Human-trafficking lawsuit against Iowa college survives legal challenge

By: - May 17, 2022 3:02 pm

Two human-trafficking lawsuits against an Iowa community college have survived a round of legal challenges and are proceeding toward a trial in 2024. (Photo courtesy of Western Iowa Tech Community College)

A human-trafficking lawsuit brought by 14 international students from Chile against Western Iowa Tech Community College has survived a round of legal challenges and is proceeding in federal court.

The school and other defendants are accused of working in concert to entice impoverished students to leave their home in Chile and come to Iowa, where they were placed in “debt bondage” working at a food-processing plant and dog-food factory.

The Sioux City college allegedly procured visas for the Chilean students to enroll in the school’s international education program, then steered them to work in the processing plants. The college diverted money from students’ paychecks to reimburse the school for the cost of the program, the lawsuit claims.

The defendants in the case, all of whom have denied any wrongdoing, include the college; several of its employees; Tur-Pak Foods, which runs a food-processing plant in Sioux City; Royal Canin USA, which runs a dog-food factory in North Sioux City, South Dakota; and J & L Staffing and Recruiting, which allegedly helped place the students in the two plants at the behest of the school.

The lawsuit, filed in November 2020, recently survived a broad array of legal challenges mounted by the defendants. Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa Leonard T. Strand dismissed claims of racketeering and indentured servitude against the defendants, but let stand several counts alleging human trafficking, breach of contract, fraud and, with regard to the school, the intentional infliction of emotional distress.

“WITCC specifically prohibited (the students) from seeking other employment without permission, making their labor for Tur-Pak or Royal Canin the only way they could provide for themselves,” Strand stated in his ruling. “The (students) are foreign nationals with varying levels of proficiency in English. They all made financial sacrifices to be a part of the program, with several of them selling nearly everything they owned prior to enrolling in the program. Thus, they had no obvious alternatives.”

The students in the case allege they participated in the federal J-1 visa program for college students, which gives foreign students the opportunity to participate in a visitor-exchange program while studying at a post-secondary, accredited school in the United States. Generally, exchange students in the J-1 program can take jobs if their employment is related to their schooling or is on campus.

In early 2019, the lawsuit alleges, the U.S. Department of State approved WITCC’s application to host exchange students as part of the J-1 visa program. Around that time, school officials allegedly began negotiations with J & L Staffing and Recruiting to find a way to fund the program.

The lawsuit alleges that WITCC agreed to bring the students to the United States, and J & L agreed to place the students at Tur-Pak and Royal Canin. The details of the agreement allegedly provided that the school would secure the visas for the students and house them on campus, while J & L would provide transportation between WITCC’s student housing complex and the plants.

The arrangement called for Royal Canin and Tur-Pak to pay $15 an hour for the students’ labor, but $7.75 an hour would go to the college to offset the expense of the students’ housing, tuition and fees, the lawsuit claims. The students would then be left with the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. J & L would allegedly collect fees from the plant for providing workers and would also collect fees from the students for transportation and employment badges.

According to the lawsuit, the school then entered into an agreement with four Chileans to recruit students in that country, and by March 2019, 25 students were successfully recruited.

Lawsuit: College promised free tuition, room and board 

In April 2019, school officials, along with representatives of J & L, traveled from Iowa to Chile to meet with the recruiters there and the prospective students. The Iowa group allegedly told the students they would be able to earn a two-year degree in either a culinary arts or robotics program and would also be enrolled in an “internship experience” that would improve their chances of furthering their careers, with room, board and tuition provided.

Those promises were allegedly put in writing in the form of an “Open Letter” from the school to its “Brazilian/Chilean friends.” The letter allegedly told students they would be required to work as many as 35 hours per week, while attending class for 12 hours per week, but the work was reportedly billed as an internship program with scholarships – not as manual labor in processing plants.

In late April, the school sent prospective students letters of acceptance into the program along with a “job offer letter” to work for J & L. It did not describe the nature or location of the work, or the rate of pay, but it allegedly did describe it as a “valuable, resume-enhancing experience for candidates to gain work experience.”

In June 2019, the school allegedly sent an email to the students and Chilean recruiters indicating that while J & L would still assist in placing students in jobs, as an employment agency, J & L was barred from acting as partner in the program. According to the lawsuit, the email also stated that at no time were the participants to mention that the reason for the internships was “the lack of workers in the area, even when indeed there is a need for workers. Also, we cannot call you workers, but student interns, and we cannot use the word salary or wages, but stipends or compensation.”

The lawsuit alleges the changes were made to hide from the State Department the fact that the planned “internship program” amounted to off-campus work in processing plants and thus violated the rules for the J-1 visa program.

‘Culinary arts’ rebranded as processing-plant work

The students’ final letters of acceptance into the program stated the students were “not responsible for the cost of your tuition, fees, housing or supplies,” and added that “meals will be provided at the college,” the lawsuit claims.

With regard to the work, the letter allegedly stated, “You will have your training in an external environment provided by industries/partners that are served by our Corporate College, a division of Western Iowa Tech Community College. These companies send their employees to our Corporate College to acquire knowledge and training when and if it is necessary, and they are willing to participate in this cultural interchange by allowing us to use their facilities and plants.”

At the same time, the “culinary arts” program students signed up for was rebranded as a “food service diploma program” that would prepare students for jobs “directly related to automated food production industries, for humans or pets’ consumption.”

Also, the “robotics program” students signed up for was rebranded as the  “electromechanical technician program,” which would provide training for “an entry-level position” as an industrial mechanic in automated food production industries.

School officials then certified to the State Department that the students’ work would entail “shadowing in three different environments: the local cafeteria at college, and two business partners consisting in a hotel restaurant, and a food preparation industry just to observe … Job shadowing will take place at our Corporate College partners.”

The school, the lawsuit alleges, “knew this was not an accurate description of the work that the plaintiffs would be performing” and knew the students would simply be “working on a production line, filling a labor shortage in the Siouxland area.”

Students complain of 12-hour overnight shifts

Once the students arrived at WITCC from Chile, the lawsuit claims, they were not offered free tuition or free room and board, and were instead routed to Tur-Pak’s processing plant and to Royal Canin’s dog-food factory.

In those plants, the lawsuit alleges, the students were “required to work as line workers, in positions that required no skills at all and were not related to the plaintiffs’ fields of study.” Some of the students had to work 12-hour overnight shifts and then report to class by 8 a.m., the lawsuit claims.

Prior to the students receiving their paychecks, withdrawals were made for employee badges, transportation and for taxes that normally are not charged to students on J-1 visas, the lawsuit alleges.

Other withdrawals were allegedly made but not recorded on the students’ pay stubs, such as the $7.75 an hour that allegedly went to WITCC as payment for tuition, fees, room and board. During the week before their employment started, the students were allegedly given Walmart or Hy-Vee gift cards for food. Once they began working, the school allegedly stopped providing the cards.

When students complained that the long hours in the plant made it impossible for them to attend class and that the work didn’t amount to any sort of educational internship, WITCC allegedly threatened the students with deportation and withheld food from the students.

In November 2019, the State Department allegedly began an investigation of the matter and informed the school the jobs at Tur-Pak and Royal Canin were not “internships,” and the students were in violation of their J-1 visa status. The lawsuit claims WITCC then told the students they’d have to quit their jobs, and that they would owe the college $250 a week for room, board, tuition and fees.

After the students complained publicly of their treatment, the school allegedly tried to placate them with access to WITCC’s food pantry, and by taking them to local churches so they could solicit donations. Only later did the school agree to provide the students with two meals per day in the school cafeteria along with a Hy-Vee gift card to cover other food expenses.

In March 2020, WITCC, still under investigation by the State Department, canceled the students’ visas, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, and paid for the students to return home to Chile. At the time, the school allegedly allowed its other international students, who were in the United States on a different type of visa, to remain in Sioux City while attending classes virtually.

Although the federal lawsuit is 18 months old, a trial date has yet to be scheduled. The plaintiffs have amended their complaint twice and the school and other defendants only recently filed their response to that set of allegations.

The plaintiffs in the case are Chilean citizens Karla O’Nell Norambuena; Natalia Tapia Leiva; Almendra Gonzalez de la Paz; David Silva Moreno; Fernando Vilches Castillo; Claudio Ramos; Alejandro Pizarro; Eduardo Antonio Muñoz Vargas; Carilyns Sarai Camus Jorquera; Gonzalo Escobar Espejo; Catalina Noemi Rivas Morales; Bairon Morel Gurerra; Diego Cristobal Ahumada Soulodre; and Nestor Acevedo.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.