Having suffered the indignities of being a sheepherder in Western Colorado, Ignacio Alvarado has made it his mission to shed light on what these "forgotten" immigrants endure, and maybe even bring about change.
"I worked six full years as a sheepherder in Colorado, so I know firsthand the daily abuse and poor treatment they suffer as well as their terrible living conditions. My concern is to help them," said the Chileno who arrived in the United States legally 23 years ago to work as a sheepherder.
In June, the Colorado chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association awarded Alvarado its Freedom Award for his volunteer work "in exposing the poor living and working conditions of the sheepherders."
Alvarado's goals are far loftier, however. He and Thomas Acker, his professor partner, have set out to document through interviews the sheepherders' condition, to raise public awareness about the situation, and to get the support of local and national organizations to help the workers affected and to eventually change the laws that govern their hiring.
Recent statistics compiled by Colorado Legal Services report that 300 sheepherders work in the state. Of those, 66 percent are from Peru, 12 percent from Mexico, 10 percent from Bolivia, 10 percent from Chile and the rest from Nepal.
"When I got to this country, the job paid $650 per month. Now, 20 years later, it's risen to only $750, which is what the federal government requires. It's legal, but, to me, it seems like an abuse on the part of the ranchers to pay such a low salary to those who get neither benefits nor rest," Alvarado said.
According to a report prepared by CLS in January 2010, of the sheepherders' $750 monthly salary, ranchers deduct the cost of the shepherds' travel from their country of origin to Colorado - even though the employer, not the employee must pay those costs, according to the Department of Labor's current laws on the hiring of federal guest workers who have temporary work visas known as H-2A - as well as the cost of their living expenses, including clothing, tools of the trade and housing. The resulting average monthly income can be reduced to as little as $88.
Alvarado said that he's dedicated the past five years almost full time to helping the sheepherders, explaining that "the level of injustice was raised in August 2009," referring to the case of Peruvian sheepherders Roel Espejo, 25, and Juvencio Samaniego, 32.
In April 2010, Espejo and Samaniego filed a federal lawsuit against John Peroulis & Sons Sheep Inc., in the town of Craig in the northwest corner of the state. Espejo arrived at the ranch in March 2009 and Samaniego in June of that year.
According to the lawsuit, the owners of the ranch confiscated their passports and visas and deducted from their wages the cost of travel. The suit also charges that they were not given enough food or proper clothing and were allowed only 15-minute breaks per shift to eat. Both Peruvians say they were beaten.
The case is still pending, but the lawsuit led to the creation of the Peruvian Network of Utah, to help sheepherders in Utah and in Idaho. Similar problems have been reported by sheepherders in the states of California and Washington, as well.
"People in the cities do not know how sheepherders live. They do not understand what is really happening or how they are treated. These are people who came legally to the country that were invited and contracted to work. But since they are neither here nor there, they are forgotten and neglected," said Alvarado.
According to Dennis Richins, executive director of the Western Range Association, both regulatory agencies and his association review the sheepherders' working conditions.
More than 85 percent of these workers ask that their visas to be renewed. That means, he said in recent statements to agricultural website Capital Press, "work is good" and that "ranchers like it."
In addition to representing the region's ranchers and handling sheepherders' visas, the WRA also intervenes in cases of complaints and expels from the association ranchers who do not satisfactorily resolve these allegations, as was the case of the ranch sued by Espejo and Samaniego.
Because such cases - and the issues in general - are so complex, two years ago Alvarado requested the
assistance of Thomas Acker, a professor of Spanish at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, in his mission.
After confirming the plight of sheepherders for himself, Acker began helping Alvarado with his own contacts, in visiting the shepherds and by helping to compile the report published last year by CLS. He has also appeared in presentations with Alvarado and has helped him to obtain additional resources.
"Current laws do not conform to reality or favor sheepherders. Nobody protects them, neither the local authorities nor the consulates of their countries. You cannot expect anything from the authorities in their countries of origin, but you cannot expect anything from the state or federal authorities (here) either," said Acker.
The main argument against helping the sheepherders, Acker said, is that "America is in a crisis so profound that it's even having to cut services for its own citizens and therefore cannot be expected to provide benefits to foreigners."
This "false argument," according to Acker, hides the fact that "U.S. citizens do not really know what happens to these workers."
"We need for people to know and for them to express their concern to government representatives so
that existing laws that protect these foreign farmers are at least enforced," said the professor.
A delegation of eleven students from Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, is among the latest to sign on after meeting with Acker, Alvarado and Ricardo Perez, director of Hispanic Affairs in Montrose, Colorado, about the plight of the sheepherders.
After the trip, the students launched a national campaign "to end the practice of slavery and human trafficking that totally degrades human dignity," according to the Office of Multicultural Affairs at Creighton University.
Acker and Alvarado are also seeking the backing of a national religious organization to help them spread their message and achieve improvements in the lives of the shepherds.
"The problem is not that the ranchers do not comply with the law. The problem is that the laws do not require them to offer better living conditions for the sheepherders. Regulatory agencies don't do what they should and therefore cannot identify appropriate living conditions nor the requirements to meet those conditions," said Acker.
As part of the collaboration between Alvarado and Acker, both will make a presentation on the status of the sheepherders during the annual meeting of the Colorado Immigrants Rights Coalition on Oct. 1 and 2 in Estes Park.