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Taiwanese man sued by 15 Chinese for forced labor on illegal Navajo marijuana farm

'You stopped me in New Mexico. I immediately go to Oklahoma': Defendant Irving Lin

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Scene of raid on marijuana farm in Shiprock, New Mexico in 2020. (Don J. Usner/Searchlight New Mexico photo)

Scene of raid on marijuana farm in Shiprock, New Mexico in 2020. (Don J. Usner/Searchlight New Mexico photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — A Navajo businessman and Taiwanese entrepreneur are being sued by 15 Chinese immigrant workers for alleged forced labor on an illegal marijuana farm on Navajo land.

The workers alleged that they responded to job ads offering a daily wage of US$200 (NT$6,500) and room and board for what was described as "gardening" and "flower cutting," reported AP. However, when they arrived in Shiprock, New Mexico, they said their phones and car keys were taken and they were ordered not to leave. Some workers were also separated from their families.

The defendants are Navajo businessman Dineh Benally and Taiwanese entrepreneur Irving Lin, who lives in Los Angeles. Attorneys for the workers said Wednesday (Sept. 27) that their clients were treated "like animals."

According to the complaint, a motel in the neighboring city of Farmington provided at least 19 rooms to house workers for operation. Migrant workers were purportedly "treated like prisoners at motels," monitored by armed security guards, and treated "like machines" when working in the fields.

Taiwanese man sued by 15 Chinese for forced labor on illegal Navajo marijuana farm
Scene of marijuana farm raid in Shiprock, New Mexico in 2020. (Searchlight New Mexico photo)

The complaint pointed out that after the local police received a report of a "strong odor of marijuana" emanating from the motel in October 2020, they raided the operation and found 2,000 pounds (900 kilograms) of cannabis worth US$3 million to US$10 million. The police also arrested immigrant workers at the scene but later dropped the charges.

Officers at the federal, state and tribal levels also raided the farms in Shiprock in late 2020 and destroyed 250,000 plants. Lin said in a March 2021 affidavit that there was "no violence and human trafficking" and denied violating human rights.

Phillip Francisco, who was serving as the chief of police in the Navajo Nation at the time, estimated the marijuana farms employed about 1,000 people, mainly foreign workers transported to New Mexico from Los Angeles. Other law enforcement officers said the number of laborers exceeded 2,000.

Taiwanese man sued by 15 Chinese for forced labor on illegal Navajo marijuana farm
(Searchlight New Mexico photo)

In 2021, Lin, who immigrated from Taiwan "decades ago," was reportedly delivering seminars to Asian Americans on how to bolster their profits by engaging in cannabis cultivation, reported the BBC. He said marijuana cultivation is a good business opportunity for the Chinese immigrant community. "I think cannabis sooner or later will be one of the Chinese major businesses."

Lin, who drove some of the workers from Los Angeles to Shiprock for a fee, told the news service that at least a dozen Chinese investors transferred their workforce and remaining assets to Oklahoma after the raid on the Farmington facilities. "You stopped me in New Mexico. I immediately go to Oklahoma," said Lin.

Although marijuana was legalized on a state level in New Mexico in 2007, it is illegal within the boundaries of the Navajo Nation.