The two federal lawsuits that have been filed against Western Iowa Tech Community College on the grounds that the institution engaged in the illegal practice of human trafficking are continuing their journey through the judicial system.
Both of these lawsuits were brought on behalf of different groups of students; one was submitted on behalf of 14 students from Chile, and the other was filed on behalf of 11 students who are primarily from Brazil. According to the allegations made in the cases, the school persuaded students from low-income backgrounds to go to Iowa, where they were held in “debt bondage” and forced to labor at a food processing plant and a dog food factory.
It is said that the college in Sioux City obtained visas for the students so that they could participate in the school’s international education program. After enrolling in the program, the students were subsequently directed to work in the processing factories. According to the claims, the institution subsequently deducted money from the students’ earnings in order to reimburse the school for the costs associated with running the program.
The defendants in the two cases, all of whom have denied any wrongdoing, include the college; several of its employees; Tur-Pak Foods, which operates a food-processing plant in Sioux City; Royal Canin USA, which operates 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. All of the defendants in the cases
According to the court documents, sworn depositions, in which the defendants would have to answer questions under oath, are likely to be arranged in the next few months, which could start settlement talks. The two cases are expected to go to trial between April and June of 2024.
Every single one of the defendants has presented a denial of guilt. The school has stated that any damages that were sustained by the students “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. The school has also stated that any damages that were sustained by the students “were caused by or contributed by their own actions.”
WITCC further claims that its workers always carried out their responsibilities in the best possible faith and with reasonable grounds for believing that they were not breaking any laws.
The first of the lawsuits was filed around the end of 2020, and it has withstood an extensive range of judicial objections that were brought forward by the defendants. The Chief Judge of the United States 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 he allowed several counts alleging human trafficking, breach of contract, fraud, and, with regard to the school, the intentional infliction of emotional distress to proceed.
Strand stated in his ruling that “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.” This was due to the fact that “WITCC specifically prohibited (the students) from seeking other employment without permission.” “The (students) are not native English speakers and their degrees of English competence range widely. They all made significant financial concessions in order to participate in the program; in fact, several of them sold practically everything they owned in the months leading up to their participation in the program. Therefore, they did not have any clear alternatives.”
The students were able to study in the United States on a visitor-exchange program thanks to the federal J-1 visa program for college students. This program allows international students to study at an accredited postsecondary institution in the United States while also participating in a visitor-exchange program. In general, exchange students participating in the J-1 program are permitted to hold jobs so long as those positions are either located on campus or are directly related to their studies.
According to the allegations made in the complaints, the application made by WITCC to host exchange students as part of the J-1 visa program was approved by the United States Department of State at the beginning of 2019. It was at this time that school authorities are said to have started negotiations with J & L Staffing and Recruiting in order to find a means to support the program.
The processing of meat sold under the guise of “culinary arts”
According to the allegations made in the lawsuits, WITCC and J&L both promised to transport the students to the United States and to install the students at Tur-Pak and Royal Canin respectively. According to the provisions of the purported arrangement, the school was responsible for obtaining the necessary visas for the students and lodging them on campus, while J & L was responsible for providing transportation between the WITCC student housing complex and the plants.
According to the claims, the deal called for Royal Canin and Tur-Pak to pay the students $15 per hour for their labor, but $7.75 of that hourly wage was supposed to go to the institution to help offset the costs of the students’ lodging, tuition, and other fees. After that, the students would be entitled to the federally mandated minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Allegedly, J & L would charge the plant fees in exchange for providing workers, and they would charge the students fees for transportation and job credentials.
The students were allegedly told by school officials in April 2019 that they would be able to earn a two-year degree in either a program for culinary arts or robotics, and that they would also be enrolled in a “internship experience” that would improve their chances of furthering their careers. This information was allegedly shared with the students.
These pledges are said to have been documented in the form of a “Open Letter” sent by the institution to its “Brazilian/Chilean friends.” According to the letter, students were informed that they would be expected to work up to 35 hours a week, but the employment was purportedly described as a “internship” program with scholarships rather than as manual labor in processing plants.
In June of 2019, the school allegedly wrote a letter to the students and instructed them not to mention that the reason for the internships was “the lack of workers in the area, even when there is a need for workers.” This instruction was given despite the fact that there is a need for workers in the area.
The lawsuits allege that 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 therefore violated the rules for the J-1 visa program. This allegation is based on the fact that the “internship program” amounted to nothing more than off-campus work in local processing plants.
Approximately at the same time, the “culinary arts” program that students signed up for was rebranded as a “food service diploma program” that would prepare students for occupations that were “directly tied to automated food production businesses, for humans or dogs’ consumption.”
Also, the “robotics program” that students signed up for was renamed the “electromechanical technician program,” which would provide training for “an entry-level position” as an industrial mechanic in automated food production industries. Students signed up for the “electromechanical technician program.”
After that, the administrators of the school attested to the Department of State that the students’ employment will consist of job shadowing in the “food preparation industry only to watch.”
Several students were required to work nighttime shifts, according to the lawsuit.
According to the claims, the school had full knowledge that the students would actually be working on a production line to assist in meeting the region’s urgent need for laborers. One of the claims claimed that some of the students were required to work overnight shifts of twelve hours and then report to class at eight in the morning.
According to reports, an investigation into the situation was opened by the State Department in November 2019, at which point the school was advised that the positions in question did not qualify as “internships” and that the students had violated the terms of their J-1 visa status.
The case has not resulted in any criminal charges being brought forward.
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.
In the other case, the plaintiffs are as follows: 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 Priest