SYRACUSE, Kan. (AP) — Immigrants working on a remote Kansas ranch
toil long days in a type of servitude to work off loans from the company
for the cost of smuggling them into the country, according to five
people who worked there.
There are no holidays, health insurance
benefits or overtime pay at Fullmer Cattle Co., which raises calves for
dairies in four states. The immigrants must buy their own safety gear
such as goggles.
One worker spent eight months cleaning out calf
pens, laying down cement and doing other construction work. Esteban
Cornejo, a Mexican citizen who is in the U.S. illegally, left Kansas in
November after paying off debt, which he figures was nearly $7,000.
pay stub Cornejo shared with The Associated Press shows he worked 182.5
hours at $10 an hour over two weeks — an average of 15 hours a day with
Sundays off. His pay was $1,828.34 before taxes. Also deducted was a
$1,300 "cash advance repayment" that he said was a company loan for
bringing him into the country.
His take-home pay was $207.46, the
pay stub shows, or just over $1 an hour working at Fullmer Auto Co.
Texas LLC, which does business as Fullmer Cattle.
"It is like
slavery what they do to those poor people," said Rachel Tovar, another
former worker who spoke to The Associated Press.
Tovar said she
was interviewed recently by a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
agent, who asked about the company's Kansas employment practices, but
ICE declined to say if it is investigating.
Dean Ryan, the company's attorney, said in an email that the allegations "are simply not true."
was no smuggler's fee and has never been," Ryan wrote, adding that
there are "plenty of people willing to work in western Kansas without
having to 'import' them."
Ryan said company policy is to give pay
advances to workers who have no credit. He said those loans are made so
employees can purchase a vehicle or put a down payment on a home.
Donald Trump's administration has cracked down on immigrants living in
the country illegally. But it has said less about the companies that
employ them, let alone a company accused of using smugglers to bring
workers to the United States.
The plight of the Kansas workers
also highlights the exploitation that immigrants face when a company
forces them to pay off debt with work, a practice called "debt peonage."
federal law, employers do not have to pay overtime to agricultural
workers. Erik Nicholson, national vice president for the United Farm
Workers union, said it is not unusual for employers to recruit immigrant
farmworkers. Some employers use kickback schemes, although deducting
from paychecks is "pretty brazen."
Arturo Tovar is Rachel's
husband and a Mexican citizen who lived illegally in the U.S. and was a
Fullmer manager for 11 years. He said the smuggling process worked like
this: When the company needed workers, Arturo asked employees if they
knew someone who wanted to work in the United States. The company gave
him the phone number of the "coyote," or smuggler, in Piedras Niegras,
Mexico, to make the arrangements.
The company would give Arturo
Tovar a check, which he would cash. A partial payment was made to the
smuggler upfront and the rest when the immigrant reached San Antonio or
Houston, where the immigrant would be picked up. If law enforcement
asked questions about the cash, the employee was instructed to say it
was for used cars the company bought at Texas auctions.
Tovar, a U.S.-born citizen, said that once the loan to bring an
immigrant into the country was almost paid, the company often sold used
vehicles to employees in what she believes was an effort to keep them in
Arturo Tovar voluntarily left the country in lieu of
deportation after pleading guilty last year to misdemeanor theft
stemming from what the couple says was a false company accusation after
he was hurt on the job. The company contends the Tovars have an agenda
and lack credibility.
But another former employee told AP that
Fullmer also loaned him money for the coyote to smuggle someone. AP is
not naming the ex-worker out of concern for that person's safety.
fifth ex-worker confirmed the general accounts of those who allowed
their names to be used but asked for anonymity because that person also
has safety concerns.
Fullmer Cattle's calf-feeding operation is
outside of Syracuse, a farming community of 1,800 about 16 miles from
the Colorado border. Former workers say some employees live in
company-owned trailers at the ranch or a nearby property, for which the
company deducts rent.
The company says it raises tens of thousands
of Holstein calves for 18 dairies from Texas, Kansas, Colorado and
South Dakota. Newborn calves are taken away from milk cows and sent to
Fullmer to be bottle-raised and weaned. The heifers are sent back as
milk cow replacements, while the bulls are sent to feedlots to be
fattened for slaughter. Among the benefits Fullmer Cattle touts to
customers on its website is "lower labor costs."
Kansas ranch offered owner Que Fullmer a fresh start following a 1998
immigration raid at his Chino, California, ranch where authorities found
workers in what a California labor official described as "economic
slavery." The Kansas ranch also offered Fullmer a chance to rebuild
after bankruptcies cost him the bulk of his operations in Muleshoe,
Fullmer pleaded guilty in 1999 in California federal court
to a felony count of harboring and concealing immigrants in the country
illegally. He was sentenced to six months of home detention, a $10,000
fine and ordered to perform 500 hours of community service, court
In December, he was charged with illegally casting
election ballots in both Colorado and Kansas in 2016. The registered
Republican is accused of voting more than once and other violations. The
case is pending in Kansas.
As a result of Fullmer's past
immigration-related conviction, the lawyer for the company said in an
email that it takes "extra care" not to hire workers who are in the