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Group of international students sues Iowa college, alleging forced labor

Students from Brazil and Chile accused Western Iowa Tech Community College of using its visa program to force them to work long hours with little pay.

A group of international students filed a federal lawsuit against a community college in Iowa alleging that they were forced to work long hours for little pay and were threatened with deportation if they did not comply.

The suit was filed Monday and accuses Western Iowa Tech Community College of coercing students from Brazil and Chile to come to the school under a J-1 visa program.

Students were told that the program was a two-year study in which they would complete internships related to their field of study and would work no more than 32 hours a week, according to the lawsuit.

Instead, the 11 students allege that they were assigned jobs at Royal Canin, a pet food company, or Tur-Pak Foods, a food packing company. The suit says that the group worked longer than 32 hours a week and the jobs "had no educational value and were completely unrelated to their intended fields of study."

Image: Western Iowa Tech Community College
Western Iowa Tech Community College.Google

They also accused the school of taking some of their wages for fees although the students were told that housing and food would be free and they would receive scholarships to cover tuition.

If a student did not work they were told that they would be removed from the program and sent back to their native country, the lawsuit alleges.

In addition, the northwestern Iowa school was accused of keeping the international students "segregated from the general student population." The lawsuit alleges that they were only allowed to take classes with other Brazilians and Chileans who were in the program.

"Defendants’ unlawful acts and omissions went beyond the bounds of decency and beyond what can be tolerated by a civilized society," the suit states. "Defendants’ unlawful acts and omissions were extreme and outrageous."

WITCC President Terry Murrell said in a statement: "Western Iowa Tech Community College vehemently denies the claims brought forth in the lawsuit. These accusations are completely untrue, sensational, and offensive. We look forward to defending the College and its employees in district court and welcome the opportunity [to] refute these malicious allegations.”

The J-1 visa program at Western Iowa Tech Community College ended in January 2020. As a result, the students lost their jobs and were forced to move out of on-campus housing. A statement last year from the school said 60 students arrived in July and August of 2019 for the program.

"Because they were no longer working, Plaintiffs did not have money to buy food. WITCC told the students to utilize local food pantries," the lawsuit states.

Some of the students returned to their native country.

The group is suing for forced labor and trafficking and are seeking damages.