This article is part of FERN’s series Livestock and Rural Communities
The job was Gustavo’s idea, and the escape was his idea, too. “If he kills us, he kills us,” he told his kid brother, Iván, one night after work in October 2019. They had spent the day in the ranch’s corrals, selecting the best lambs for slaughter. Their boss, they said, carried a gun at all times.
Leer en Español
Originally from Peru, the brothers had been recruited to work as sheepherders in the United States under a temporary work visa. For the past few years, they’d split their time between a ranch outside Cokeville, Wyoming — where they helped wrangle sheep for shearing and selected lambs for meat production — and the state’s remote deserts and mountains, where they grazed the sheep on the open range.
The hours were long and conditions were brutal, but they couldn’t see how to just leave. Their employers, Jon and Vickie Child, took his passport, Gustavo said, and the brothers had limited cellphone access; he said they also lacked access to a car, or even a map. If Child flew into a rage, “we were afraid he’d kill us, throw us somewhere, and no one would find us,” said Iván. “Our families would have no idea what happened.” (Iván and Gustavo asked to use pseudonyms, citing fear of retaliation.)
The next evening after sunset, Iván made sure that the sheep were secure in their corral, then he and Gustavo started walking along the shoulder of the county road. Cokeville is an old pioneer town, best known for a hostage crisis in the 1980s, and Gustavo and Iván wanted to get as far away from it as possible. They thought the next town over, Kemmerer, was just a 30- or 40-minute walk away; it’s actually closer to 15 hours.
“This was the only decision [we could make], and we accepted it,” said Iván. “If he catches us, he catches us.” Still, he said, “you get these ideas.” Maybe Child’s set up cameras, he thought. The highway was dark and getting colder. Maybe he already knows we’re gone.
They weren’t the only sheepherders who had tried to escape their employers. Another sheepherder, Simeón, caught a ride with a friend of a friend, while Gilmer ran to the highway and flagged down a car. Then he called the cops on his boss. “I was born to succeed, not to be humiliated,” he wrote in a statement to police. (Both men asked to use pseudonyms, fearing retaliation from their employers.) In Idaho, a sheepherder managed to get away from his employer’s ranch but froze to death as he was making his escape, according to a 2017 civil complaint filed by one of his co-workers. (The charges were dismissed after the case was settled out of court.) Herders have flagged down long-haul truckers and big-game hunters, sometimes sporting “horrendous injuries,” said Jenifer Rodriguez, the managing attorney for Colorado Legal Services’ migrant farmworker division, a nonprofit that represents these workers.
“In the United States, we live in enslavement or semi-enslavement,” said Jorge, who worked as a sheepherder in Colorado in 2008. (Jorge is not his real name.)
Sheepherders are a fixture in the West’s remote corners, working long, lonely hours on the open range. The nation’s small sheep industry relies on immigrant workers who enter the country under the federal H-2A program for seasonal guest workers; at any given time, there are anywhere from 1,500 to 2,500 H-2A herders in the U.S. While ranchers acknowledge the job can be difficult, many insist that abuse allegations are overblown.
But the industry is beset by a level of abuse that even seasoned farmworker attorneys, government officials and human-trafficking experts find extreme. “These are actually the most scared workers I’ve ever encountered,” said David Seligman, the executive director of the labor rights nonprofit Towards Justice, which has sued herding-industry trade groups on workers’ behalf.
For years, a group of Peruvian diplomats, U.S. government officials, public interest attorneys, labor advocates and former herders have documented the abuse and pushed for reform. But in interviews with members of that community for this story — including eight former herders — some said it has been virtually impossible to hold abusive ranchers accountable. The abuse, they said, is deeply rooted in government policies and bureaucracy. For decades, the sheep industry has maintained outsized influence over its own regulations, and the Department of Labor has struggled to enforce them. The federal government has even acknowledged that some ranches participated in human trafficking, even as those same ranchers have continued bringing in workers under the H-2A program.
Before taking a job in Wyoming, Iván was curious about the United States. He and Gustavo grew up in the Peruvian Andes between two green mountains, in a Quechua village. As a kid, Iván played on the family soccer team and spent a lot of time sprinting after Gustavo, a pretty decent older brother who made a point to play with him and share.
Their family survived on the stepped rows of corn and potatoes they grew and the cows and sheep they grazed in the mountains, but there was never enough food to go around. Community members were occasionally carjacked and killed by guerillas from the Shining Path, a leftist terrorist group that has declined since the 1990s but still victimizes rural residents; Iván made a point to never go out at night. Some neighbors left the village for the nearest city, Huancayo, a treacherous three-hour drive away, but the jobs they managed to get paid so little that the move was rarely worth it.
Other neighbors relied on relatives — herders, who sent home remittances from the U.S. They tended to do better: They were the ones who ate fruit — mangos or bananas — that other people couldn’t always afford. Their kids went to school in Huancayo. The herders paid local residents to build or renovate houses for their families in their absence, though they rarely came home to live in these houses themselves.
The sheep industry where the herders worked has long seen itself as the West’s scrappy underdog, a less-glamorous version of the iconic cowboy. “It’s a hidden history,” said Andrew Gulliford, a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College and the author of The Woolly West. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, “sheep men were hated, despised and of very low status.” They died alone on mountain plateaus from lightning strikes and got into shootouts with cowboys, usually over grazing rights. Successful sheepherders often worked in the West’s most dangerous mountains and canyons, “where cattle couldn’t go,” Gulliford said. Some of them managed to buy land. “Their grandchildren and great-grandchildren now control fiefdoms,” Gulliford said. “They charge $10,000 and more for elk hunts. They own oil and gas wells.”
The industry peaked during World War II, when American GIs were subjected to canned mutton rations, and has been in decline ever since. American woolgrowers are outcompeted by producers in Australia and New Zealand, and the industry as a whole is losing out to inexpensive synthetic fibers. Americans eat less lamb than they used to, and the consolidation of meatpacking companies has kept meat prices problematically low for ranchers. Today, the U.S. sheep industry is half the size it was 30 years ago. Ranchers with lucrative landholdings can fall back on other revenue streams, but others said they’re struggling to survive.
“It’s really hard to negotiate with a desperate man — (and) at this point, everybody’s desperate,” said Robert Irwin, a sheep rancher and a co-owner of Kaos Sheep Outfit in California. His family ranch, he said, is barely getting by.
The industry has long struggled to find workers. “You’re trying to run an ancient form of pastoralism in a modern society,” Irwin said. Herders typically live in remote mobile campers, usually on public lands where their employers have grazing permits. They’re on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and can go long stretches without seeing another person. It’s difficult work, and few Americans will do it.
The sheep industry used to recruit its workforce from rocky Greek islands and Spain’s Basque country. Then, as now, it was dangerous work. “There are ghost stories,” Gulliford said, “herders who wanted to go home, hadn’t been paid, wanted to be paid, and then disappeared.”
Since the 1980s, most herders have come from Latin America. Today, about 80% of them come from Peru; according to Peruvian diplomatic officials, the majority are from Indigenous communities like Iván and Gustavo’s, which have their own centuries-old tradition of sheepherding. “The herder problem is well-known in our country and has been a constant concern,” said Luis Felipe Solari Otero, the general consul at Denver’s Peruvian consulate. “Feudalism — as I see it — is still practiced by some ranchers here.”
Herders’ visas used to give them a path to permanent residency, but in the 1950s, the sheep industry complained to Congress, because too many herders were quitting to seek better jobs. Today, herders rely on the H-2A program, which provides temporary visas to agricultural workers from other countries. Last fiscal year, the U.S. State Department issued nearly 300,000 H-2A visas — more than four times as many as a decade ago — and the agricultural lobby has urged Congress to expand the program. Immigration experts, meanwhile, have compared the program to indentured servitude.
H-2A workers are allowed to work only for the employer who sponsors their visa, and it can be prohibitively difficult to switch jobs if that employer mistreats them; if they quit, they’re sent back to their home countries. The industry associations that hire many of the workers, meanwhile, can transfer them from one member farm or ranch to another. The workers “don’t have any say in the whole process,” Rafael Flores, a director of bilingual communications at Polaris, an anti-trafficking nonprofit, said. “People are being transferred to different places, and they don’t know where they are.”
Polaris and other organizations have connected the H-2A program to rampant human trafficking and wage theft, and experts have called for major reform. Today, the Department of Labor must determine which employers can use the program, and then make sure that they follow the rules. In an emailed statement, agency spokesperson Monica Vereen said that the Department of Labor was aware of the “serious concerns” about the program, and that it had “identified a need to strengthen and clarify protections” for agricultural workers.
The Department of Labor has adopted a unique set of regulations for livestock herders that excludes them from some of the few rights and protections H-2A workers have. Many of the rules are the result of generations of lobbying by the sheep industry. Today, much of that advocacy is done by trade groups such as the Western Range Association. The group has amassed considerable influence over the industry and how it operates, at least according to the herders suing them. In lawsuits, herders’ attorneys claim Western Range represents over 200 sheep and goat ranches across the country. (Western Range said it’s less than that in a recent statement, adding that its membership fluctuates.) In recent years, attorneys said, the organization has hired over two-thirds of the industry’s H-2A herders on ranchers’ behalf. As of 2014, the trade group Iván and Gustavo’s boss worked with, Mountain Plains Agricultural Service, hired many of the rest. (Mountain Plains did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
In employment materials obtained in the course of reporting, Western Range assures workers that it’s “committed to helping you resolve any questions or concerns you have about your employment.” But the group’s many critics accuse it of perpetuating abuse instead. In two recent lawsuits, herders have accused employees in Western Range’s Lima office of illegally charging them fees for their H-2A visas (one of the lawsuits was dismissed; the other is still pending), and in a recent interview, a Peruvian diplomatic official said this was a common practice. In at least three different lawsuits in the past 10 years, herders have also sued the group for artificially depressing wages, accusing it of creating a “wage-fixing cartel” to keep herders’ pay down. (Two of those lawsuits are still working their way through the courts; a third was dismissed.) In an emailed statement, Western Range Executive Director Monica Youree stressed the group’s commitment to herders’ “safety and well-being” and vehemently denied any wage-fixing allegations. The lawyers who represent herders “appear more interested in exploiting isolated incidents to make broad assessments about the industry,” she said, and “often attempt to recover millions of dollars for themselves.”
Western Range has reported herders who break their contracts to immigration enforcement, which Youree said it is required to do under federal law. According to their critics, trade groups like Western Range and Mountain Plains have been notably zealous about tracking herders down. In a 2014 blog post, Western Range’s former president, Lane Jensen, wrote that the two groups had launched their own “significant effort” to locate and deport “herder runaways” — and to “penalize” people who had helped these “known jumpers” find other jobs. Jensen went on to complain that immigration officials had not assisted Western Range in its deportation effort. In a diplomatic message to U.S. government agencies, Peruvian officials wrote that many of the herders who break their contracts are trying to escape abuse.
In contrast to other H-2A employers, ranchers don’t have to pay herders an hourly wage, and regulations for providing them with running water, a toilet or refrigeration are porous. The short-term, seasonal nature of H-2A visas actually helps some workers — an employer might be abusive, but at least the job will be over soon — but until recently, the sheep industry was exempt from that limitation as well. The visas herders received were good for 364 days and in practice could be renewed automatically up to three times, effectively extending the “temporary or seasonal” work period to three years before herders could return home.
String all these policies together, critics said, and the industry has essentially created a workforce profoundly vulnerable to abuse. “The ranchers have so much control,” said Erik Johnson, the director of Idaho Legal Aid Services’ Migrant Farmworker Law Unit. “Maybe that just brings out the worst in them.”
“It’s U.S. dollars, so you’ll make good money,” Gustavo remembered his friends and neighbors saying, when they talked about the herders who’d left. “‘One day,’ we kept saying to each other, ‘I’ll go there, too.’”
Gustavo left first. A former neighbor who had left for the U.S. years before had gotten in touch; there was a spot available at his boss’s sheep ranch, he said, and he could recommend Gustavo for the job. Gustavo was in his early 30s, married, with two little kids. “I wanted a better life for my children,” he said.
The job referral, the neighbor explained, would cost Gustavo $3,500. “Who’s going to bring you here for free?” he said. To Gustavo, $3,500 was a fortune, so he took out loans to pay for some of it. He said he flew to Wyoming in 2014 and, for the next few months, Iván and the family rarely heard from him. “I’ll never see my son again,” Iván remembered their mother saying. She died of a stroke a few months after Gustavo left, and it took the family several tries to get in touch with him, calling him repeatedly from the one public phone in their town. But the money Gustavo sent was a lifeline, and the family used it to buy food, clothes and medications.
A few years later, Gustavo called Iván and told him there was a job opening up at the Wyoming sheep ranch where he worked, though if Iván took it, he would have to pay their former neighbor a fee. Iván was in his late 20s. He talked it over with his wife. “If I go work there, I can at least build a house for us,” he remembered telling her.
It was Iván’s first time on an airplane, and he spent a lot of the trip feeling sick. He landed in Wyoming and was picked up at the airport and driven out to Child Ranch. There, on a stretch of scrubby grassland north of Cokeville, he met Jon Child, a former bull-rider who often wore a ten-gallon hat. Neither Jon Child nor his wife, Vickie, responded to repeated phone calls, emails and a certified letter requesting comment about the assertions made in this story. But in an interview with Outside Business Journal published shortly after Iván’s arrival, Child said that he started out in the 1980s, shuttling his sheep between seasonal allotments as he grew his business. He also said that workers on sheep ranches regularly “jumped” from the job, once they “figured out the American system.”
“Go have your breakfast,” Iván remembered Child saying, the morning after he arrived. Iván was given a small hamburger. He ate it, then waited for what he assumed was the rest of his breakfast. He laughs about that assumption now.
Gustavo told Iván the truth about the job in bits and pieces. The former neighbor who had reached out to Gustavo had turned out to be untrustworthy. The fees he charged the brothers for suggesting that Jon Child sponsor their visas were illegal. (Other herders employed at Child Ranch at the time had also been illegally charged for job referrals, the brothers said.) The brothers struggled to pay off the debt; it took Gustavo about a year and a half, he said.
In a 2020 survey by the advocacy group Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, over a quarter of responding H-2A workers said they’d paid recruitment fees to secure their jobs, even though the practice is illegal. Both sheepherders and Peruvian officials said that illegal recruitment, including charging fees for visas and travel expenses, is prevalent in the sheepherding industry as well, at times with the participation of U.S. employers.
Gustavo said that Vickie Child took his passport, something she denied several years later when he filed a wage claim against the ranch. (“He has misplaced it or lost it,” she wrote in a letter to Wyoming’s Department of Workforce Services.) And while Jon Child would occasionally give workers their pay stubs, the brothers said they couldn’t directly access the money they earned themselves. If they wanted to send money home to Peru, they had to ask Child to do it. “We never sent it — he did,” Gustavo said. “(Because) he never paid us.”
The herders worked relentlessly long hours, and Child swore and screamed at them. “Son of a bitch! Shit!” Gustavo remembered him shouting. “Get out of here, I don’t need you — I’ll fire you and send you back to Peru!”
Asked later if he was angry with his brother for keeping quiet about the realities of the work, Iván said he wasn’t. He understood why Gustavo had kept it to himself. “If he had told me, I would have told our parents,” he said. Their family would have been devastated, then urged Gustavo to quit his job and come home. In spite of everything, Iván admired his bravery in helping his family.
“Whatever this turns out to be, I’m going to work for the lives of my family — I’m going to keep fighting (for them),” he remembered thinking.
From roughly July through October each year, the herders who worked for Jon Child lived in groups of two in far-flung corners of the open range. Gustavo and Iván grazed sheep in a few different places — sometimes together, sometimes apart — but the terrain that sticks with them was a place they just call “the mountain.” It was craggy with dense, rocky pine forests, and the forests gave way to patches of sagebrush. Some of the grass had dried out in the summer heat.
The brothers said they tended to up to 2,000 sheep there at a time. Child brought the sheep to the mountain in seven tightly packed trucks. Gustavo and Iván said they were given a few horses and sheep dogs, a tent to sleep in, a cellphone with a few dollars’ worth of data on it, and a rifle to protect the sheep from bears. The food Child gave them was mostly canned goods, and some of the cans were expired. He didn’t give them enough water, or a map, or access to a car. They watched as he drove away. He wouldn’t return for another 15 days.
The herders’ isolation makes them exceptionally vulnerable. “Some of these workers don’t know where they are or what state they’re in,” attorney David Seligman said. Many herders live on the range alone. “When you don’t talk to anyone but yourself, your mind thinks a thousand different things, all painful,” said Nestor, who arrived in the late ’90s and worked alone as a herder. He has since formed an association to support former herders. “When we felt too much pain, we talked with the dogs, and when you cry, they start to cry with you.” Nestor lacked access to a phone. However even herders like Gustavo and Iván with phones often struggle to get reception. If there’s an emergency, said Nestor, “you die, and your boss finds you whenever he gets back.” (Nestor asked to remain anonymous out of fear that his former employer would retaliate against him, even decades later.)
Because of their isolation, herders must rely on their employers for all their basic needs. For ranchers, that can get tedious. Robert Irwin, the California rancher, said he spends a lot of his time running errands for employees, while his wife and foremen do their laundry. “You drive the food out there,” he said, “and he (the herder) says, ‘I need propane, too.’ Well, I can’t get you that today — I’ve got three more stops.” Some ranchers, he said, get bitter and burnt out. “You say, ‘Screw it,’ and you don’t take the guys groceries for three days,” said Irwin. He added that the practice wasn’t right.
Rodriguez, the attorney, said that this system gives ranchers an enormous amount of control. “From the very beginning, it’s just like, ‘I’m the way that you can communicate with the outside world,’” she said. ‘“I’m the only one who knows where you are.’”
The H-2A program requires employers to provide their workers with food, but some ranchers cut corners, presumably to save money. In labor investigations, interviews and a half-dozen lawsuits, herders constantly talk about going hungry. “Could you bring me fruit, or a chicken?” Nestor remembered asking his boss. “He said, ‘OK, but that’s extra.’” At one point, he said, he grew so hungry that he devoted a day to traveling toward a light he’d seen in the distance, so he could beg the people who might be there for food. When he got there, a group of Mexican farmworkers gave him the food they had on hand.
“A lot of times, we’ve seen these situations where food and water is withheld, like as a form of punishment,” Rodriguez said, “if (the employers) were mad because a couple of sheep got lost.” In many cases, ranchers don’t provide herders with safe drinking water, either. Some herders melt snow in the winter, or risk drinking untreated water from creeks and rivers. Several years ago, a herder in Idaho became paralyzed and lost the ability to speak due to ingesting bacteria from a mountain stream.
Some herders let their flocks get sick and grow weak, Iván said, but “that never happened with us.” He took pride in hand-feeding the lambs when they were sick; when they were too tired to walk, he sometimes carried them. “Our goal was to make sure all the sheep made it,” he said. If they didn’t, they said, Child would scream at them and get in their faces, as if he was going to hit them. Since much of the grass was sparse and dry, the sheep moved quickly through the mountain’s forests, foraging for all of the grass they could find. The brothers struggled to keep up with the animals. Iván had brought several pairs of shoes with him, but within two months he had worn through them all. The sheep traveled so quickly that it made little sense to put up the tent every night, so the brothers got into the habit of sleeping under the stars with the flock. Eventually, they picked up the sheep’s ticks, but Child refused to buy them medication, they said.
Most of the sheep survived, but not all of them. Some were crushed in rockslides. Others were eaten by bears. The brothers weren’t particularly afraid the first time they saw a bear: “It wanted to kill us, but it couldn’t,” said Gustavo. “We did have a gun.” A common hazard on the range, coyotes and bears frequently attack sheep. Occasionally they attack herders, too; one was severely mauled by a bear outside of Durango, Colorado, earlier this year.
Every two weeks, Iván and Gustavo said one of them would take one of the horses and ride more than an hour to the nearest highway, where Child would meet them and drop off supplies. Sometimes, they said, Child didn’t show up, and they returned to their camp with nothing. When he did show up, the food he brought them was never enough, or it was expired and made them ill. “I want skinny sheepherders,” the brothers remembered Child often saying, “not skinny sheep.”
The brothers were forced to get creative. Sometimes they ate their dogs’ food. Sometimes they ate the sheep that were crushed in the mountain’s rockslides. Other times, they ate the remnants of the deer and elk that hunters had killed in the mountain’s forests. “Sometimes our white sheep dogs were already eating it, and we had to move them out of the way to eat it ourselves,” Gustavo said. “So that’s how we lived.”
Child never brought enough water either, they said. So the brothers hauled water from a large blue lake at the bottom of the mountain, an hour’s hike away. It was teeming with tourists and fishermen, trying to catch trout. They didn’t speak Spanish, but they liked the elk antlers the brothers found on the mountain, and Iván and Gustavo occasionally traded them for fish and soda.
About six months into the job, toward the end of 2017, Iván managed to call his wife for the first time. “What happened?” she asked, sounding frantic. She thought that he’d died in an accident, or left her for somebody else. Iván and Gustavo took to carving their names on the trees in the forest, so that the next herders who came there wouldn’t lose hope.
Twice a year, the brothers left the open range and returned to Child’s ranch, where the herders helped with the shearing process, delivered lambs, and selected sheep for slaughter. In the two years they spent working for Child together, they rarely went anywhere else. During lambing season, they woke up before 5 in the morning, stopped work on the ranch around 10 in the evening, and didn’t eat breakfast or lunch, Iván said. They drank water every morning, and stopped for water again around noon. “If we’re working well, why don’t you bring us something to eat around noon or 1 o’clock, maybe a burger or a pizza or something?” Iván remembered asking Child. But Child never did, he said.
Child had always been a tough character, Iván said, but as the months dragged on, Iván grew more afraid of him. Once, the herders were selecting the best lambs for slaughter when a small sheep stepped on a sleeping white dog, which was curled up inside the corral. The dog snapped at it. “I don’t need that dog,” the brothers heard Child say. He shot the dog at point-blank range, then demanded that Iván throw its body away. It wasn’t the only time he killed a dog in front of them, they said.
Within the sheep industry, there’s a small handful of ranchers that attorney Jenifer Rodriguez considers “frequent flyers” — employers who abuse their workers repeatedly, and whose mistreatment of herders can be particularly extreme. Attorneys in her network said they have handled cases in which ranchers hit herders, shocked them with cattle prods, or beat them with sticks to make them work faster. In the past two years, at least one herder reported being sexually assaulted. These employers tend to use similar intimidation tactics, Rodriguez said, and killing animals is one of them. “It’s actually not unusual,” said fellow attorney Alex McBean, “making a herder watch their dog get shot.”
Rodriguez has handled dozens of herders’ cases in the past 16 years, and her fellow farmworker attorneys consider her the preeminent expert on the industry. Today, she’s one of about a half-dozen attorneys across seven Western states who pursue litigation on herders’ behalf. A lot of the cases involve the same players, she said. “We try to share information.” Their work is supported by a constellation of sympathetic federal officials, alarmed Peruvian diplomats, the occasional rural police chief and a handful of big-game hunters; “they run into herders all the time,” Rodriguez said.
The attorneys have diligently tracked different levels of abuse, Rodriguez said, and Iván and Gustavo’s experience exemplifies many of them. Under the laws and regulations that govern H-2A herders, some of the hardships the brothers suffered are legal.
The grueling work hours they described are widespread, for example. In a 2010 survey, Colorado Legal Services found that 62% of herders reported working over 80 hours a week, and several of the herders we interviewed described similar hours, as have recent lawsuits against the industry. (Irwin and other sheep ranchers have strongly disputed this characterization.) But under the Department of Labor’s special regulations, ranchers are exempt from paying herders an hourly wage or overtime. Instead, the agency requires ranchers to pay a minimum federal flat rate of $1,901.21 a month. Legislators have raised the wage floor in some states, but in practice, herders and their advocates say, many herders’ take-home pay can come out to as little as $4-$5 an hour.
Other common forms of mistreatment are illegal, though. Six of the eight former herders interviewed for this story said their employers took their passports or Social Security cards, and all of them said their employers didn’t pay them properly. “Some employers will hold onto the pay and say, ‘You’ll get it on the way to the airport,’” Rodriguez said. “‘We’re putting all your pay in the bank, and you’ll get it when you’re on your way back home.’” In comments sent to U.S. federal agencies, the Peruvian consulate noted some herders never get the Social Security numbers they’re entitled to, which means they’re unable to open bank accounts or receive certain services.
Then there’s the extreme mistreatment: the denied medical care, the injuries and the deaths. Herders have died in blizzards and ATV accidents, and they’ve been trampled by their own horses. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has investigated six such incidents in the past 10 years, and investigators found employers negligent in five cases. Four of those negligent employers are still in operation. In California, a herder was found dead, lying in the fetal position, in 2017. According to details from OSHA’s inspection, investigators determined that he appeared to have died from heat-related illness and that his employer, Joe Paesano, hadn’t given him enough water. OSHA fined Paesano $9,750 in 2019, but he hired three more H-2A workers later that year. In 2021, in Wyoming, a herder was run over by his own dilapidated camper. Wyoming’s Department of Workforce Services OSHA Division declined to investigate the death because they said it was outside their jurisdiction. His employer, a rancher named Bart Argyle, did not return requests for comment. Argyle brought nine more herders into the country on H-2A visas this year.
In the end, it wasn’t the dog shootings that compelled Gustavo and Iván to escape Child Ranch. It was the money. In 2019, after working for Child for about five years, Gustavo hired a construction crew back home in Peru to build his family a house. He asked Child to wire them $5,000. “I need to talk with my wife,” he remembered Child saying. A few days passed. Gustavo approached Child again. He couldn’t send the money yet, Child explained. His wife was too busy. He could only transfer so much money to Peru at a time. In the end, he only transferred about $1,000 to Gustavo’s family. That’s when Gustavo said he realized that Child was never going to pay him the money he’d earned.
“I’m going to win this one — they have to pay me,” Gustavo remembered thinking. “We’re suffering so much here,” he told Iván. Iván thought about the constant fear he carried with him, how little he’d eaten and slept, and they agreed to leave.
Herders in situations like this can appeal to the Department of Labor, which enforces H-2A work regulations, but the agency often lacks the resources to investigate employers. Underfunded and understaffed, the department’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) is tasked with regulating more than 11 million employers nationwide — including those that employ H-2A workers — with only about 750 investigators. “They’re doing a Herculean task,” said H-2A expert Daniel Costa, “with two hands tied behind their back.”
Despite the lack of resources, the WHD has managed to investigate some ranchers. According to the agency’s publicly available data, at least 80 sheep industry employers have violated their workers’ H-2A contracts in the past decade. But, like most abusive H-2A employers, the ranchers who committed these violations are almost always allowed to continue operating. An analysis of WHD and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) data found that about 80% of the sheep industry employers that investigators caught violating their workers’ rights in the past 10 years were allowed to continue bringing H-2A workers into the country.
Iván and Gustavo didn’t call the Department of Labor when they decided to escape; they assumed they were on their own. After they had walked for hours down the cold, endless highway, a pickup truck pulled up alongside them. “It’s (either) the police or our boss,” Iván thought. He tried to find a place to hide, but the driver had already caught them in his headlights.
“Have you eaten?” the driver asked, and then bought them burgers at a gas station. He offered to take them to a city he knew in Colorado and drove through the night. Around 3 or 4 in the morning, he dropped them off at a laundromat. It was a Sunday, and the brothers eventually found a group of Peruvian immigrants playing soccer in a nearby park.
Today, the brothers work in construction, eat as much arroz con pollo as they want, and devote their spare time to their recreational soccer team. Their team, Gustavo said, is the best; it’s made up of Peruvian immigrants and has a fierce but friendly rivalry with the Mexican and Guatemalan teams in town. The brothers’ many trophies are the most prominent pieces of furniture in their sparse living room.
Iván and Gustavo have also been trying to get a modicum of justice from Child, although the process has been arduous. In September 2020, the brothers filed wage theft complaints against the ranch. In a letter to a Wyoming Department of Workforce Services officer reviewed for this story, Vickie Child called the brothers’ accusations “totally false,” but acknowledged that Iván and Gustavo “do have some money coming.” She paid Iván $4,260 in back wages, but then disputed Gustavo’s claim, which was considerably larger. In December 2020, a Wyoming Department of Workforce Services investigation determined that Child did, in fact, owe Gustavo over $7,300 in back pay, and that he had illegally deducted work-related gear, like boots and binoculars, from Gustavo’s paycheck. But because Wyoming state law limits the amount of back wages that workers can ask for, Gustavo was ultimately awarded less than half of what he was owed.
With the help of Colorado Legal Services, the brothers also applied for T visas, which are reserved for human trafficking victims and are particularly hard to come by. USCIS grants fewer than 2,000 of them to survivors every year; in 2020, over 40% of those who applied were denied. Iván and Gustavo submitted detailed testimonials about their experience, along with pictures of their working conditions and the food they were given. After months of paperwork and background checks, the brothers were awarded T visas in October 2022. The new visas allow them to legally remain in the United States and can put them on the path to permanent residency. Meanwhile, the Department of Labor allowed Jon Child to bring nine more herders into the country earlier this year, even after USCIS acknowledged he had previously hired trafficked workers.
According to a senior WHD official, that’s most likely because the Department of Labor didn’t know about the brothers’ T visa; the H-2A program is managed by a dizzying maze of government agencies that can struggle to communicate with each other. For instance, the WHD does not receive detailed information about T visas, the official said, “in part because that’s just extraordinarily privileged and sensitive information.” The department does receive intelligence from other government agencies about, say, criminal allegations against employers, but there’s little order to how and when it’s done. “They’ll let us know, you know, when they decide to,” the WHD official said. Sometimes his agency is never notified at all.
Even if the Department of Labor had investigated and validated the brothers’ allegations against Child, he may not have faced any consequences. According to multiple government audits, the agency rarely bans abusive employers from the H-2A program. The WHD only has the authority to ban employers for violations committed within the last two years, but many WHD investigations take longer than that to complete. When H-2A employers are debarred from the program, they have the right to appeal, the senior WHD official said. The ensuing litigation can take months, if not years, and can be particularly intense when trade groups like Western Range get involved. “Their interests are very much bound up in those cases, right?” said the official. “So they defend them vigorously.” Employers are allowed to continue hiring H-2A workers even if they’re in the process of getting banned from the program, and if they are debarred, the ban is brief — three years. In a recent statement, WHD noted that it has nonetheless debarred 14 H-2A employers in 2023 so far.
As a result, advocates said, many abusive employers have continued operating. “Although we have assisted herders in reporting these highly credible reports of violations to the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division, nothing ever seems to change and their applications for more H-2A workers continue to be approved year after year,” said Rodriguez.
Iván and Gustavo talk to their families more often now. Iván has told his wife bits and pieces of what working for Jon Child was like, but when Gustavo calls their father, he doesn’t share any details with him. “He’s old,” he said. “You have to tell him, ‘No, it’s beautiful here, the work is good,’ so that he won’t be sad.” Eventually, the brothers hope their entire family will immigrate here.
In the meantime, they’re putting down roots. Occasionally, they share stories of their time on the range with their new friends. Often, the brothers’ soccer teammates invite them to go camping in the mountains. It’s fun, they say.
This article was produced in collaboration with High Country News. It may not be reproduced without express permission from FERN. If you are interested in republishing or reposting this article, please contact [email protected].