Human-trafficking lawsuits against Iowa school expected to be tried in 2024

By: - December 6, 2022 5:35 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 pair of federal lawsuits alleging that Western Iowa Tech Community College engaged in human trafficking are continuing to work their way through the court system.

One lawsuit was filed entirely on behalf of 14 students from Chile, and the other was filed on behalf of 11 other students who mostly originate from Brazil. The lawsuits allege the school enticed impoverished students to 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 students to enroll in the school’s international education program, then steered them to work in the processing plants. The college then diverted money from students’ paychecks to reimburse the school for the cost of the program, the lawsuits claim.

The defendants in the two cases, 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 two cases are expected to go to trial between April and June of 2024, but court records indicate sworn depositions, in which the defendants will have to answer questions under oath, are likely to be scheduled in the next few months, which could trigger settlement talks.

Each of the defendants has denied wrongdoing. The school has stated that any damages the students suffered “were caused by or contributed by their own actions” and that the students “unreasonably failed to take advantage of preventive or corrective opportunities” offered by the school.

WITCC also states that its employees acted in good faith at all times and with reasonable grounds for believing that they were not violating any laws.

The first of the lawsuits was filed in late 2020 and has 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 in one case, 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 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 lawsuits allege, 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.

Meatpacking work branded as ‘culinary arts’

The lawsuits allege 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 lawsuits allege. 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.

In April 2019, school officials 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.

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, but that work was reportedly described as an “internship” program with scholarships – not as manual labor in processing plants.

In June 2019, the school allegedly wrote to the students and instructed them that they were not 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.”

The lawsuits allege the school’s guidance on wording was designed to hide from the State Department the fact that the “internship program” amounted to nothing more than off-campus work in local processing plants and thus violated the rules for the J-1 visa program.

At roughly 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 job shadowing in the “food preparation industry just to observe.”

Lawsuit: Some students worked overnight shifts

The school, the lawsuits allege, knew the students would actually be working on a production line to help fill a labor shortage in western Iowa. Some of the students had to work 12-hour overnight shifts and then report to class by 8 a.m., one of the lawsuits alleges.

In November 2019, the State Department allegedly began an investigation of the matter and informed the school the jobs were not “internships,” and the students were in violation of their J-1 visa status.

No criminal charges have been filed in the case.

The plaintiffs in the first 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.

The plaintiffs in the other case are Jacqueline de Britto Bucco of Brazil; Antonio Diego Barbosa Coutinho of Brazil; Ana Paula Oliveira de Souza Costa of Brazil; Carilyns Sarai Camus Jorquera of Chile; Vinicius Assad de Magalhaes of Brazil; Brian de Souza Melo of Brazil; Marcos Vinicius Morais Pinto of Brazil; Silmar Da Silva Reis of Brazil; Cesar Priester Rosa Jr. of Brazil; Nestor Alonso Acevedo Contreras of Chile; and Leila Silva Freire Soares of Brazil.

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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.