Chinese immigrant workers sue over forced labor at illegal cannabis operation on Navajo land

Remember this story from a while back?

Navajo Nation Enforce Court Order To Shut Down Hemp Producer Using Immigrant Labor On Tribal Land

Navajo judge halts operations at hemp farms near Shiprock


NBC News reports

Chinese immigrant workers allege they were lured to northern New Mexico under false pretenses and forced to work 14 hours a day trimming marijuana on the Navajo Nation where cultivating the plant is illegal, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday in state court.

Job advertisements for the operation in Shiprock promised $200 per day, housing and food in exchange for “gardening” and “flower cutting.” But when the workers arrived in New Mexico, the complaint says, their phones and car keys were taken away, they were barred from leaving and, in some instances, family members were separated.

In a statement Wednesday, lawyers for the 15 workers said their clients were treated like animals and commended their bravery for coming forward.

“Ending forced labor requires that the perpetrators of forced labor and those who seek to benefit from such schemes face serious consequences,” attorney Aaron Halegua said. “We hope that this lawsuit will demonstrate that such abusive practices do not pay.”

The lawsuit names as defendants Navajo businessman Dineh Benally and Irving Lin, a Taiwanese entrepreneur based in Los Angeles. It also names associates of Benally and Lin, as well as businesses linked to the farming operation, which authorities say ballooned to nearly two dozen farms and more than 1,100 greenhouses spread across 400 acres (162 hectares).

At least 19 rooms at a motel in nearby Farmington supported the operation, the complaint alleges. Workers were treated like prisoners at the motel, which was under watch by armed security guards, and like machines while toiling in the fields, according to the complaint.

Farmington police busted the operation in October 2020 after they were called to the motel to investigate a “strong odor” of marijuana. They found 2,000 pounds of marijuana, worth $3 million to $10 million, according to the lawsuit. Workers who were there at the time were arrested, but drug charges later were dropped.

In late 2020, federal, state and tribal authorities also raided the Shiprock-area farms, destroying a quarter-million plants.

The Navajo Nation Department of Justice sued Benally, leading to a court order halting the operation that the lawsuit says Benally and his associates ignored.

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