International students accuse Western Iowa Tech Community College of forced labor, trafficking scheme

A group of students from Brazil and Chile sued Western Iowa Tech Community College in federal district court this week alleging that the college coerced them to work in food processing and packaging jobs under threat of deportation.

The 11 students all participated in an exchange program under the J-1 student visa program. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa, says that the students were led to believe they’d be enrolling in a two-year program in which they would study at Western Iowa Tech and participate in internships relating to their field of study, working no more than 32 hours a week.

Instead, they allege, they were assigned unskilled jobs at Royal Canin, a pet food company, or Tur-Pak Foods, a food packing and assembly company, that had “no educational value and were completely unrelated to their intended fields of study.”

The students claim that they were expected to work more than 32 hours a week and told that if they were unable to work due to illness they would be removed from the visa program and sent home to their native countries.

They also allege that while Royal Canin and Tur-Pak paid a $15 hourly rate, the students themselves received just $7.25 an hour, with the rest of their earnings going to the community college and J&L Staffing and Recruiting, a staffing company named as a defendant in the lawsuit, along with Royal Canin, Tur-Pak and the community college itself. Individual employees at the college and staffing company are also named as defendants.

“What you have is an educational institute, you have employers, you have a staffing organization all working together to bring these students to this country under the false pretense that they would be getting an opportunity to better themselves and better their lives and they were being used to serve other people’s goals and profits,” said Devin C. Kelly, a lawyer for the students and an associate attorney at the Des Moines-based firm Roxane Conlin & Associates.

“You have individuals that thought they were coming here for a great opportunity, they were going to have internships, they were going to get a degree, they would have some of their educational and housing costs paid for. But really, they were just used for their labor,” Kelly said.

In a brief statement issued through a spokeswoman, Terry Murrell, president of Western Iowa Tech, said the college “vehemently denies the claims brought forth by former students.”

“These accusations are completely untrue, sensational, and offensive,” Murrell said. “We look forward to defending the College and its employees in district court and welcome the opportunity to refute these malicious allegations.”

The students, who Kelly said arrived in the U.S. in August or September of 2019, say in the lawsuit that they were enrolled in classes at Western Iowa Tech Community College but “kept segregated from the general student population and took classes only with other Brazilians and Chileans who were part of the J-1 Visa Program.”

They say they lost their jobs at Royal Canin and Tur-Pak after an anonymous complaint prompted the State Department to initiate an investigation in November 2019. (A State Department official did not confirm the status of any investigation but said the agency is “aware of the media reports about the litigation” and “will review the concerns raised.”)

“Because they were no longer working, Plaintiffs did not have money to buy food. WITCC [Western Iowa Tech Community College] told the students to utilize local food pantries,” the lawsuit states. “Defendant WITCC ended the J-1 Visa Program in January 2020 and asked the students to vacate student housing in February and March of 2020.”

The Siouxland News reported in March that the J-1 exchange program was being suspended, and students sent back to their home countries, due to the spread of COVID-19. The local news outlet had previously reported in January 2020 that the college had at that point secured alternative internship placements for the majority of affected students after the State Department audit found the original placements were not in line with federal regulations. The article cited a statement from the college describing a number of problems launching the visa program, including “a failure to clarify expectations.” The statement acknowledged “some aspects of the program were not what the students had hoped for” but denied that students were threatened with deportation and said the college had offered to pay the way home for students who were unhappy.

The civil lawsuit filed Monday levies charges of forced labor and trafficking for forced labor, violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act and of 13th Amendment protections against involuntary servitude, among other charges.

The lawsuit alleges that the defendants “exerted extreme psychological pressure on Plaintiffs to coerce them to work,” including by “threatening to revoke their J-1 Visas and deport them if they missed work”; “threatening them with large amounts of debt owed if they missed work”; “threatening to withhold food or housing if they failed to work”; “charging Plaintiffs at least $250.00 per week if they were not working at a job where Defendants were getting financial benefits from Plaintiffs’ work”; and “dictating when and where Plaintiffs could work, and under what conditions, in their free time.”

The students demanded a jury trial. They are seeking punitive and compensatory damages, as well as a prohibition on Western Iowa Tech Community College and the employers participating in the J-1 student exchange program in perpetuity.

Another group of international students enrolled through the J-1 visa program filed a separate lawsuit in November making similar claims against Western Iowa Tech, Royal Canin, Tur-Pak Foods and J&L Staffing.

The eight plaintiffs in that earlier case, all Chilean nationals, allege they accepted an offer to enroll in Western Iowa Tech’s J-1 visa program “after being promised free tuition, room, board, and food along with an internship in their selected field of study. Upon arrival, the Defendants, through an organized scheme, placed the Plaintiffs to work in jobs unrelated to their fields of study, namely processing plants, forcing them to fulfill an exhausting work and academic schedule using threats of deportation and legal action. Further, the Defendants used their power to control the Plaintiffs’ personal, academic, and employment lives by, inter alia, diverting money from their pay checks to WITCC as repayment for services WITCC previously agreed it would pay for free.”

The students in the earlier case say they were recruited to Western Iowa Tech after being told by defendants “they would be able to earn a two-year degree in either a culinary arts or robotics program at WITCC along with an internship experience that would improve their chances of furthering their careers.”

Western Iowa Tech has until Jan. 25 to respond to the complaints raised in the first case. Attorneys listed in court documents for Royal Canin did not respond to emailed requests for comment Tuesday. A Tur-Pak marketing official did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Sarah J. Millsap, an attorney with the Omaha-based law firm Jackson Lewis who is representing the staffing company, said that “Premier Services, Inc. [doing business as] J&L Staffing, Inc. firmly denies the allegations raised by the plaintiffs, which we feel are without merit and not based in fact. As this is a pending litigation, we have no further comment at this time.”

This is not the first time international students have accused college officials of forced labor charges. Cecilia Chang, a former dean at St. John’s University, in New York, faced trial in 2012 on accusations that she stole $1 million from the university and forced international students to act as her personal servants in exchange for keeping their scholarships. Chang died during the 2012 trial by what investigators believed to be suicide.

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