OKLAHOMA CITY – A second federal lawsuit accusing a pair of Oklahoma business owners of luring immigrants to the U.S. on work visas then paying substandard wages highlights what some attorneys say is a prevalent human trafficking issue in the United States that seldom calls violators to task.
While there have been previous civil lawsuits over the treatment of immigrants in the United States on work visas, immigration attorney Kent Felty of Denver said they are and will continue to be rare, partly because of the language barrier immigrants face, their unfamiliarity with U.S. law, and the amount of time it would take an attorney to win what might be a small judgment.
The latest legal action, filed in Oklahoma City in June, is by three Jamaican immigrants who came to the U.S. under student work visas between 2008 and 2012. It follows a similar lawsuit filed in 2017 by three Filipino immigrants who came into the country on temporary work visas in 2012.
“You can say it’s not about the money, but it’s about them money … you can’t do it as a private attorney, it’s all about if you’re going to get paid, ” said Felty, who is not involved in the lawsuits.
“Maybe it’s a thousand dollars. Where are you going to find attorneys to take that case for a thousand-dollar judgment?” Felty asked.
Jury selection would also be problematic, Felty believes.
“Half the country would give them a million dollars on a thousand dollar case, and half the country would like to see them deported,” said Felty, who successfully sued the John Pickle Company in Tulsa and Falcon Steel Structures, Inc., in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, over claims similar to the allegations against the Schumachers.
Felty said none of the $1.3 million judgment in the Pickle case was paid while the Falcon case was settled for an undisclosed sum.
The Oklahoma lawsuits name husband-and-wife Walter and Carolyn Schumacher and companies they own and operate in Clinton, about 80 miles (128 km) west of Oklahoma City, alleging the workers were paid less than minimum wage, charged for housing that was to be free or low-cost, and were given fewer work hours than promised.
The plaintiffs in the current cases are represented by the nonprofit Equal Justice Center, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom law firm, which provides pro bono services.
Equal Justice Center attorney Chris Willett said the Filipino workers contacted the center, perhaps due to workers’ rights documents that are included with their visa packages, and the Jamaican immigrants contacted the center after learning of the first lawsuit.
“They had contacted us to try to understand what was going on there in Oklahoma, that they were not getting what they were promised … when recruited in the Philippines,” Willett said.
Amir Farzaneh, an Oklahoma City immigration attorney, also said the private lawsuits are unusual and the laws regarding immigrant worker visas are strict.
“If you hire a worker from overseas, you have to tell them how much you will pay them,” Farzaneh said. “The Department of Labor is adamant.”
Labor Department spokesman Juan Rodriguez said the department is investigating two of the Schumacher’s companies where some of the immigrants worked, Hotelmacher, LLC, which operates a Holiday Inn Express, and Steakmacher, LLC, which does business as Montana Mike’s Steakhouse, but declined further comment.
Labor department records show a motion to either dismiss or delay any action has been denied.
Officials with the FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Citizenship and Immigration Services declined to comment on whether the agencies are investigating the Schumachers or any of their companies.
The Schumacher’s attorney, Kevin Donelson, did not return phone calls for comment. Donelson said after the first lawsuit was filed in 2017 that the couple denies all allegations.
Willett said the public often thinks of human trafficking in the form of sex work.
“A lot of people imagine in their heads sex trafficking or people locked up in cages,” Willett said. “In this case our clients were being exploited for cheap labor.”