Chinese immigrant workers have filed a lawsuit in state court, alleging they were deceived and forced to work long hours trimming marijuana on the Navajo Nation in northern New Mexico, where cultivating the plant is illegal. The lawsuit, filed on Wednesday, claims that job advertisements for the operation in Shiprock promised $200 per day, housing, and food in exchange for gardening and flower cutting. However, upon arrival, the workers’ phones and car keys were confiscated, they were prevented from leaving, and some were separated from their families.
According to the complaint, the workers were treated like prisoners at a nearby motel, which was under the watch of armed security guards. In the fields, they were allegedly treated like machines. The lawsuit names Navajo businessman Dineh Benally and Taiwanese entrepreneur Irving Lin, along with their associates and businesses linked to the farming operation, which encompassed nearly two dozen farms and over 1,100 greenhouses spread across 400 acres.
The operation came to light when Farmington police responded to a call about a strong odor of marijuana at the motel in October 2020. They discovered 2,000 pounds of marijuana, valued between $3 million and $10 million. Although workers present at the time were initially arrested on drug charges, the charges were later dropped. In late 2020, federal, state, and tribal authorities raided the Shiprock-area farms, destroying a quarter-million plants.
The lawsuit seeks a jury trial and unspecified damages. Benally, a former Navajo Nation presidential candidate, is accused of disregarding federal and tribal laws that prohibit marijuana cultivation on the reservation. The complaint alleges that Benally instructed his associates and workers to refer to the marijuana as “hemp” to avoid law enforcement scrutiny. Lin, who is based in Los Angeles, has not yet commented on the lawsuit.
The lawsuit claims that Benally and Lin specifically targeted Chinese immigrants in California who were unemployed during the height of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. Witnesses reported seeing workers sleeping in the fields and ditches, enduring harsh conditions without adequate rest, food, or water. Some workers were never paid the wages they were promised.