A group of Chinese immigrant workers filed a lawsuit Wednesday alleging they were lured to northern New Mexico under false pretenses and subjected to forced labor conditions.
According to the Associated Press, the workers were promised $200 daily wages, housing, and food for “gardening” jobs in Shiprock. Upon arrival, they claim they were forced to work 14-hour days trimming cannabis, which is illegal to cultivate in the area, specifically on Navajo Nation land.
The workers say they were deceived by job advertisements. Upon reaching New Mexico, their personal items, including phones and car keys, were allegedly confiscated. In some instances, family members were reportedly separated.
Lawyers representing the 15 plaintiffs stated Wednesday that their clients were treated inhumanely.
“Ending forced labor requires that perpetrators face consequences,” said Aaron Halegua, one of the attorneys for the workers. “We hope this lawsuit shows that such practices do not pay.”
Defendants named in the suit include Navajo businessman Dineh Benally and Los Angeles-based Taiwanese entrepreneur Irving Lin, along with associates and businesses connected to the large-scale farming operation.
The complaint alleges that a nearby motel in Farmington was used to house the workers, who were kept under surveillance by armed security guards and treated similarly to prisoners. The operation was reportedly discovered in October 2020 when Farmington police, responding to complaints of a “strong odor” of cannabis, found almost 2,000 pounds of the crop worth an estimated $3 million-$10 million.
The Navajo Nation Department of Justice previously filed a suit against Benally, which resulted in a court order to cease the operation – an order Benally allegedly ignored.
Representatives for Benally, who at one point was a pro-hemp Navajo Nation presidential candidate, did not immediately respond to requests for comment from the AP. While Irving Lin, in a 2021 affidavit, denied allegations of “violence and human trafficking” and violations of “human rights.”
The current lawsuit, filed in Santa Fe, seeks a jury trial and unspecified damages. It also alleges that Benally instructed workers to refer to the plants as “hemp” to avoid law enforcement scrutiny. The suit claims that Benally and Lin specifically targeted Chinese immigrants in California who were jobless amid the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.