They came to the US on J-1 visa, hoping to earn a two-year degree in culinary arts or robotics. Now, a group of international students from Brazil and Chile are suing Western Iowa Tech Community College for allegedly forcing them to work long hours during their two-year degree. The 11 students claimed in the Iowa lawsuit that they were exploited as factory labour, and threatened with deportation if they failed to comply.
When they enroled in the community college, the students were led to believe they would pursue internships related to their field of study for no more than 32 hours a week. In reality, they worked much longer hours at pet food company Royal Canin and food packing company Tur-Park Foods. These two companies are also named in the lawsuit, along with recruitment company J&L Enterprise.
Iowa lawsuit: Students overworked, segregated
Reports of allegations against Western Iowa Tech Community College surfaced in November 2020. Eight Chilean students claimed they were tricked into an “organised scheme” that forced them to work factory jobs to pay off the debts incurred from enrolling in the college. The college would have been breaking two federal statutes in doing this: Victims Protection Reauthorisation Act, and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisation Act.
According to the first lawsuit, “(Employees of the college and their partners) worked in concert to traffic the eight plaintiffs from their home in Chile into debt bondage at a Sioux City, Iowa-area food packaging plant and dog food factory by offering them a degree with free tuition, room, and board.”
As part of the exploitation, students also say they were segregated from the rest of the student population, and only allowed to attend classes with other Brazilians and Chileans. They also accused the school of taking some of their wages for fees, despite being told they would receive tuition scholarships with free accommodation and food.
The non-immigrant J-1 visa allows visitors to participate in cultural exchange programmes in the US, especially to obtain medical or business training. They are typically offered to scholars and professors. The J-1 visa programme at Western Iowa Tech ended in January 2020, leaving students jobless and stranded. Western Iowa Tech Community College has denied the claims of the Iowa lawsuit and will defend the claim of forced labour and trafficking in court.