
Khaled Abou El Fadl, a professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern law at UCLA's School of Law, said the vast majority of Middle Eastern immigrants know that it is not acceptable to have children as live-in maids in the West.
"This has been the only case I've heard about where the family actually had the gall to bring their maid with them to the U.S.," he said. "It just seems so bizarre to me that every single member of this family would just be so clueless. They must have known other Egyptians, and also known that none of them is hiding a child live-in maid in the garage."
Although the practice of keeping children as live-in maids is still somewhat common in Egypt, Abou El Fadl said, it has come under increasing scrutiny and is slowly changing.